Anyone who has ever made or eaten a cake has had a taste of buttercream frosting. The name says it all – buttercream frosting is buttery, rich, sweet and delicious. However, there are multiple types of buttercream, all of which are prepared in different ways to produce different textures and flavors. Perhaps you’ve heard of French, Italian or Swiss buttercream? How are they different from what we think of as buttercream in America? Here’s a quick buttercream primer to help you figure it out!
American Buttercream: American buttercream is the frosting that most every American baker uses for a typical birthday cake. American buttercream is simple to make – just whip butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and a little milk together, and there you have it. The downside to this type of buttercream, however, is that it depends on powdered sugar for bulk, and is therefore VERY sweet, and sometimes a bit grainy as well. Many canned and bakery frostings are a variation on this style, although some commercial bakeries use prepared bases for their buttercream that are not available to retail buyers. There are some higher-end bakeries in America that use European buttercreams as well.
Swiss Buttercream: Swiss buttercream is a classic egg-white based buttercream with a lovely, light texture and intensely buttery flavor. Swiss buttercream is made by combining egg whites and granulated sugar in a mixing bowl, then heating this mixture to 120° Fahrenheit. The mixture is then removed from the heat and whipped until soft peaks form, then butter and flavorings are whipped in to create the final buttercream.
Italian Buttercream: Italian Buttercream is very similar to Swiss buttercream, except the egg whites are whipped stiff before sugar is added. Granulated sugar is melted and cooked to 250° Fahrenheit, and then slowly whipped into the stiffly whipped egg whites. Once the mixture is cool, butter and flavorings are whipped in, just like Swiss buttercream. Italian buttercream tends to be a little heavier in texture, but more stable than Swiss buttercream.
French Buttercream: French food has a reputation for richness, and French buttercream is no exception. In French Buttercream, whole eggs are used, rather than just whites. Otherwise, the process is nearly identical to Italian Buttercream – the eggs are whipped until they become pale and creamy, then hot sugar syrup is whipped in, and butter and flavorings are added when everything has cooled off.
German Buttercream: German buttercream is a lesser-known European frosting, but it can be quite delicious and is generally very stable, making it a great choice in warmer weather. German buttercream uses pastry cream as the base, which is milk, sugar and eggs thickened with cornstarch, flour, or gelatin. Some recipes even call for pudding mix as a shortcut! Once the pastry cream base is made, butter and flavorings are whipped in.
You’ll notice that all of the European buttercreams use granulated, not powdered sugar, and have a liquid component (eggs or egg whites) that dissolves the sugar. They therefore tend to be much silkier than American buttercream. They are also usually much less sweet, because most of their bulk comes from eggs and butter, not sugar. However, they can be VERY buttery, and people who are used to American buttercream can find them overwhelmingly rich. Cup for cup, American buttercream generally has about half as much butter as any of the European styles.
There are endless variations on buttercream that use these techniques in combination with different flavorings and additions. With so many styles to choose from, you can be sure to find the best buttercream for all of your baking projects. Bon Appetit!