Frosting, schmosting. Swiss meringue buttercream is the real deal.
Let me say right off the bat: I love frosting. No. One. Is. Knocking. Frosting.
The sticky sweetbomb of powdered sugar, soft butter, and vanilla really is the best, and arguably only, way to top a cupcake. Frosting (also known as icing), whips up in about a minute and involves little more than a mixing bowl and a single spatula. Frosting is easy, super sweet, and has that whole childhood-nostalgia thing going for it. That said….
Why Swiss Meringue Buttercream Is Better
Swiss meringue buttercream — i.e., real buttercream — is better. It is the buttercream of wedding cakes and fancy bakeries. And it should be the buttercream of home bakers, too.
Real Swiss meringue buttercream is fluffy and versatile, and tastes just sweet enough. This buttercream does not develop a dry “skin” like frosting. The soft vanilla flavor stands on its own, but it is also an adaptable base for other flavors: variations like raspberry, chocolate, or lemon.
Buttercream can be frozen, refrigerated, thawed, and rewhipped. It plays classical violin and does your taxes. Well, perhaps not the last ones, but please note the enthusiasm.
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Swiss buttercream is made by heating egg whites and sugar over a double boiler (stay with me here; it’s easy) and then whipping the whites and sugar into a meringue, to which lots of vanilla and butter is added.
Are there a couple of potential pitfalls? Sure. Does this recipe cover them, and how to fix them if things go sideways? Of course. The main pro tips that home bakers should know are:
- Keep the fat off. Meringue’s worst enemy is fat. Whipping the egg whites requires a clean bowl without even a drop of errant egg yolk. Conversely, acid, like a little squirt of lemon juice or pinch of cream of tartar, helps stabilize the whites. (PRO TIP: Get errant yolk out of whites by fishing it from the bowl with a piece of egg shell.)
- Do not use pasteurized egg whites from the carton. Separating the eggs takes a little extra time. However, the pasteurization process denatures the egg proteins. This means that the whites will not whip up to a stable, fluffy meringue.
- Temperature matters. The butter should be nice and soft. Otherwise the result can be clumpy. This is fixable, but save yourself the frustration. Likewise, it is important to heat the egg whites and sugar until they are hot and all of the sugar dissolves. Then, whip the meringue until it has cooled to room temperature or so before adding the butter. If the meringue is too warm, it will melt the butter and be soupy. (This can be fixed as well; see the recipe, below.)
This recipe makes enough to fill and frost a two-layer, 9″ round layer cake, or about 24 cupcakes. Any extra buttercream can be frozen, thawed, and rewhipped. Once you switch to real buttercream, you will have a hard time going back. Prepare for compliments.
What is your favorite cake flavor? Tell us in the comments below.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- 2 cups sugar
- 7 large eggs, separated (yolks reserved for another use)
- 1 3/4 cups unsalted butter (3 1/2 sticks), softened
- 3 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt
- Place the sugar and egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer. Whisk the eggs and whites together to combine, and set aside.
- Prepare a double boiler: Set a medium-sized saucepan filled with a cup or two of water over high heat. When the water comes to a strong simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low. The water should stay at a steamy simmer, not a boil.
- Place the mixing bowl with the sugar-egg white mixture over the pot and, whisking frequently as to not cook the egg in spots, heat until very warm. The mixture should be hot to the touch but not burning, and you should no longer feel any grains of sugar.
- Turn the heat off and transfer the mixing bowl to the mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip the meringue on medium-high until they form medium-stiff peaks and cool to about room temperature, approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
- Switch the mixer to a paddle attachment. With the mixer on medium-low, add the softened butter in large pieces (I usually do about 1/3 or 1/2 stick at a time). When all the butter has been added, raise the mixer to medium speed and beat until fluffy and smooth, about two minutes.PRO TIP: If the buttercream is too runny, that means it is too warm. Hold a couple of bags of frozen vegetables to the side of the bowl to cool it, while continuing to beat the buttercream. You can also put the whole bowl in the fridge for several minutes, then whip.PRO TIP #2: If the buttercream is clumpy, it means that the butter was too cold when added. Briefly place the entire bowl over the double boiler to raise the temperature and melt the butter a little bit. Try to rewhip. Alternatively, take out a scoop of buttercream, microwave it until just melted. Then add that into the buttercream, and whip. The hot buttercream should raise the overall temperature.
- With the mixer on low, add the vanilla and salt. Combine well. The buttercream is ready to use.
- To make this raspberry buttercream: Add 1/3 cup seedless raspberry jam and a squirt of lemon juice after the vanilla and salt. A drop or two of red food coloring (preferably natural) may also be added to give it a brighter pink hue.
- To make this chocolate buttercream: Add 1/3 cup melted and cooled (not hot) pure, semisweet chocolate (between 58% to 72% cacao), after the vanilla and salt. PRO TIP: Do not use chocolate chips because they contain too many emulsifiers and other additives.
- To make this lemon buttercream: Add the zest of two lemons and the juice of 1/2 a lemon after the vanilla and salt.