CakeWalk: Will the real buttercream icing please stand up?

Photo: The Original Sunshine cupcake from sugar Sweet sunshine (vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream)

CakeWalk is a new weekly column by Mary Ann Porch dedicated to every baker who has ever struggled to achieve the right consistency with their icing, unsuccessfully searched for the perfect cupcake topper or just wants to learn something new. Because with a few helpful tips, cupcakes are a cakewalk.

Hello cupcakers! Today is the kick off of the new weekly column entitled CakeWalk (thanks for coming up with this name, Judith R. King!), because with a teaspoon of instruction and an ounce of imagination, everyone can make delicious cupcakes for any occasion. My goal for this column is to empower every baker, no matter the skill level, with the confidence it takes to make even the most difficult frosted creation.

Buttercream is today’s topic of choice. I chose this because it’s one of the reasons I love cupcakes as much as I do, but it always raises an important question for me: What constitutes real buttercream? Depending on what cookbook, television show, magazine, or bakery you consult, you might end up with a handful of answers. Well, we’re going to set the record (or icing, in this case) straight.

According to Wikipedia, butter cream is defined as:

“Butter cream (also known as buttercream, butter icing or mock cream) is a type of icing used inside cakes, as a coating, and as decoration. In its simplest form, it is made by creaming butter with powdered sugar, although other fats can be used, such as margarine.”

With this definition in mind, Wikipedia lists six different types of buttercream: Simple Buttercream, Decorator’s Buttercream, Meringue-type Buttercream, French Buttercream, Pastry Cream-type Buttercream, and Fondant-type Buttercream.

The basic ingredients for all of these types of buttercream are fat (usually in the form of butter) and sugar.

Here we encounter our first problem. Joy of Cooking says that the only real buttercream calls for cream of tartar. It’s time to consult the experts!

During a visit to the French Culinary Institute, instructors noted during a course I audited that there are three types of buttercream: French, Italian and Swiss. However, not all of these call for cream of tartar.

At this point in the article, you can say,”Well, we’ve gone from six types to three,” but once again: What is real buttercream icing?!

Peggy Williams, co-owner of sugar Sweet sunshine in New York City, shares that her bakery uses two different kinds of buttercream: American Buttercream and an adapted version of Mousseline Buttercream. The bakery’s signature cupcake, the Original Sunshine (vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream) uses the American recipe.

“Different icings compliment different cake flavors,” said Peggy. “But why can’t there be more than one definition of buttercream? Everyone has different taste!”

Photo: Peggy Williams of sugar Sweet sunshine (courtesy of

With Peggy’s wisdom in mind, when it comes to buttercream, I think we have to remember the saying that variety is the spice of life. Like any great food, buttercream has evolved and transformed since its inception, so depending on what scrumptious cupcake you might be tasting on any particular day, chances are, your taste buds are experiencing a wonderful example of the many varieties of this favorite icing.

Renee Shelton from chooses a different method of categorizing buttercream, which may prove to be more helpful for you as the reader in deciding what kind is your favorite. Renee breaks down the icing into four categories:

Meringue Based:
Italian Buttercream: A cooked meringue made with a hot sugar syrup.
Swiss Meringue: A meringue made from whites and sugar warmed together over a bain marie (which is just a fancy name for a double-boiler). This dissolves the sugar.

Yolk Based:
Pâte á bombe: Sometimes referred to as a French buttercream. A buttercream here is made with yolks and hot sugar syrup.

Butter Based:
Here you will find basic recipes ranging from only butter and powdered sugar to the incorporation of other ingredients such as cream cheese, melted chocolate, cream or non-fat milk powder. Sometimes shortening or an emulsified shortening is added for stability.

Shortening Based:

Sometimes referred to as Decorator's Icing or Decorator's Buttercream. While this buttercream can be used for icing a cake, it is used mainly for decoration like roses and for piping borders and edging. Shortening has a much higher melting point making it suitable for those decorations needing a firmer look or handling. Since shortening does have a higher melting point, it will not have the same mouth feel as the above buttercreams, and can be very waxy to eat. If used for icing rather than strictly for decorating, butter and/or a liquid will be added for better mouth feel and flavor.

Remember: Even though the recipe possibilities for buttercream icing are endless, all you have to do is experiment a little. You’ll find your favorite one, and from here on out, buttercream will be nothing but a cakewalk.

Mary Ann is the founder of the New York City chapter of CupcakeCamp NYC, an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and eat cupcakes in an open environment. She is also the founder of Puff and Choux, a blog dedicated to the pastry and dessert arts.


ren said…
hmmm, i am very interested in the paté a bombe. it sounds like this would be best suited to a filling or perhaps have something else added to make an icing. any advice on the best way?
Debbie Greco said…
Rose Levy Bernbaums "The Cake Bible" - which really is the bible when it comes to making perfect cakes - has a number of recipes for frostings. Her swiss meringue is how I learned in culinary school and from every pastry chef I've worked with - Beating egg whites and sugar over a bain marie to 140 degrees then beating in butter a little at a time. It's very versatile, doesn't leave an oily feel and takes a lot of different flavors, fruit purees, etc. and is never too sweet.
SailorAshley said…
I think Peggy needs to eat some cupcakes!!!!
Sass said…
totally. that lady looks like she NEEDS to eat some cupcakes! scary skinny.
Thank you for writing such an outstanding post. It's really informative!
Tracy A said…
When I opened my bakery, The Buttercream Studio, I named it because of the many types, varied tastes (and the misconceptions) but above all because I love all kinds of buttercream!!! I make all kinds of buttercream. I have found that people either love one type or I offer all types and you can decide at your tasting which one best fits the taste your want for your wedding or special occassion...I have found that most people pick Italian Meringues loaded with yummy flavors, rather than butter-based frostings. But it's up to you! Thanks for the awesome info!
Mary Ann said…
I'm so happy all of you liked the kick off CakeWalk column! Feel free to shoot me an e-mail at if you have any ideas for future columns or would like me to answer a question!
Anonymous said…
I've just gotten into pastries and stuff. My mom has always just made buttercream and it wasn't until recently that I discovered there were so many icings! The meringue butterceam interests me..Peggy definitely needs to take a break and eat some of her work!
MandiCrocker said…
I just made 'real' buttercream for the first time tonight-- with heated whites & sugar. I didn't like it at all! It tastes like whipped cream frosting with an aftertaste. Huuuuah. I still like good ol' butter & powdered sugar. I can't help it. :)