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A tale of two buttercreams….

Okay, really there are dozens of different buttercreams, but they generally fall into two different categories.  We get asked about ours all the time. Even the food writer at the News and Observer asked us about it, because it’s so unique.  So, I thought I’d take a minute to blog about the different kinds of buttercream you’ll find in the Triangle.

The most common type of “buttercream” you’ll find  around here isn’t really a buttercream at all.  It’s frosting. It involves taking some kind of fat and beating it with confectioner’s sugar and a liquid. The vast majority of baker’s in the Triangle make this type if frosting. Most don’t even use any butter . This is the heavy, super sweet frosting that most people think of when they think of ” buttercream”. I think it is pretty nervy to call something with no butter in it buttercream, but that’s another story.  The reason most bakeries make their frosting this way is that, one, it is much easier to handle and smooth.   The other reason is that it is considered ” shelf-stable”  and doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Bakeries that aren’t inspected by the health department  are only allowed to make ” shelf-stable, low moisture baked goods”  Since traditional European buttecreams have copious amounts of real butter and eggs, they can only be made in facilities inspected by the local county health department.

Sugarland’s buttercream is a traditional European style buttercream that begins with a meringue. Then we beat in fresh European style butter and vanilla that is custom blended for us. Our buttercream only has about half the amount of sugar as the powdered sugar frosting type.   European buttercreams are lighter, fluffier, and less sweet.  There are Swiss, Italian, French, and American egg based buttercreams, and all of them are worth trying if you are an aspiring baker.  This nifty recipe from Epicurious is an Italian Meringue buttercream, which is the same technique we use at Sugarland. It even has picture tips and a ” What to do if the buttercream breaks?” tutorial. For what it’s worth, we use a blowtorch to fix the buttercream if it starts to curdle. Here  are the basics:

2 cups sugar
9 large egg whites
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
3 3/4 cups (7 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons pure vanilla ( seriously…spring for the good stuff)

In medium heavy saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar and 6 tablespoons water. Set over low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Raise heat to high and boil syrup, undisturbed, until candy thermometer registers 246°F, occasionally washing down sugar crystals on side of pan with pastry brush dipped in cold water.
While sugar is boiling, in bowl of electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until they just hold soft peaks. Slowly beat in remaining 1/2 cup sugar, then beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.
Decrease speed to medium. Beat in hot syrup in slow, steady stream (try to avoid beaters and side of bowl), then beat until stiff, glossy peaks form and mixture is completely cool, about 8 to 10 minutes (the bottom of the mixing bowl should be cool to the touch).
With mixer on medium, beat in butter, 1 piece at a time, and beat until thickened and smooth. (Mixture will break at first, but, as more butter is beaten in, will thicken and become glossy and smooth.) Beat in vanilla.
Buttercream may be made up to 1 week before serving and chilled in airtight container. If chilled, bring completely to room temperature and beat again before using. Mixture will again appear to break, but will then become glossy and smooth.

If you’re a powdered sugar frosting enthusiast, I recommend, Bronwyn Weber’s recipe. The buttermilk gives you a nice ” European” cultured butter taste.  It was published in the Dallas Morning News, but the link has expired, so I am posting it here for anyone who’s interested.
Ingredients: 1 pound of unsalted butter
2 pounds of 10X powdered sugar
1/4 cup of buttermilk
1.5 tsp good vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Directions: In a 5 qt mixer using a paddle attachment, soften the butter. Slowly add sifted sugar. Add salt vanilla and buttermilk. You can adjust the consisitency by adding more buttermilk if you prefer a softer icing. This is a good base icing that can be flavored in many ways.Try adding melted ganache for chocolate buttercream! Chopped pecans or crushed strawberries, coconut, lemon zest.a million possibilities!


  1. Buttercream made without butter…..I agree that’s nervy! The recipes inspired me to bake for a hot minute, then reality set in. I’d rather just pay you for the deliciousness!

  2. THANK YOU for posting this!!!! I discovered IMBC with our wedding cake baker a year ago and never looked back — I had American buttercream for years and liked it — BUT THIS!!! This is my all time favorite buttercream and love to use it when I bake cakes for my family! I have been trying to convert them from standard American buttercream for a while now – hah! It’s a slow process ;)

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