Nothing bad can come of a foodstuff with the word “butter” directly incorporated into its name.
Let’s talk meringue buttercream, people.
Meringue buttercreams are used by professional bakers and cake makers because of their stability, fluffiness, shine, and taste.
When you first taste a meringue buttercream, you will be amazed by the lightness of it.
They are, by far, my favorite way to finish cakes.
American buttercreams, which are a simple combination of butter, powdered sugar, and a liquid, become crusty as the butter dries out and are always too sweet and cloying for my taste.
(I have a common opinion with Rosie of Sweetapolita, however; I agree that cupcakes can be very delightful with a good American buttercream.)
Cooked frostings, often called heritage or boiled frostings, made by cooking flour and milk to sub for part of the butter, lack the richness that I think an icing should have and can turn out grainy.
Bloggers extol the virtues of SMB- Swiss meringue buttercream.
I wholly agree; however, SMB can be a real pain in the ass.
First of all, it involves making a Swiss meringue, for which I have no patience.
You have to stand, over a stove, whisking egg whites and sugar in a double boiler as they gently come to temperature and the sugar dissolves.
There’s little hands-off time during this period. You don’t want the eggs to scramble.
(I hate double boilers!)
Whenever I make SMB, I notice a nasty, albeit minuscule strip of cooked egg whites and sugar right at the top of the mass; these are tiny little flecks that I didn’t sweep up in time, and because the sides of the bowl become very hot from the steam, those tiny flecks cook quickly and become crusty.
(They’re not omelette-y or eggy or anything, because they’re mainly sugar. Just crusty.)
I don’t like that. At all.
I don’t want to have to deal with that every time I make a buttercream.
In fact, I don’t ever want to have to deal with a crusty ring of anything.
So all this talk about SMB being the best? I’m here to debunk it.
I prefer the easier, fluffier, and glossier alternative:
SMB’s cousin, or sister, or whoever, Italian meringue buttercream.
First off, for all the reasons why any egg-based buttercream is great.
1. They are not as sweet as an American buttercream.
Without all the sugar coating your tongue, flavors are intensified and cleaner.
2. They store beautifully.
Whether it’s in the fridge or the freezer, they are wonderful to store and use later, so never think twice if you cannot downsize a recipe and you end up with extra.
There are always uses for buttercream, and there’s nothing more wonderful than pre-made delicious buttercream when you need to frost a couple cupcakes but can’t be bothered to make another batch.
3. They’re simple.
See that photo right above? Do any of those four ingredients scare you?
No? Really? Eggs, butter, sugar, and lemon juice don’t scare you?
Hmm. Then I guess European-style buttercreams shouldn’t either.
4. They’re not made with Crisco. Ever.
Buttercream is buttercream for a reason.
Then, the reasons why I choose IMB over any other European buttercream.
1. It’s not as rich (or wasteful) as French buttercream.
French buttercream is made with egg yolks in the same manner as Italian meringue- whipping eggs while pouring sugar syrup over them.
All those yolks make for a very, very rich buttercream: almost too rich for me.
Yolks are used in custards, curds, puddings, and ice cream, and as a result, I rarely, if ever, have extra yolks.
Yolks also do not keep well and I always have egg whites on hand from said used yolks.
Egg whites keep well in an airtight container in the fridge for ages.
If I were to make French buttercream as often as I do IMB, I’d be drowning in egg whites.
Absolutely over my head.
And furthermore, the best use for these egg whites would be an IMB. It’s the circle of life.
2. It’s quicker and has far less downtime than German buttercream.
German buttercream is based on a thick custard which is allowed to cool and congeal completely, then has butter whipped in.
German buttercream is awesome- don’t get me wrong.
It tastes like ice cream, because it basically is ice cream, just not frozen and with a whole lot of butter whipped in.
Like ice cream, but better.
More butter= more better.
Here’s the thing: in order for the butter to emulsify with the custard, which is already a feat, when you think about it, because custards are already pretty high fat and you’re just shoving a brick of butter into that and expecting to get frosting to come out, you need the custard to be cool.
Like, completely cool. Like, stick it in your fridge and wait a few hours.
I ain’t got time for dat.
Seriously… once you get your IMB down pat, you can even start to cut time on the relatively short prep time because you’ll be able to add colder butter to a warmer meringue and still have it all work out perfectly.
German buttercream? Not so much. You must wait.
I am bad at waiting.
Thus, IMB wins this battle. Sorry, Germany.
3. Finally, in my humble opinion, Italian meringue trumps Swiss meringue. On a lot of accounts, enough to convince me that IMB>SMB.
Italian meringue is quicker.
SMB requires patience to prevent scrambled eggs.
You have to cook the eggs, then whip the meringue.
With IMB, you cook the eggs while making the meringue. The whole process of making the buttercream takes only a slight bit longer than making a meringue.
IMB is wonderful because you can incorporate a wealth of flavors right in, by infusing the sugar syrup with another ingredient.
For example, when making a lemon IMB, you can use lemon juice to make the syrup, thus giving the final product a lovely and prominent lemon tang, whereas with an SMB, you must use lemon extract, or whip in a lemon curd (yet another time-costly step) as there’s no direct way to incorporate substantial amounts of liquids.
Italian meringues are much more stable than Swiss meringues.
They’re thicker, glossier, and less prone to weeping than Swiss meringues, because they have been fully cooked and stabilized by the hot sugar.
I have had instances where my SMB weeps (little droplets of water escaping from the emulsion and beading on the cake, causing the frosting to separate and slough off, as well as look incredibly unappetizing), but never, ever, has an IMB wept, in mine own experiences, of course.
Okay. Have I got you sold on Italian meringue buttercream?
Now how the heck do we make it?
Realtalk: you’re going to be a little put off when you read any recipe for IMB.
Recipe writers (myself included, sorrynotsorry), are all like…
meanwhile, while this boiling hot sugar syrup is burbling and bubbling like a cauldron, whip up some egg whites real quick and they should be just perfectly soft but yet stable when you pour this boiling hot sugar over the whipping attachment and try not to hit the whisk because it will shoot syrup straight into your eye or the back of your knee or wherever is most painful and good luck see you on the other side don’t forget the sugar syrup is hot…
It’s a load of cra mumbo jumbo. And the timing thing really throws people off.
Don’t let it throw you off!
I promise, it is not stressful to make a successful IMB, and when people bite into your cake and look up at you with starry eyes and a full mouth and smile, you will be drawn back to make more buttercream. I just know it.
It’s irresistible for both the baker and the consumer.
So here’s how we do this.
(I’m going to do all of this in American volume measurements to make it more accessible.
Generally, however, I do stick to weight with IMB. Whatever floats your boat, guys.)
First, get your mise en place, well, en place.
Gather everything you’re going to need.
Here’s a checklist for a lemon Italian meringue, which is what we’re making today for that cake way the hell up there past all those boring shots of my mixer:
1 lemon (2 lemon, red lemon, blue lemon…)
1 cup of sugar
a pinch of cream of tartar
4 egg whites
12 ounces (24 tablespoons, 3 sticks) butter, softened but cool and cut into pieces
small-medium heavy bottomed pan
stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment
Squeeze dat lemon!
Get 1/3 cup of juice in your measuring cup and place it straight into your saucepan, right in the middle.
Now, take your sugar and pour that into the middle of the saucepan as well, right in the middle of your puddle of lemon juice.
Avoid letting any dry sugar touch the sides of the pan. This will prevent crystallization.
Place the egg whites and the pinch of cream of tartar into the bowl of your stand mixer.
Start your engines. On low-medium speed (4-6 on a kitchenaid), begin to whip your egg whites.
Great. Now ignore them for a little while.
Let’s turn our attention back to the pot; place it on your stove and turn the heat on to a medium-high setting.
Place your thermometer in the pot.
Now, wait. The sugar will dissolve and the syrup will begin to bubble.
We’re waiting until it hits 245 degrees F.
Look back at your egg whites. How fluffy are they?
When the syrup hits 200, they should be all foam- no thick, liquid egg whites left.
When it hits 240, they should be soft peaks- there should be definite peaks, but they shouldn’t look dry or stiff.
Here’s a secret. I’ve accidentally added the sugar syrup to over-whipped egg whites, ones that are already at stiff peaks, and under-whipped egg whites, ones that are only beginning to hold peaks.
It works out. I promise.
Even better? If you’re nervous that one of the two horses is winning the race by too large a margin, rein it in. You can turn down the heat on the syrup, or even take it off the heat for 30 seconds. You can slow down the mixer or even stop it completely.
It works out. I promise.
Now, your syrup has come to temp and your egg whites are at soft peaks. Brilliant!
Carefully pour the syrup into the measuring cup.
With the mixer on medium speed (4-5 on a kitchenaid), drizzle the syrup over the meringue, about 1 1/2 inches from the side of the bowl.
That’s the sweet spot; however, if you don’t feel comfortable pouring the sugar with the mixer whipping, don’t.
Instead, turn the mixer off, lift the attachment, drizzle a couple teaspoons on top of the meringue, lower the attachment, and whip on high for 10 seconds.
Continue to repeat this until all the syrup is gone.
I think you will quickly find yourself pouring the syrup with the mixer whipping; it is much less tedious.
You’re almost there!
Whip the meringue on high until it has cooled to body temperature; you can feel the sides of the bowl as an indicator.
If your mixer is huffing and puffing and can’t possibly last, just turn it off after 5 or so minutes and let the meringue cool for 10, then whip on high again.
Once your meringue is at body temp, add in your butter a few pieces at a time.
You are now going to enter the 5 stages of making an egg-based buttercream.
Here’s the remedy. Stop freaking out, and keep whipping.
Do. Not. Stop. Whipping.
Don’t you dare touch that lever.
I’m watching you.
1. (Blissful) Ignorance
When you’re first throwing your butter into the bowl, you could care less.
You’re not even really paying attention- Real Housewives of Miami is on!
Hey, you throw that butter in there man, the commercial break is over.
Just let it whip.
Return to the bowl, la dee da… Oh. Oh. Wait. It looks like my meringue has fallen.
No… the butter must just be on the top. Right?
I worked too hard to get that meringue to be all fluffy and glossy to have it fall down on me now!
That’s not a fallen meringue, right?!?
Wait. No. Babe. Wait. Babe! Babe! No! No! Babe! Wait! Babe, wait! Wait, babe!
Relax: your meringue is supposed to fall. That’s the point of this step.
A fallen meringue is normal and I promise all your baking friends’ meringues have fallen, too.
3. Panic (re: curdling)
Now what? Well, your buttercream looks really curdled.
There are all these nasty little butter pieces.
It looks like you should trash the whole shebang.
Definitely trash it. Oh my gosh. What do I do? Look at those curds- what are those?!
Do. Not. Stop. Whipping.
A curdled look just indicates that your butter was a touch too cold.
If you keep whipping, the temperatures will become more evenly distributed and the curdling will disappear.
4. Anger (re: liquidity)
Okay, the curds have gone away. Now it looks like I have a glaze type deal going on in my mixing bowl.
Why is it so damn thin? I thought this was supposed to be some fluffy s#*!.
I swear to GOD I am never going back on that dumb blog. Tuh!
Surprise! You know what the solution is going to be?
If you guessed “keep whipping,” you’re getting somewhere.
Liquid is normal. The butter will soon emulsify.
You’ll hear a noise while the frosting is thin, a splashy sort of mixing noise.
When the butter starts to emulsify, the noise will thicken, and become a whap-whap-whap noise; this will indicate that your buttercream is getting some body and oomph!
Keep whipping until you hear that noise!
You frost that cake, you sassy little minx! Look at you and your fluffy, shiny, gorgeous IMB.
You rock. You roll.
You should be the next Food Network Star looking all professional with that buttercream.
Moral of the story: making a meringue buttercream is not that bad. And it’s totally worth it.
You can use it to frost a cake like the one I have here today, which was made to celebrate my dad and also my parents’ anniversary, which was a few days back.
(27 years! You go, Glen Coco!)
It’s a strawberry cake sandwiched with the lightest white cake imaginable, and surrounded with a thick, luscious layer of lemon IMB.
It’s a striking cake. It screams summer.
And it’s great practice for some Italian meringue buttercream frosting.
A few words, then I’ll shut up, because this post is long enough already-god who do I think I am trying to make you read this long post while you have all that work that’s sitting by the wayside crazy food temptress blogger lady.
Straight out of the mixing bowl, IMB is perfect for crumb coats and smooth finishes.
Refrigerate it for 15 or so minutes to firm it up a bit in order to pipe roses and the like.
Congratulations to my father, you are an inspiration.
And to the both of my two wonderful parents, I like you guys alright.
Hoo! Boy, I need a nap and a piece of cake stat.
Berries and Cream Cake
for the strawberry cake:
heavily adapted from A Dash of Sass
1 1/2 cups AP flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 scant cup frozen strawberries
1 cup sugar
3 ounces (6 tablespoons, 3/4 stick) butter
splash strawberry extract, optional
rose colored food coloring, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease and flour two 6-inch pans.
Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together.
Microwave the strawberries until they are falling apart and have released their juice, about 1 minute.
Puree the berries and measure out 3/4 cup.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add in the eggs one at a tim.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the strawberry and vanilla extracts and food coloring, if desired.
Add the strawberry puree and mix on high until well blended.
Add in the flour and mix until homogeneous.
Pour into prepared pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
for the white cake:
adapted from i am baker
1 cup AP flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup milk
3 egg whites
splash vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease and flour two 6-inch pans.
Mix the flour, cornstarch, salt, baking powder, and sugar together.
Mix the milk, egg whites, and vanilla together in a measuring cup.
Add the butter and mix until most of the butter is broken up; add in half of the milk mixture and allow to beat on high until everything is incorporated (batter will still be very thick).
Add in the second half of the milk mixture and mix to combine.
Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix again.
Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the tops are golden and a tester comes out clean.
for the lemon Italian meringue buttercream:
adapted from Sky High
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar
4 egg whites
pinch cream of tartar
12 ounces (3 sticks) butter, softened but cool and cut into pieces
Place the lemon juice in a heavy bottomed pan and add the sugar to the center of the pan.
Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.
Start to whip the egg whites.
Meanwhile, cook the sugar syrup: without stirring, allow the syrup to come up to 245 degrees F, about 5 minutes.
Keep an eye on the egg whites; when your syrup reaches 240 degrees F, your egg whites should be soft peaks.
Once your syrup comes up to temperature, remove it from the heat and pour it into a measuring cup.
With the mixer running on medium speed, slowly and carefully drizzle the hot syrup over the meringue.
Try to avoid hitting the whisk attachment directly, as this will cause splattering on the sides of the bowl.
Once all the syrup has been added, whip on high for 10 or so minutes, until the meringue is cooled to body temperature.
Once the meringue has cooled, add in the butter a few pieces at a time while whipping on high.
After adding all the butter, the frosting may be liquid-like; keep whipping until it thickens up and becomes fluffy.
(You will hear a sudden change in the sound of the mixer; this indicates that the frosting is thickening up.)
Place one of the cooled strawberry cakes on your cake plate or other serving dish.
Place 1/4 cup of frosting over the cake and spread out; add a few more tablespoons if you need to.
Place a cooled white cake over that layer and repeat.
Repeat with the next two cakes.
Thinly frost the cake to ensure that no crumbs will escape.
Add the rest of the frosting to the top of the cake and smooth it out, moving down the sides to create crisp edges.
Finish as desired; serve at a cool room temperature.