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Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

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How sweet it is.

platter of chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting with gold decoration

We all know American buttercream, a.k.a. “frosting,” a.k.a. “icing,” depending on what part of the country you’re from. Unlike Swiss or Italian buttercream, an American vanilla buttercream frosting recipe requires no heating egg whites or whipping meringue. Buttercream frosting requires only a mixture of butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and a touch of milk and salt until fluffy. And some cupcakes, of course.

You’ll also like: How to Frost and Decorate a Cake and Buttermilk Birthday Cake

cake covered with buttercream frosting on cake stand

All About American Buttercream Frosting

Sweet and easy-to-make American-style vanilla buttercream frosting combines softened butter with powdered sugar, vanilla, and a touch of milk and salt. This gets beaten together until fluffy and smooth. The One True Frosting for cupcakes, there is something about frosting’s sweetness and that texture that makes me immediately nostalgic and happy (especially when topped with a few rainbow sprinkles).

Vanilla buttercream frosting tastes great with old-fashioned layer cakes. And with no cooking or special technique required, frosting is an obvious choice for simple cakes. (Also, did you know that you can make your own powdered sugar in a pinch?)

But there is a slight downside. Cornstarch in powdered sugar acts as a drying agent. That’s great for making sure the powdered sugar does not dry out, but the practical consequence is that a slight skin or crust will form on top of the buttercream as it is exposed to air. Not a huge deal, but something to be aware of.

bowl of buttercream frosting with spatula

. . . vs. Swiss vs. Italian vs. French Buttercream

Swiss, Italian, and French buttercream all involve meringue. The difference lies in technique. To make French meringue buttercream, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Then stream in sugar until stiff peaks form. Then add soft butter and vanilla. This is the least stable meringue, so usually does not get used as a buttercream.

Italian meringue’s technique is similar to French, except that the sugar is heated to 240 degrees Fahrenheit before getting whipped into a meringue. To make Swiss buttercream (my choice for cake), combine egg whites and sugar together over a double boiler and heat, whisking constantly-ish, until the sugar dissolved and the eggs are very foamy. Then, transfer to a mixing bowl with a whip and whisk until stiff peaks form. Then add butter and vanilla to make buttercream.

Professional bakers like using Italian or Swiss buttercream because of the fluffy, silky, stable texture and softer flavor. These buttercreams do not form a skin, which helps if the cake needs to be refrigerated for cake decorating purposes.

slices of zucchini dump cake on wood board

Notes: Vanilla Buttercream Frosting Recipe

  • This recipe adds a pinch of salt. Why would you put salt in a sweet recipe? Salt actually acts as a flavor booster, heightening the vanilla flavor. It also cuts the super-sweet edge off the buttercream as a whole.
  • You will also see a touch of milk. Milk helps give the buttercream a smoother texture. And don’t worry about the butter and milk going bad if the cupcakes or cake stands at room temperature. The high fat and sugar content acts as a preservative, preventing spoilage.

gingerbread layer cake with vanilla buttercream frosting icing on table with cake server

Did you make the recipe? How’d it go? Share in the comments.

platter of chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting with gold decoration

Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

A sweet and simple buttercream for cupcakes and layer cakes alike.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time0 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keywords:: apple cake, birthday cake, buttercream, cupcake, frosting, icing, vanilla
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or 2 x 9" layer cakes
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Ingredients

  • 4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 32-ounce bag powdered (confectioner's) sugar
  • scant 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions

  • Combine the butter, salt, and confectioner's sugar in a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir on low until thick and combined. (Trust me. You do not want a sugar explosion by putting the mixer on high too quickly.)
  • Add the milk and vanilla. Slowly increase the speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy and smooth. Scrape the bowl to ensure all the ingredients are combined fully. Beat another minute more.
  • Spread or pipe onto cakes or cupcakes as desired.
    PRO TIP: To store buttercream frosting, place plastic wrap directly on the surface to ensure no air can form a crust on top. This buttercream will keep at room temperature for 24 hours, and up to a week in the fridge. To softened refrigerated buttercream, let stand overnight at room temperature, or microwave on the defrost setting at 30-second increments. Rewhip until smooth.

10 comments

  • sharlene finkel

    Can the cake be made without the three layers, such as a bundt cake?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Sharlene! Thanks for writing. Since this comment was made on the buttercream frosting recipe post, I just wanted to confirm which cake you are referring to. As a general rule, yes! You can do most cake batters as a bundt, adjusting for baking time. (Just make sure to reeeeally grease that bundt pan!).

  • 5 stars
    Hi! I made this frosting for your Hummingbird cake (excellent!) which I intend to make again for Easter this coming Sunday.
    My family thought the frosting was too sweet. Can I reduce (possibly by half) the amount of confectioner’s sugar without affecting the texture of the frosting? Many thanks in advance!

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Mira! Glad you liked it. Yeah, frosting has a way of being very sweet. Add an additional pinch of salt, and you can cut down on the confectioner’s sugar, though if you cut out too much, the frosting will become greasy. Try doing 2/3 the amount and adjusting from here. And if you want to go for something that’s a little more work, but completely worth it in terms of reward, try making the Swiss buttercream, which is what a lot of pros use. It’s fluffy and not too sweet, and doesn’t crust over at all. https://unpeeledjournal.com/swiss-meringue-buttercream-recipe/

      • Thanks so much for your prompt response. I opted for a cream cheese frosting (which calls for butter, cream cheese and – ha! – same amount of confectioner’s sugar, which I reduced by one cup and it turned out fine). I will certainly your Swiss one next. BTW, the link to it within the recipe above is not working (Error 404)

        • Unpeeled

          Eek! Gotta get right on fixing that broken link, and thanks for the heads-up on that. I’m glad the cream cheese frosting worked out.

  • LeAnna B.

    In the recipe I’m reading, it says add the salt in step #1 and add the salt in step #2. I’m guessing one should read vanilla since I see no mention of when to add the vanilla. I added the salt and vanilla with the milk. Haven’t tasted it yet as I’m writing this while I’m mixing that. Hope it’s all ok. Thank you I’m looking forward to tasting it!

    • Unpeeled

      Oh dear! Thanks for catching this typo. It’s always nice to have editorial help…sometimes I miss my own errors! In any event, the recipe has been corrected and you did exactly the right thing. Thanks again for pointing this out, and I hope you enjoyed.

  • 5 stars
    Real deal cupcake frosting 🙂 Reminds me of the Magnolia recipe.

  • Colleen Y.

    5 stars
    Sweet and yummy. I cut down the recipe and used this to make your zucchini dump-it cake!

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