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All About Buttercream

How do you make buttercream less sweet? Why does my buttercream taste grainy? What’s the right consistency for piping? Can I use buttercream in a hot climate? In this tutorial I answer the 25 most commonly asked questions about my 4 Minute Buttercream, which I use to frost and decorate all of my cakes. If I don’t answer your question, ask it in the comments or take my online course on The Basics Of Buttercream to learn how to make, troubleshoot, colour, store, and decorate with buttercream!

If you prefer to watch a video of this tutorial, scroll to the bottom of the page.

1. Do I need a mixer to make buttercream?
I suppose you could make buttercream without a mixer. You’d have to have a lot of arm strength and also a lot of patience! I love making buttercream in my stand mixer because I can multi-task while it does all of the work for me!

use a stand mixer with a paddle or beater attachment to make buttercream

If you have a handheld mixer you could use that instead of a stand mixer but it’s more labour-intensive because even though it’s only supposed to take four minutes to do the mixing, holding the mixer with your hand and moving it through the thick butter and sugar for that length of time is actually really exhausting!

can i use a handheld mixer to make buttercream?

2. Can I use salted butter?
Yes, absolutely! I use salted and unsalted butter interchangeably but if you do it with salted butter just don’t add the salt that’s in the recipe.

can i use salted butter to make buttercream?

3. Can I use margarine or vegetable shortening instead of butter?
Yes, you can from a consistency point of view. It will taste different. The taste that butter gives the buttercream is really unique and the flavour of margarine and shortening is a little bit different so if you’ve ever tasted buttercream made with actual butter I’m sure you will be able to taste the difference when it’s made with something else.

can i use margarine or shortening to make buttercream

4. Why is my butter more yellow than yours?
Every butter seems to have a different colour. I don’t have a particular brand that I use – I’m living in North America at the moment and the butter that I buy in the supermarket is quite a light colour compared to butters that I’ve used in England and I’m sure it varies from country to country and brand to brand.

why is my buttercream yellow?

If you mix the butter on its own in the mixing bowl for a few minutes before you start the process of making the buttercream it should lighten the butter a little bit and then you’ll end up with more of a white colour.

mix butter to make buttercream white

5. What sugar do you use?
Definitely use powdered sugar not normal baking sugar (caster sugar, granulated sugar, or white sugar). It does need to be powdered sugar and it should say somewhere on the packaging that it’s 10x powdered sugar, which just means that it’s been sifted 10 times so it’s a really really fine powdered sugar and if you use one that isn’t as fine you’ll notice the difference in the texture of your buttercream.

sift powdered sugar if it has lumps

6. How can I make the buttercream less sweet?
A lot of people ask if you can just reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe to make the buttercream less sweet. Although that’s possible to a certain extent (and I’ll explain it in a second), unfortunately this type of buttercream is just a very sweet buttercream so if you don’t like sweet buttercreams I would recommend trying something else.

use powdered sugar or icing sugar to make buttercream

You could try a meringue based buttercream or a ganache instead. This buttercream does rely on the sugar for stability so it’s an essential ingredient. The sugar keeps buttercream firm and that gives it its shape when you’re frosting or when you’re piping.

meringue buttercream is less sweet than american buttercream

You could reduce the amount of sugar a little bit and also reduce the amount of milk or cream. That way it will still have a similar consistency but if you take too much of the sugar away the buttercream become very liquid and it will slide off your cake or your piping won’t hold its form.

buttercream for piping

7. Can I use a whisk attachment to make it?
No, a whisk attachment won’t work for this buttercream, it does have to be a paddle attachment or a beater and the reason is because you don’t want to incorporate a lot of air into the buttercream because then it will get air bubbles and the paddle attachment mixes it really well without doing that. The entire purpose of a whisk is to incorporate air so it’s not a good tool for this buttercream.

can i use a whisk to make buttercream

8. Your recipe says 4 minutes but I usually mix it for at least 10 minutes – can I do that?
It isn’t necessary for this recipe. If you want to beat it for longer there shouldn’t be a problem with it as long as you keep the mixer on its lowest setting and as long as you’re using a paddle attachment and not a whisk attachment but it’s not necessary.

making buttercream in a stand mixer

If you beat it for just a minute after each addition of the sugar that will be enough time to incorporate the sugar and the butter together and then once you add the liquid at the end it will be the perfect consistency. You really don’t need to beat it for longer.

use a stand mixer with a paddle or beater attachment to make buttercream

9. Why are there little white lumps in my buttercream?
After you’ve mixed powdered sugar with butter to make buttercream you might notice little white lumps or specks in the buttercream. The reason for that is that the butter hasn’t been left to come to room temperature so the butter is too cold. It should be very soft like in this picture.

use soft butter that is at room temperature

Then when you add the sugar to the butter it forms the little hard granules you can see at the bottom of this cake. It’s an absolute pain and there’s no way to get rid of them other than removing them one by one and you’ll have hundreds in a batch of buttercream! So it’s really really important to let the butter come to room temperature before you start the process of making the buttercream.

why are there little white lumps in my buttercream

10. Why does my buttercream taste grainy?
The buttercream definitely shouldn’t taste grainy. You shouldn’t notice any texture because it should be very smooth and the reason for that is that the butter and the sugar should completely incorporate to make a smooth buttercream.

smooth buttercream with no air bubbles or grainy texture

If you do notice a gritty or a grainy texture, that’s from the sugar, not from the butter and it’s either because you haven’t sifted the sugar (sometimes sugar comes pre-sifted so i actually don’t sift the brand that I buy) but if you find that there are clumps in it, you really do need to sift it.

add powdered sugar to butter to make buttercream

The other reason is unfortunately just the type of sugar that you’re using. It might not be the 10x (the 10 times sifted) icing sugar or powdered sugar so if you try making another batch and you sift the sugar and it still tastes gritty or grainy it’s just the brand of the sugar that you’re using, so I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this and I’ve suggested they try a different brand and they do and then they have fantastic results. So i know it’s not the solution you want to hear but try a different brand of sugar and hopefully everything will work perfectly.

smooth buttercream with no grainy texture

11. Why is my buttercream yellow instead of white?
Butter is a yellow product naturally but some brands are lighter than others. Butter does lighten when you mix it but when you finish making the buttercream, if your buttercream still has too much of a yellowish tinge for what you’re looking for you can try this trick.

why is my buttercream yellow not white

It sounds a little bit strange but use a teeny tiny bit of violet food colour. You can just dip a toothpick into the bottle of colour and then put a really tiny bit to start with. Stir it all together and the violet takes away the yellow tinge and it will make your buttercream look really bright white.

add violet gel colour on a toothpick for bright white buttercream

12. Why are there air bubbles in my buttercream?
If you have air bubbles in your buttercream it’s because you’ve incorporated too much air into it, which usually happens when you beat the buttercream at too high of a speed. It really needs to be on the lowest speed of your mixer and if it isn’t because of that then it could be because you were using a whisk instead of a paddle or a beater attachment.

why are there air bubbles in my buttercream

13. How can I get rid of the air bubbles?
If you do have air bubbles in your buttercream you can try and fix it. Put the buttercream in a big bowl and take a spatula and really slap it around in the bowl so really aggressively stir it. Knock the buttercream against the sides of the bowl and that will knock the air out of the buttercream and the more you stir it, the smoother you’ll notice it getting.

get rid of air bubbles in buttercream

14. How do I know how much milk or cream to add?
I’d suggest adding the milk or cream to the buttercream at the end of the recipe, just a tablespoon at a time so you can observe how the consistency of the buttercream is changing as you add the liquid because once you make the buttercream too liquid it’s very difficult to get it to go back to the right consistency. You’d have to add even more sugar and then it would become really sweet.

smooth consistency for frosting cakes

15. How can I tell if my buttercream is too stiff?
I like to use a few ways to test the consistency of buttercream. The first is to pull your spatula through the bowl of buttercream and observe the trail that the spatula leaves behind. It should be a completely smooth pathway behind the spatula so both the buttercream trail itself should be smooth but also the edges of it should be really smooth.

smooth trail left by spatula shows correct consistency of 4 minute buttercream

When the buttercream is too stiff you’ll notice there are lots of little holes behind the pathway that your spatula’s left and that’s where the buttercream has broken away from itself and it’s because it’s so stiff that the spatula’s tearing it as you pull it and also the edges of the pathway of the buttercream, you’ll see that they’re really shaggy, rugged peaks where the buttercream has again almost split apart and that’s because it’s really too stiff so you have to add a lot more milk or cream but just a tablespoon at a time so you can see how it does with each tablespoon.

buttercream consistency is too stiff

The second way I like to test it is to scoop up a little bit of buttercream on my spatula and then just gently tap the spatula on the side of the bowl. Just tap it once or twice and see if the buttercream falls off. This will vary from person to person depending on how firmly they tap the spatula on the bowl but for me it usually comes off by the second tap and that shows me that it’s the right consistency.

check buttercream consistency by tapping spatula on bowl

If the buttercream is still clinging onto your spatula it’s far too stiff and if when you lift the spatula up from the bowl the buttercream slides straight off the spatula then it’s definitely too runny.

buttercream consistency is too stiff if it clings to spatula

16. What’s the right consistency for frosting cakes?
When you frost a cake it’s essential that your buttercream is the right consistency otherwise you’ll have a nightmare crumb coating the cake and a nightmare trying to get the final coat of frosting smooth. You can test the buttercream when it’s in the bowl before you even start frosting your cake using the methods that I mentioned: by dragging your spatula through the bowl and also scooping up some buttercream and tapping it on the side of the bowl and seeing when it falls off.

smooth buttercream with no air bubbles or grainy texture

But as a second check, you can also test it as you’re frosting the cake. Put the buttercream on your offset spatula and start to spread it onto the cake and if the frosting is clinging onto the offset spatula instead of gliding onto the cake then you know your buttercream’s too stiff and you need to add more liquid.

what is the right consistency of buttercream for frosting cakes

It should spread really easily like very soft butter spreading onto a piece of bread and your spatula should glide around the cake and then you should be able to swipe your offset spatula right off the cake and it should leave the buttercream behind. It’ll leave a little peak as you as you swipe the spatula off but the buttercream will stay behind on the cake, it won’t pull off with your spatula.

what is the right buttercream consistency for frosting cakes

It’s much more common that buttercream is too stiff rather than too loose or too runny. If it is too loose when you spread it onto the cake over the top surface of the cake instead of sticking out over the sides of the cake it will slide right down the sides of the cake rather than staying in that smooth top layer at the top and in that case I would just recommend turning that into your crumb coat, spread it very thinly all over the cake, let it set, add a bit more sugar to your buttercream and beat it again until it gets thicker and then use that for your final coat of frosting.

drooping buttercream consistency is too loose

17. What’s the right consistency for piping?
I usually use the same consistency of buttercream for frosting a cake or piping. The exception is for Russian tips, where it needs to be maybe a little bit stiffer so to do that you can either add a little bit more icing sugar and then stir it together again or the other thing you can do is put the frosting in a piping bag put it in the freezer for one minute.

add powdered sugar to buttercream to thicken it for a stiffer consistency

Set a timer for one minute so you don’t forget and then when you take it out of the freezer do a test flower and that should be the right consistency and I have a a very detailed tutorial on 5 tricks to pipe with Russian tips.

test flower for russian tip piping

18. My buttercream is too runny. Can I chill it in the fridge or freezer to thicken it?
The only time when I would recommend correcting the consistency of buttercream because it’s too loose or too runny by putting it in the fridge is if you’re really confident that that problem has been caused by heat.

chilling buttercream can improve consistency if it's too warm

Even if the consistency of the buttercream is correct (it has the right balance of sugar and butter and milk or cream), warmth or heat can make the consistency too loose. For example, if you pipe the buttercream using a piping bag and you either take a long time piping or your hands are really warm, or if it’s a really hot day. In these situations, when you notice that the buttercream starts to get runnier, you can put it in the freezer for 1-2 minutes. Stir it around and then try and use it again and see if the consistency is better.

piping buttercream can warm it and loosen the consistency

But the consistency may be too loose because there’s too much liquid in the buttercream. For example, maybe you added too much milk or cream or a liquid flavor ingredient like strawberry puree or lemon curd. If this makes the buttercream too runny I wouldn’t recommend putting it in the fridge or freezer because the temperature of the buttercream is not going to fix the consistency.

adding too much liquid like strawberry puree can make buttercream too runny

19. Can I use this buttercream in a hot climate?
Yes, you can! I started baking and decorating cakes in Costa Rica, which has pretty extreme summers especially at the beach and I used this buttercream and I never had any problems. There are a few precautions you could take and there is a substitution you can make.

I used this buttercream in a hot climate in Costa Rica

If you’re going to serve a cake outside on a hot day, keep the cake in the fridge until you serve it or until you have to display it outside so that it stays cold for as long as possible. Also keep it in the fridge until you transport it because a cold cake is going to resist the vibrations and the movements of travel a lot better than a cake at room temperature.

refrigerate cakes until displaying or serving or transporting in a hot climate

If you have had the cake in the fridge until you transport it or take it outside, if it sits outside for an hour or two before you eat it that will be enough time for it to go from being cold just to room temperature rather than completely melting in the heat. Find a place in the shade to display it, ideally with a breeze or fan blowing on it!

display cakes in the shade in hot climates

If you put any cake with any frosting in full sunlight on a hot day with no breeze it’s probably not going to last very long – the frosting will droop, the filling may cause a bulge in the frosting, and the frosting might even melt and slide down the sides of the cake. This buttercream isn’t an exception but you can use a substitution to make the buttercream even more stable than it already is.

any frosting including buttercream will droop and melt in heat and sunlight

The substitution is to switch out the butter for a vegetable shortening like Crisco, Trex, or any other brand. I can personally taste the flavour (I’ll talk about that in a second) so what you could do is you could switch half of the butter out for the vegetable shortening and leave the other half and that way the buttercream will stand up a little bit better to the heat.

can you taste the difference in buttercream made with shortening or margarine or butter?

To combat the flavour of the substitution, in Costa Rica when I made a cake or cupcakes to sit outside in the heat for a long period of time I switched out half of the butter for shortening but also added a teaspoon of artificial vanilla essence for every batch of buttercream. Keep the original measurements of the real vanilla extract in the recipe and for some reason the addition of the artificial vanilla essence takes away the shortening flavour. I don’t know the science behind it, it’s just something I stumbled upon that works!

add vanilla extract and essence to disguise taste of shortening in buttercream

20. How do I make chocolate buttercream?
To make chocolate buttercream you can either add cocoa powder mixed with a bit of liquid or you can add melted semi-sweet chocolate or you can add both. I share my favourite recipe and a video tutorial here.

chocolate buttercream

21. How do you get such bright colours on your buttercream cakes?
I use gel colours. I don’t have just one brand that I use, I’ve tried Wilton, Americolor and Chefmaster and I really like all of them. The advantage of gel colours over liquid colours (the kind you can buy in the supermarket or grocery store) is that they’re really concentrated so you don’t have to use a lot to get really bright colours.

use gel colours for bright colours on buttercream cakes

Apply gel colours just a few drops at a time. Because they’re so concentrated, you don’t need to use much to get a bright colour. However, you do have to use quite a lot of them to get very dark colours like a dark purple or red or black buttercream. Add a few drops of colour, stir to mix the colour into the buttercream, and then check the shade of the colour.

how to make red buttercream

When you think you’ve got a colour similar to the shade that you want, maybe a little bit lighter, cover the bowl with cling film/saran wrap/a lid and leave it for 30 minutes. With time and exposure to air the colour starts to darken so it will get a few shades darker in that time. If you want the colour to be even darker you can add a few more drop of gel colour. This works well for dark colours like black buttercream.

how to make black buttercream

22. How do you get your buttercream so hard on your cakes?
My 4 Minute Buttercream is what’s called a crusting buttercream which means because of the amount of sugar in it, when it’s exposed to air it will eventually crust which means it just forms a harder surface. When it crusts, you can apply pressure to it without damaging it.

crusting buttercream american buttercream

I exaggerate this by putting cakes in the fridge so that the buttercream sets really hard and that lets me do all sorts of decorating techniques like decorating with acetate transfers, stenciling, and even carving buttercream. All of those techniques really rely on having a very firm buttercream.

buttercream acetate transfer

If you don’t want to or can’t refrigerate your cake, you can just leave it at room temperature. It will still form a crust on the outside but it won’t get as hard as it does when it’s in the fridge so the buttercream will be a bit more fragile when you’re decorating it.

buttercream carving

If you do put your cake in the fridge and it gets that very hard frosting, when you take it out of the fridge and you leave it to come to room temperature before you serve it, the buttercream will soften again.

buttercream softens when it comes to room temperature

23. How long can I leave my buttercream at room temperature?
Because of the amount of sugar in the buttercream you can leave it at room temperature longer than you might leave a cup of milk at room temperature.

how long can i keep buttercream at room temperature?

It must be sealed properly, which means covering it tightly with cling film or saran wrap or a lid because if it’s exposed to the air it will crust on the outside and then when you stir the buttercream you’ll get little chunks of crusted buttercream within it. Covered buttercream will be fine for two to three days at room temperature.

how to store buttercream at room temperature

24. Can I leave buttercream in the fridge?
You can put buttercream in the fridge. The same as for room temperature, it’s really important to seal it properly and then you can leave it in the fridge for a week or up to two weeks.

cover buttercream with a lid before storing it in the fridge or freezer or room temperature

25. Can I freeze buttercream?
You can freeze buttercream! I like to do it in a ziploc bag because it’s easier to fit in the freezer than a big tupperware or bowl but you can do it however you like as long as it’s a sealed container.

store buttercream in the fridge or freezer in a ziploc bag

Take it out two or three hours before you’re ready to use it so that it has time to thaw and come to room temperature. Then put it in a bowl and stir it and if it still has lumps of hard buttercream in it, wait for about another hour and then stir again.

freeze buttercream or store in fridge

You’ll notice that the buttercream looks quite air bubbly so stir it a few times before you use it to knock those out and then it will be perfectly smooth and it will behave the same way as if you’d never frozen it or put it in the fridge in the first place.

textured buttercream frosting

I hope I’ve answered all of your questions about my 4 Minute Buttercream. You can find the recipe and video tutorial on how to make it and check the consistency and add other flavours here and if you have any questions I haven’t answered, please ask them in the comments below!

Here’s the video version of this tutorial:

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15 comments on “All About Buttercream”

  1. Im in australia and we have 3 different types of icing sugar
    Soft icing mixture
    Pure icing sugar
    Royal icing sugar
    I think the soft mix has cornflour pre mixed in it
    Pure is used for piping decos etc and biscuits
    Which do i use for your 4 minute buttercream

  2. Can you replace some of the butter with cream cheese? In the recipes, I have seen add shortening, cream, or milk to the butter and sugar.

  3. Hello, is it possible to substitute the milk or cream with water or will that take away a lot from the flavor?

    1. Water can cause the buttercream to split (separate) but if you don't want to use milk you could use almond milk or coconut milk

  4. Do you use the same measurements if using margarine? And does the purple food coloring tip work with margarine too?

    Great site and tips ????????????????

  5. I have been watching your video's non stop- tried my first Chocolate icing ( tried the timing ect) but it just looked and behaved like mousse...I just can't seem to get the consistency right,...What do I do spreads easy but full of holes and very soft.So disappointed....I used 500g butter/ 1000gr chocolate/ melted chocodrops ( cooled for 5mins) and double cream ( 75 mls)...all at room temperature.
    Please help & advice...

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