Buttercream needn’t be just icing sugar and butter as Cookery Editor, Sue McMahon, explains.

When I was growing up I used to think that buttercream was just butter and icing sugar beaten together, with a little boiling water added and some vanilla with half the weight of butter used to icing sugar (so 250g butter with 500g icing sugar), although I now have debates with some friends who say that milk should be used rather than water, but I still prefer to use boiling water. I have very fond memories of the buttercream that the dinner ladies used to make at my primary school where they used caster sugar rather than icing sugar, presumably because caster sugar is slightly cheaper, but I loved the crunchy texture.

Coffee buttercream

Simple Coffee Buttercream

This “simple” coffee buttercream is based on the icing sugar and butter recipe, and it is what is called a “crusting” buttercream, which means that when cake has been decorated using it, the surface crust over and feels dry to the touch, and if you do touch it and press too hard the surface will crack. The secret to getting a good buttercream based on this simple method is to have the butter at room temperature, or to have it already softened before adding it to the icing sugar. I find it’s best to use an electric mixer, and then whisk it until it’s really light and fluffy. I try to use unsalted butter as I generally find it’s a paler colour than salted butter, so if you’re going to be colouring the buttercream then you’ll generally be able to get better colours if the buttercream is as neutral as possible before it’s coloured; if the butter is very yellow then it’s difficult to get a good pink colour as when you add the pink colour to a yellow buttercream you’ll end up with an orange colour.

In some books, particularly American ones, you’ll often see white vegetable fat used instead of butter in recipes because when you have a white icing you can get better colours when you’re colouring it. However, it then shouldn’t be called buttercream if it doesn’t contain butter! For colouring buttercream, use paste food colourings as liquid colours aren’t usually strong enough.

italian meringue buttercream

Roses piped with Italian Meringue Buttercream

As I’ve learnt more about patisserie, I discovered Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC) and Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMBC). In both these types of buttercream the sugar is dissolved first, so that the resulting buttercream is very smooth. Both are “non-crusting” so they always remain soft to the touch, and fingermarks will show if the buttercream is touched, but the surface doesn’t crack. The ingredients for both types of buttercream are the same; caster sugar, egg white and butter, plus usually a flavouring such as vanilla.

To make IMBC the sugar is dissolved in water and then boiled to 120-121°C and the syrup is then poured over whisked egg whites, and whisking continues until the mixture is cool then the butter is whisked in. To see IMBC being made click on this link for a VIDEO of me making it.


Swiss Meringue Buttercream

SMBC is similar, but instead of boiling the sugar in water, the sugar is added to egg white, and the bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. The mixture is then very gently heated, and stirred occasionally until the sugar dissolves. If you put your fingers into the mixture then you shouldn’t be able to feel any grains of sugar. This egg and sugar mixture is then whisked until it forms stiff peaks and the butter is gradually whisked in. I’ve used SMBC for the “Flake 99″ cupcake, pictured above.  When I first made SMBC I knew of it as a 1:2:3 buttercream, which was 1 part egg white, 2 part sugar and 3 parts butter, but I find that to be too much butter for my taste, so I generally reduce the quantity of butter slightly as in the recipe for the Flake 99 cupcake.

When adding the butter to both IMBC and SMBC the mixture often collapses and it looks like it’s curdled, but keep whisking the mixture at high speed and it will come together again to give a lovely smooth fluffy buttercream. I know that some people are concerned about using raw egg whites in recipes, although in Britain eggs with the lion stamp on them have a very low risk of salmonella, but I usually use Two Chicks Egg White, which has been pasteurised so there’s no risk. I have measured the temperature that the egg whites have reached when I’ve made both types of meringue, and each time they have become sufficiently hot to kill any bacteria, but using the pasteurised egg white is safer – plus you’re then not left with any egg yolks.

Something I’ve been asked several times is which piping nozzle do I use to pipe the swirls on the cupcakes that look like roses. If you missed reading it in one of our recent issues – it’s the Jem 1B piping tube.

I hope that if you haven’t tried a meringue buttercream before you’ll have a go at one of our recipes, because if you do try them you probably won’t go back to “ordinary” buttercream again.