How sweet it is.
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.
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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.
. . . 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 decorating purposes.
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.
Did you make the recipe? How’d it go? Share in the comments.
Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
- 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
- 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.