There’s a reason I’ve held out for as long as I have on the subject of buttercream: it’s an almost impossibly broad topic. There are a gazillion different recipes for buttercream out there, and each one, it seems, has a professional baker or cake maker standing behind it proclaiming it’s the best. Me, I’m not qualified to pass judgement in these types of contests because, as I’ve said, I mostly just eat cakes. I put them together and enrobe them in buttercream, but I don’t decorate them…or at least not well. Cake decorating is its own art form to my mind, a sub-specialty of the baking world in the same way that sugar sculptors are a sub-specialty of pastry departments. A very devoted, might even say obsessive, group of people that create astounding edible craft pieces.
I’m not one of them, though I have made my share of buttercream over the years—up to forty quarts of the stuff at a time. I’m by no means and expert in all iterations of it, but I think I can demonstrate the basics of each to you.
Buttercreams come in four basic types, at least the way I was taught. There’s Italian meringue buttercream (so-called “IMBC” by those in “the business”), the closely related Swiss meringue buttercream (SMBC) and French buttercream (which some people may refer to as FBC, though I’ve never heard anyone call it that). This is the family of what one might think of as “traditional” buttercreams. All are rather ingenious methods for incorporating sugar into fat to create a fluffy, spreadable frosting — and because they all call for preparing eggs and sugar syrups just-so, they’re frequently the buttercreams that most people have trouble with.
The last group of buttercreams are usually lumped under the heading “American” buttercreams and are typically rather simple mix-and-spread types of affairs that combine butter with things like shortening, cream cheese and/or powdered sugar. These are the buttercreams I’ve made the most but enjoy the least…oh, the irony. If I can I’ll make a batch of each one of the four since, well, my stocks are low and buttercreams usually freeze pretty well. Then again I may go bankrupt buying butter before I’m through. Let’s give it a try and see how long the money holds out, shall we?