Learn how to make American buttercream. It’s easy, only requires 4 ingredients and about 10 minutes of time. Perfect for cakes, cupcakes, and cookies!
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What is American Buttercream?
American buttercream is a style of buttercream that simply uses butter and powdered sugar. It’s a straightforward, simple buttercream recipe that requires no eggs and no cooking. American buttercream is a very sweet buttercream so it’s best for those of us with a major sweet tooth. It’s a great beginner buttercream because it doesn’t require you to pour hot syrup.
How Is American Buttercream Different from Swiss Meringue Buttercream?
Swiss meringue buttercream is made by cooking a simple sugar syrup and pouring it over beaten eggs whites (meringue). It’s a little more fussy than American buttercream because it requires cooking your sugar syrup and cooling it to the correct temperature and then pouring it over your beaten egg whites. Swiss meringue uses less butter and granulated sugar rather than powdered sugar. It’s also considerably less sweet so it may be more appropriate for those not fond of sweet buttercream.
Ingredients In American Buttercream:
- Butter-I use salted butter in my buttercream because honestly, I don’t like buying two kinds of butter. I don’t find that the salt content varies enough in my butter for me to notice. If you prefer using unsalted butter, add a pinch of fine grained salt to the recipe. Why do we use butter? Because butter melts at 90-95 degrees F (just a little lower than body temp) so it creates a nice mouthfeel to the buttercream.
- Powdered Sugar–Powdered sugar is refined down to a more “powdery” consistency. Besides confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar is sometimes called “icing sugar”. Nothing like having several names to make it a little more confusing! In the U.S., powdered sugar is mixed with 3% cornstarch to prevent the sugar from clumping. Powdered sugar is the kind of sugar we typically use in frostings and whipped creams because it blends in nicely and doesn’t have a grainy texture.
- Vanilla Extract-you can also use vanilla bean paste instead of vanilla extract if you like the look of vanilla bean flecks in your frosting (like I did for my carrot cake). Some people prefer to use imitation clear vanilla extract, especially if they’re making a pure white frosting, but I find using white food coloring fixes any discoloration from the vanilla and the butter.
- Water-I use water to thin my buttercream because I make cakes for a lot of people who can’t tolerate milk very well. Also, using water to thin your buttercream means you can keep your buttercream at room temperature for multiple days. If you’d rather use milk, sub out the water and use the same amount of milk to thin. For a fluffier frosting, use heavy cream or whipping cream instead of the water
How To Thin Buttercream:
Thinning buttercream is easy. Simply add, 1 tablespoon at a time, water, milk, or heavy cream to your buttercream. Beat thoroughly in between each addition.
Remember: if you are adding food coloring, especially a lot of food coloring (I’m looking at you red), your buttercream will be thinned out and you may not need as much water. I like to add my food coloring before I finish adding my water.
How To Thicken Buttercream:
Whoops, you added to much water to your buttercream. Happens to the best of us, not a huge deal. The main thing to remember is that your buttercream is pretty much 4 parts powdered sugar to 1 part softened butter. So, if you simply add in more powdered sugar to thicken it up, it will become off balance and too sweet.
What do you do? Add in both. If your buttercream is just a LITTLE too thin, a bit of extra powdered sugar won’t hurt but if you find you need to add in more than 1/2 cup of additional powdered sugar to thicken it, also add in more butter. How much butter? 1/4 the amount of the powdered sugar. Example: you need to add in 1 cup more powdered sugar, also add in 1/4 cup more softened butter.
How To Fix “Broken” Buttercream:
What does broken buttercream even mean? Sometimes, when your butter is too warm, it can “break” the buttercream which means your buttercream is a grainy, lumpy, greasy mess rather than smooth and creamy. What happened? Well, butter is an emulsion and when it gets too warm the emulsion breaks and the fat and water separate from each other. (Remember, an emulsion is a fancy science word for when 2 ingredients that don’t typically mix, combine together).
How do we fix it? First, chill your buttercream for about 20 minutes in the fridge to firm that butter back up. Then, beat it on high speed for 2-3 minutes to beat that emulsion back into place.
Tips For Success:
- Use softened butter–softened butter provides structure to finished baked goods. Too melty and your buttercream will have a lumpy “broken” appearance and texture and too firm and your buttercream will have literal lumps of butter because it won’t incorporate into the powdered sugar. The correct temperature for softened butter is between 65-67 degrees Fahrenheit which in regular people speak means when you press your finger into it and it makes a dent but doesn’t squish (cause really, who is taking the temperature of their butter). Check out my post on how to soften butter quickly if you’re inclined to forget to take your butter out of the fridge before you need it.
- Beat your powdered sugar in SLOWLY-especially if you use a stand mixer. Keep your mixer on the lowest speed possible and slowly pour in your powdered sugar. My nephew showed me that if you turn off your stand mixer, put a scoop of powdered sugar in, then turn it back on, it doesn’t poof as much. I like to live on the wild side so I keep it going but on low speed.
- Add your water 1 tablespoon at a time-I am forever wanting to add my water in all at once, but let me tell you, it is far easier to thin buttercream than to thicken it.
- Use white food coloring-not strictly necessary but it’s a secret that I learned working in a commercial kitchen. White food coloring gives you a pure white base to work with so your colors won’t be affected by a yellow tint. It also means you don’t have to worry about using clear vanilla extract. You can see in the above photos how a little white food coloring really makes a difference.
- Use your paddle attachment-if you’re using a stand mixer. The paddle attachment mixes everything without including excess air like the whisk attachment would. Eliminating excess air makes it easier to smooth your buttercream when frosting your cake.
How To Store Buttercream:
- At room temperature: if you use salted butter, your buttercream can sit at room temperature for a week or two.
- In the fridge: tightly covered you can keep your buttercream in the fridge for up to a month. To use: allow to sit at room temperature a couple hours and then beat until smooth.
- In the freezer: place in a freezer safe container or bag and you can freeze buttercream up to 6 months. To use: allow to sit at room temperature for a few hours then beat until smooth.
- 2 cups butter softened
- 8 cups powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup water
- If using a stand mixer, fit with paddle attachment.
- Beat butter until smooth and creamy.
- Add in vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
- Bring mixer speed down to low. SLOWLY pour in powdered sugar and beat until smooth. If you do not listen to me about the slow part, you are going to have a big mess in your kitchen.
- The mixture is going to get thick. With the mixer still running, add water 1 tablespoon at a time to thin it out to desired consistency. Don’t put too much water in at once-you can’t take it out.How do you know what your desired consistency is? Honestly, practice, but I like my buttercream to be easy to stir with a spoon but if you stick the spoon in the frosting it won’t just tip over.