Baking Basics:
American Buttercream Frosting

June 14, 2022

Baking Basics is a series on Slumber & Scones all about some of my favorite repeat ingredients that can easily be made at home. See all Baking Basics posts under Guides

The perfect frosting just happens to be one of the easiest to make, American Buttercream. It’s simple and versatile, with a perfectly sweet flavor that can complement any dessert. Plus, it can be flavored and colored and piped into beautiful designs. So let’s dig deeper into American Buttercream Frosting.

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What You Need to Get Started

You can easily find all of the ingredients for a simple homemade American buttercream at your grocery store:

How to Make American Buttercream Frosting

American buttercream is one of the easiest frostings you can make, partly because it’s very forgiving, especially compared to some of the meringue-based frostings that use eggs. No eggs here, just good old-fashioned butter and powdered sugar.

It’s also super easy because you can walk away and let your mixer do most of the hard work for you. If possible, I definitely suggest using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment to make this buttercream, but if you only have access to a hand mixer (with beaters), it will work.

To get started, add your room temperature butter to the mixer bowl.

Use Slightly Softened Butter for Buttercream

If there is one factor that can affect how your American buttercream turns out (or doesn’t), it’s the temperature of your butter. Seriously, if you only take one thing away, let it be this: You need to use slightly softened butter. So what does that mean?

The perfect butter will feel cool to the touch, and not be greasy or melted at all. But you should be able to easily dent it with a finger. The best way to soften your butter is to let it sit at room temperature. Generally, half an hour to two hours out of the fridge will leave your butter the right consistency, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.

It should be right around 65 to 70F. So in the summer, you may find that you need to soften your butter for less time. If you use the microwave to soften your butter, sometimes it can heat unevenly, so some parts will be melted while others are still too cold.

Mix Up the Butter

Start up your mixer and begin beating the butter on a medium-low speed for about three to five minutes. This will aerate the butter, and the changes to it will be visible. The butter will lighten in color, from yellow to nearly white. It will also slightly increase in volume as it fluffs up. When a recipe says “…until light and fluffy” this is what it’s talking about.

Essentially, you are adding tiny air bubbles into the butter. This is what gives your frosting that wonderful light texture, so don’t skip this step.

You will likely need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula a few times throughout this process. Sometimes, I use my flex-edge beater, which helps cut down on the number of times I need to scrape, but it doesn’t eliminate the need completely.

Add in the Powdered Sugar

We use powdered sugar in American buttercream frosting, because it dissolves nicely into the fluffed up butter. Granulated sugar will leave you with a gritty texture (but it is the beginning of cookie dough, so not all is lost!). In some meringue buttercreams, granulated works better because it’s heated. So be sure to pay attention to your sugar!

You will want to add the sugar to the butter a little bit at a time, and allow it to fully incorporate before adding more. Not only does this prevent a big cloud of sugar from puffing out of your mixer, but it also helps everything mix together more evenly. Be sure to scrape the sides after each addition as well, so nothing is left behind.

When it starts to get tough, usually about halfway through adding the sugar, I like to add a splash of liquid — either milk or cream. Cream will give you a richer flavor, but you’ll need more of it overall to reach the right consistency for frosting.

Balance the Buttercream

After you’ve added the minimum amount of sugar recommended by the recipe, and everything is evenly incorporated, taste your buttercream. At this point, you can add a little bit of sea salt, more sugar (and more liquid to counter it for texture), or any flavor extracts, like vanilla.

You can also add some more liquids, just a splash at a time, to reach the consistency you need. This will depend on whether you will be spreading or piping the frosting. Spread buttercream can be thicker, while piped will need a bit more milk or cream to press nicely out of the tips.

If you stop the mixer and lift up the paddle, the buttercream should hold its shape and remain in position. It should form a partially stiff peak that curls just slightly at the end. A larger curl means you have a softer frosting. If it’s too soft, add sugar. If it’s too stiff, add milk or cream.

Finish and Color the Frosting

If you are making an entire batch of frosting a single color, you can add the gel food coloring right into your mixer, and let that baby do the hard work for you. However, if you are using multiple colors, you will need to divide the frosting.

You’ll learn the best ways to work with your specific food coloring, but a few tips I have found when making frosting are:

  • I always need more of the warm colors (red, yellow) than I think I do to get the color as bold as I want it.
  • The blue goes a longer way than other colors, so use a toothpick dipped in the food coloring to add small amounts.
  • If the color comes out wrong, it will still taste delicious!

When you are finished, transfer the frosting into piping bags, or spread it on your dessert. If you’ll be using multiple piping tips for the same color, it’s a good idea to use a coupler. This is the plastic ring that allows you to easily switch tips. They come in most piping starter kits.

You can store American buttercream frosting at room temperature for up to one day. If you’re planning in advance, keep it in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze it for a few months. Before using it, you’ll want to let it soften to room temperature, especially if you will be piping it. Thaw frozen buttercream in the fridge overnight.

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Let’s get back to the basics when it comes to baking and desserts: learn to make the sweet and classic American Buttercream Frosting!

How to Use American Buttercream

There are so many uses for American buttercream frosting. And it stores well, so if you keep some on hand in the fridge or freezer, you’ll be able to make so many delicious dishes:

  • Make cookies cups (like these double chocolate ones) and pipe full of frosting.
  • Add more milk to thin it out into a glaze, and pour over cookies or muffins.
  • Play with your piping tips and practice making flowers!
  • Combine with lemon curd for a fluffy, citrusy treat.
  • Mix with leftover cake crumbs, and dip in melted chocolate to make cake pops.
  • Buy plain donuts, and decorate them yourself. Don’t forget to add sprinkles!
  • Replace half the butter with cream cheese and make these oatmeal cookie sandwiches.
  • Fold some into vanilla ice cream with sprinkles to make birthday cake flavor.
  • Experiment with flavor extracts like almond, strawberry, coconut, or root beer.
  • Dip the edge of a cocktail glass and then dip it in sparkling sugar for a festive rim.
  • Add in some chocolate ganache for a quick chocolate buttercream.
  • Mix in your favorite herbal tea, like in these lemon cupcakes with lavender-chamomile buttercream.

Or use your American buttercream as an ingredient in one of these decadent dessert recipes:

Bourbon Brown Sugar Cutout Cookies

From Slumber & Scones

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

From I Heart Eating

Funfetti Cookie Dough Pie

From Slumber & Scones

Peppermint Stick Cupcakes

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Rhubarb Cake with Creamy Rhubarb Jam

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Baking Basics: American Buttercream Frosting

The simplest and easiest frosting, American buttercream is sweet and versatile, perfect for decorating cakes, cookies, and cupcakes.
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time0 mins
Total Time20 mins
Course: Basics, Dessert
Cuisine: American
Servings: 3 Cups
Calories: 199kcal

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup Butter room temperature
  • 5 Cups Powdered Sugar
  • 1-3 Tbsp Milk or Cream
  • 1-2 tsp Vanilla extract
  • pinch Sea salt if using unsalted butter

Instructions

  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the butter until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes on medium speed.
  • Add the sugar, 1 cup at a time, fully incorporating each batch before adding the next. If it's tough to mix at any point add a splash of milk or cream.
  • Once all the sugar has been incorporated, add the vanilla and salt. Continue to add milk or cream until you reach your desired consistency.
  • You can add food coloring all at once and use the mixer to incorporate it, if you are making only one color. If you want multiple colors, divide the buttercream among smaller bowls and tint each separately.

Notes

  • Make ahead tips:
    • Buttercream can be stored at room temperature for up to 1 day.
    • Store it in the fridge for up to 1 week. Thaw to room temperature to use.
    • Freeze for 3-4 months. Thaw in the fridge overnight, then soften to room temperature to use.
  • How to Scale:
    • This recipe makes about 2-2 1/2 cups of frosting, which is enough for 24 cupcakes. 
    • Scale as needed, by multiplying all ingredients by the same amount. You can easily halve, double, triple, or 1.5x this recipe. 
    • For an 8-inch cake, use a double batch.
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