When it comes to topping off a cake or some cupcakes, there is frosting and then there is frosting. Buttercream is the classic cake topper. There are two ways to make it: a shortcut uncooked way and a slower cooked way. I usually opt for the quick-fix way to make it, creaming together butter and confectioners sugar with a bit of flavoring. That method is fast, reliable and dead easy. It also tends to make a very sweet frosting that doesn’t hold a candle to real buttercream and when I have some extra time on my hands, or really want to make a dessert a standout, I always go for the real thing.
This cooked buttercream frosting starts with sugar and egg whites. The sugar is cooked on the stovetop until it is boiling away at about 245F – also known as “firm ball stage.” Once the sugar reaches the appropriate temperature, it is streamed into beaten egg whites. The heat of the sugar syrup cooks the whites and gives them stability, preventing the resulting meringue from collapsing. Once the syrup has been added, the mixture is given some time to cool down before butter is beaten in to finish off the frosting. I flavor mine by scraping about 1/2 of a vanilla bean into it, but you can also substitute vanilla extract if you prefer.
The result is a frosting that is spectacularly light and creamy. It is stable at room temperature and very easy to work with, largely because of its soft and fluffy consistency. It isn’t too sweet, since it requires vastly less sugar than the “quick” buttercreams, and has a suitably rich butter flavor to it. I’m not always a big fan of frosting on my cupcakes (particularly when it is on the sweet side), but this is a really outstanding frosting that it is hard to say no to.
Real Vanilla Bean Buttercream
1 lb (2 cups) unsalted butter, soft and cut into one inch pieces
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
5 large egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 vanilla bean
In the bowl of a stand mixer, place egg whites, with cream of tartar and 1/4 cup sugar nearby.
Heat 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over medium high heat until sugar is dissolved. When sugar reaches 230F on a candy thermometer, turn mixer on medium high. When egg whites are frothy, add cream of tartar. Gradually add the 1/4 cup sugar. When egg whites begin to form soft peaks, turn the mixer down to medium low and begin to drizzle in the boiling sugar mixture (which should be at approximately 245-250F, firm ball stage). When all of the hot sugar is added, turn the mixer up to medium high and beat until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. Add the butter one lump at a time and continue beating until mixture is smooth and fluffy, approximately 12-20 minutes. It will look rather like ricotta cheese for a while – just keep beating!
Once it is smooth, scrape vanilla bean and mix in the vanilla specks (or use 1-2 tsp vanilla extract).
Keep at room temperature – do not refrigerate before it has been spread on a cake or cupcakes.
Makes enough to frost one 2 layer, 8, 9 or 10 inch cake.
CocoMay 6, 2008
I’m afraid I already know the answer to this, but could one use a powerful hand mixer rather than a stand mixer, or am I simply too poor to make real buttercream?
NicoleMay 6, 2008
Coco – Of course you can use a hand mixer! It’s just easier to use a stand mixer because from start to finish the process takes about 30 minutes. You might want to draft someone into mixer-holding service by promising them cake in return so your arm gets a break. =)
JenniferMay 6, 2008
Thank you so much for this! It is exactly what I was looking for. 🙂
CocoMay 8, 2008
Thanks for the reply!
I’ll hold a mixer for six hours if the end result is as awesome as that buttercream looks to be!
TaraMay 11, 2008
I just made buttercream last night with my hand mixer and it only took about 10 mins! It was a great frosting, if a little fluffy. Now I read thins and I am doubting my method! Hmmmm…
AlisonJuly 30, 2008
This recipes looks great. I’ve been using one from Baking Illustrated, but haven’t achieved the desired results. I will try this for a cake I’m making this weekend. One question, is it necessary to refrigerate the cake after frosting it? How long can I leave the cake out with this frosting on it before I should worry about the frosting changing consistency? I’m new to cake decorating and am always wondering, refrigerate or don’t refrigerate. Any words of wisdom are appreciated. Thanks!
JenAugust 14, 2008
I love this recipe! Being a vanilla addict, I generally use 1 or 1.5 vanilla beans. I really like the flavor of the Tonga vanilla beans from Beanilla.com. They also have vanilla sugar that works well for this recipe too!
DebAugust 22, 2008
I just made this frosting and it is so light and airy, absolutely delicious, it takes a bit of beating so a stand mixer is your best bet but certainly worth the work.
BrittanyJanuary 20, 2009
I am making a wedding cake and am looking for a buttercream to wow my cake eaters! I hate the sweet buttercreams but my question is is this buttercream”white”. I’ve had issues keeping my buttercream white after a day or two!
elleMarch 22, 2009
I was wondering… i don’t have cream of tartar. Is there anything i can substitute it with? Or can i just omit it without a drastic change in taste?
ChristinaDecember 6, 2009
This is such a great recipe for buttercream frosting! It was excellent!!! Thank you so so much. You are wonderful 🙂
ChristinaDecember 6, 2009
Oh, and btw, cream of tartar is sooo expensive! And you only use like a little tiny bit. You’ll have it forever. Such a pain in the butt lol.
payday cashDecember 10, 2009
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elisaMarch 22, 2010
How long will this stay at room temperature? Can you add dye to it?
ElizabethJuly 27, 2010
I’m planning to make this frosting soon, but I just had an idea to make a maple buttercream, but I wasn’t sure how to add the maple syrup. I’m thinking that I could just boil it instead of the sugar and water and add it to the egg whites?
ElizabethAugust 2, 2010
Actually decided to make a wine buttercream, replacing the water and sugar with wine and sugar and then adding quite a bit of wine while blending. Didn’t taste very winey, but the buttercream was really very good. I will definitely make this again. Thank you for posting it!
Winny JreigeAugust 4, 2010
Hi Nicole, thanks so much for sharing your recipes with us : )
I have a question for you….. if I want to add chocolate to this vanilla butter cream how do you recommend to do this? would cocoa powder work or maybe melted chocolate? if you could please advise i’ll really appreciate it, I’d like to make a chocolate cake with this butter cream recipe but with chocolate for my daughter’s birthday.
Thanks again : )
Mariah MichasAugust 18, 2011
I had no idea that butter cream frosting could be so light! This recipe is a keeper. Thank you, Nicole. I just iced a mint chocolate chip ice cream cake (also your recipe w/help from Alton Brown for homemade ice cream, too) for my husband’s birthday and will report back after we celebrate with friends tonight!
JennyFebruary 29, 2012
This looks wonderfully decadent. Any suggestions on how to turn it into Chocolate Buttercream?