However you found me, I am not a food blogger, I’m working on recipe development for a bakery I plan to open. And long post alert, I’m writing this post as a reference tool so I plan to be thorough. I am making the information public in case it’s also useful to anybody else. I’m not coming from a place of knowledge, more like a place of wanting my own questions answered. I would not know about substitutions because I made none.
Several of these recipes were followed by me for the very first time for this post, I simply wanted to see:
- how complicated they were to make
- mouthfeel (texture when eaten)
- receptivity to color
I was not interested in flavor comparison because wiggle room with flavorings plus altering butter or sugar amounts was not on the agenda. I simply followed the recipes as-is.
While I admit I’ve only made Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMBC) maybe 10 or so times, I’m experienced with all kinds of sauces, gravies and curds so I do know that these recipes were made correctly and my notes are trustworthy but only for my own purposes. I know what stiff peaks look like, I know a glossy meringue when I see one and using a double boiler with a digital thermometer is positively relaxing.
I love most versions of American Buttercream (ABC): butter, powdered sugar, cream or milk and flavorings. I do have 2 problems with them, they’re generally too sweet for my preference and they don’t pipe cleanly or hold shape in warm air unless stabilized with shortening and/or meringue powder (Stabilized American Buttercream). In researching I’ve discovered many bakeries use 100% shortening based recipes to resolve these issues, but I prefer butter, to each their own. There are other tricks but SMBC works beautifully so I’m going that route for cake icing and flower piping.
For simply piping a pretty swirl on a cupcake? ABC is great, delicious and creamy plus shelf-stable longer (no eggs), something important to consider. ABC will always have its place in my kitchen, I’m not looking to replace it.
A third mentionable issue some have with ABC is “grittiness” from undissolved powdered sugar granules. In my experience adding the powdered sugar slowly, one large spoonful at a time, to well creamed European style butter and making it a day in advance of serving are a couple of tricks to greatly improve texture.
With that, here we go!
If you’re counting there are 7 samples in the photo. The 7th recipe is my main ABC. I merely wanted to compare for curiosity’s sake and am not including that recipe.
I only use Domino brand pure cane confectioner’s sugar. If the label doesn’t specify “pure cane sugar” it is beet sugar and it changed the flavor of my ABC in an unpalatable way when I tried it out, lesson learned. (Further reading taught me that beet sugar does not always behave the same either, but I have no experience with that.)
I also only use European style butters. Higher fat content is definitely creamier. I tasted every single butter sold by Kroger, Meijers, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Thyme Market, Sam’s Club and Costco to compare. Cincinnati market grocers. 😉
For egg whites I used pasteurized egg whites from Costco in all recipes so I’m confident from a food safety standpoint and I don’t have a million leftover egg yolks. They don’t work in all baking situations but they do in SMBC. Pasteurized liquid egg whites are also easily available in most grocery stores, that’s where I found them when I was experimenting with French macarons.
I used a Kitchen-aid stand mixer for mixing and I weighed my sugar measurements in grams on a digital scale for accuracy.
I chose to pipe chrysanthemums because they have standup delicate petals and are a true test of what I’m looking for in texture though I wasn’t trying to carefully pipe works of art.
I measured an exact 1/2 cup for coloring purposes and used 5 drops of Wilton Color Right Base Red in each portion.
The title of each recipe is a clickable link to the authors post. The recipe to my favorite Swiss meringue buttercream recipe included 16 flavor variations and the blog no longer exists. I did have the foresight to save all of the flavor variations to a document on my phone and I will share those in the future. But blogs do come and go, if you find something that works, it’s best to save it.
NOTE: I will be updating this post with printable recipes!
I will say that comparing even my own ABC to Swiss buttercream…you simply cannot achieve the same silky light texture with an American style buttercream but I will start with a close runner up:
BEST EVER AMERICAN BUTTERCREAM
From Stacey of Wicked Good Kitchen
I’ve read her entire post 6 or 7 times, it’s a fab ABC 101 primer if that interests you.
This American buttercream is made with boiling water and powdered sugar, no egg whites, no double boiler.
VERDICT: I’ve made this one 8 or 10 times and it is what it says, better than ABC in texture but it’s too soft to be practical for my purposes. She advices to chill your hands if piping details and when handling the bag and she’s not kidding. You’d have to chill the whole batch before using for cake icing or flowers but that is too involved for my purposes. I have a large open kitchen, no oven was on, my hands are naturally cold (ask my husband) and it was still too soft to work with for crisp tall flower petals. It lacks the…sophistication in flavor of SMBC so it’s not a substitution. I was able to detect the tiniest grit from undissolved powdered sugar and I was extremely careful to use rapidly boiling water and the powdered sugar brand she recommends. Probably why it took me approximately 4-5 minutes longer to cool the sugar slurry before adding the butter than her instructions suggest. I don’t think anybody else would detect the sugar, I was looking and this is a super luscious icing. I bet on day 2 the sugar would be completely undetectable. The addition of shortening did NOT provide necessary stabilization, and the brand she recommends, that I did use, has a melting point of 96.8°. As mentioned before, I prefer not to use shortening as a rule, more like a tool for use in hot outdoor settings or smaller spaces and lots of people. I’ve used this many times instead of fussier SMBC because of the textural similarities, but this experiment helped me discover a couple of SMBC recipes that are quicker to make and hit the mark better. Win.
PERFECT SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
From Tessa of Handle The Heat
This is a traditional Swiss meringue buttercream using the double boiler method and my instant digital thermometer. You melt the granulated sugar in egg whites taking them off the heat at 140°F then whipping to stiff peaks.
VERDICT: This recipe is super delicious, creamy and luscious, yet a smidge too soft for my purposes. I did read in another sciencey article that the heated egg whites become firmer if you go hotter, up to 160°F.
EASY FOOLPROOF SMBC
From Summer of Cake Paper Party
Note: she has not posted in eons. In the event she’s done blogging I recommend saving any recipe on her site to a file if you like them. She also has MS degrees in biochemistry and biophysics and reading her posts and every single comment/question/answer gives me a thrill. I LOVE to know WHY things work! Some FABULOUS information there!
This version calls for melting granulated sugar in egg whites over a double boiler to 160°F then chilling the mixture before adding to whipped butter. No meringue (whipping egg whites to stiff peaks) to it, and it works!! It is ever-so-slightly denser than traditional meringue-based SMBC but piped the very best. It is my number 2 favorite, I was not *exactly* thrilled with the texture but for piping delicate flowers this would be the bomb. If you read the comments she explains why the difference in density from a scientific standpoint.
I definitely see myself using this recipe in the future, and based on what I’ve learned about heating egg whites I am going to try this one again reducing the heat to 150°F to see if that fixes my texture issues. I do have issues, don’t I?
The huge benefit here is that you can make the melted sugar slurry portion in larger quantities in advance and keep it in the freezer. It doesn’t freeze solid. I don’t know the weight measurement of a single portion size, and you would need to know that to scoop out a single batch quantity, but that means on baking day, you simply whip up the butter, poor in the cold sugar slurry and extracts, and your buttercream is done in about 7 to 10 minutes flat. All the silkiness of a traditional SMBC, none of the hassle of whipping up and cooling a meringue. Be mindful there seems to be a foam on top but that does not affect taste or texture. I used the entire slurry. If I needed to scoop out a portion I would stir the foam into the mix well before portioning out.
My picture doesn’t do it justice, I was able to pipe these petals much taller than any of the other recipes and they held. Beautiful! And exactly what I’m looking for.
THE EASIEST SMBC
From Elizabeth of Sugar Hero
VERDICT: This is my #1 unless my theory about reducing the cooking temperature on the above recipe works. No cooking involved, she whips pasteurized egg whites into stiff peaks then adds powdered sugar. It has the teeniest amount of grit from undissolved powdered sugar, though not comparable to American style buttercreams at all. It is still smooth and silky but the best part is how fast it comes together! This is as quick as ABC yet pipes like SMBC. It actually piped much better than traditional SMBC for me and had a better mouthfeel than the foolproof version above, unless zero grit is the goal. The grit is virtually undetectable, but I was looking for it since I used powdered sugar rather than melted granulated sugar, and again, I bet on day 2 there would be zero grit. Very delicious, and it made a large quantity. Second in taste and mouthfeel to traditional SMBC.
From Kiki of Kiky Cuppycakes
This was a wildcard recipe using meringue powder and no liquid egg whites. I mainly included this one for readers who would choose to forego liquid egg whites in any form. And for curiosity’s sake.
VERDICT: Surprisingly it did work! Though here again, ever so slight grit from undissolved powdered sugar. Unfortunately this was softer than my purposes but would definitely work better than an American style buttercream to ice a cake smooth efficiently. Also, whipping the meringue powder and water to stiff peaks took more time than I am looking to do in a bakery setting. Time is money, saving time = saving the client money.
MARSHMALLOW VANILLA BUTTERCREAM FROSTING
From Jo-Anna of A Pretty Life
I tried this recipe out for a friend who loves to cook and loves a whippy style icing. She’s not a baker and has never ventured into the perilous world of buttercreams so I was looking for something simple, a sure thing. I have seen bloggers refer to this as cheater SMBC and I know of a pastry chef who will whip this up and add it to her SMBC if she needs a larger batch but is short on time.
VERDICT: This is not SMBC and it’s too soft for my purposes, but it is tasty! I can taste the marshmallow fluff flavor, but that’s not such a bad thing! This might be a great option for a Smore’s type icing you want to hit with a kitchen torch. I might try that.
Here are two bonus pictures since I wanted to see how my ABC piped as compared to SMBC. No surprise here, it pipes beautifully on a cupcake but without chilling I’m not going to get delicate smooth tall flower petals. That’s just too much fuss for my purposes. What one might be willing to do in one’s own kitchen for fun does not translate to a bakery setting as I described in the beginning. I love real vanilla beans don’t you?
For kicks and giggles I put the three SMBC versions using egg whites in a 145°F oven for 4 minutes to see how they take the heat. The cold sugar slurry version works best, it is pictured first followed by traditional SMBC and uncooked pasteurized egg white SMBC last. But if it’s 145°F outside, I recommend keeping these indoors. 😜
And that, my friends, is a wrap!
I learned a lot, which was my purpose, but I still have so much more to learn.