UPDATE 1/14/14:

I am amazed and humbled that this post continues to get hundreds, some days thousands of hits per day.  Since I wrote this blog post, I have answered the same question a lot.  And when I say a lot, I mean probably over a thousand times…  “THIS TASTES LIKE BUTTER! I DON’T LIKE IT!.”  I don’t want to put you off me and I especially don’t want you to NOT try and make SMBC, but this is the very first thing I want you to read about Swiss Meringue Buttercream even if this is the first time you have ever heard of it, the first time you tried to research it, or even the first time you made it:

IT TASTES LIKE BUTTER BECAUSE IT’S SWEETENED BUTTER.  THE AMERICAN STYLE ICING YOU NORMALLY EAT IS EXTREMELY SWEET AND TASTES LIKE SUGAR BECAUSE IT’S SUGAR THAT HAS BUTTER/SHORTENING ADDED TO IT TO MAKE IT SMOOTH-ABLE. See the difference there?  If you are used to eating icing made from the recipe off the back if the powdered sugar box, SMBC will take getting used to because it doesn’t even come close to having the same amount of sugar in it.  I say in the below instructions to FLAVOR IT.  A LOT.  WITH A LOT OF FLAVOR.  One batch of this holds 1/2 a pound of melted chocolate or 1/2 pound of strawberry puree and will still be a smooth-able, workable buttercream.  You would never be able to add 1/2 pound of strawberries to flavor powered sugar type icing – it would be soup.  That’s why things like artificial emulsions or flavorings were invented so you can use 1/2 of a teaspoon of that “flavoring”, add it to your powdered sugar icing and it will not change consistency.  SMBC is the type of buttercream you use when you do not use artificial flavorings or emulsions and want to use the real thing.

If you’ve made this and didn’t add enough flavoring and though it was “too buttery”, I really encourage you to make this again.  Then, once you properly flavor it, PUT IT ON A CAKE.  Butter by itself is not something I can eat a teaspoon of.  Put that teaspoon on some warm, fresh baked sourdough bread and it’s one of my favorite things in the universe.  Unflavored SMBC is the same thing.  It’s my favorite thing to put on red velvet cake, hands down.  But ALL of my SMBC has a ton of real, natural, fresh flavoring in it.

Now with that, read on.  See additional notes at the bottom of the tutorial.  END UPDATE

I use Swiss meringue buttercream exclusively on my cakes unless a customer requests otherwise.  Some of you may ask, what is it?  Well, Swiss Meringue buttercream is simply… awesome.  But let me explain, it’s NOT the super sugary-sweet frosting you’ve probably been eating most of your life.  That’s called American Buttercream.  It’s what most bakeries, supermarkets and most cupcake stores that I’ve been to  (unless they advertise differently) ice their cakes with.  American Buttercream is generally made out of shortening and powdered sugar, so don’t ask me how they get away with calling it “butter”cream, since most of the time it contains no butter whatsoever.  Sometimes they will use 1/2 shortening and 1/2 butter, but especially the larger chain bakeries use what’s called high-ratio shortening (which can contain trans-fats, despite the recent California ban).  Some bakeries don’t even use real cream cheese in their cream cheese icing, they use cream cheese flavor.  American Buttercream does have several benefits, it is easy to handle because the outside dries to a “crust”.  It has a much higher melting point because of the shortening so it can withstand being in warmer climates.  It can hold all kinds of shapes like sharp petals on a piped rose and can be super white because Crisco is white and so is powdered sugar.  Powdered sugar also dyes really well so it can be made into all kinds of colors using cheap food coloring and can be airbrushed on because of the crust.  It has a year-long shelf life (if not made with any butter) so cakes can be made days in advance and sit on the bakery shelves waiting for you to buy it.  But most of all, it’s cheap and super easy for the bakery to make, making it really easy on the decorator.  But lets be honest, it’s super sweet, gritty from the powdered sugar, and leaves that weird film in your mouth (from the shortening).  I mean, I like it on occasion since I was raised on it too, but ever since I tasted European buttercreams I’ve never looked back.

On the flip side, the Europeans have their own distinct meringue buttercreams that they have been making since the 1600′s, and it does not involve powdered sugar or Crisco.  There are 3 basic types, Italian, French and Swiss.  All three involve melting sugar adding it to eggs, whipping it into a meringue, then adding butter once the meringue is cooled.  The result is a light and smooth and it’s not super sweet.  It’s never gritty and it never dries out crusty.  Top bakers and professionals use this gourmet buttercream exclusively, like Ron Ben-Israel, who is the IT decorator in NYC.

It does have some downsides: it has a very distinct finish to it when smoothed onto a cake, it will never be super white because I use organic sugar and real butter, and it has a lower melting point so if it’s warm out (75d+) it can melt.  It takes patience and technique to make and it is also is meant to be eaten fresh.  It does not have the year-long shelf life that American Buttercream can have.  Personally, I don’t call that a “bad” thing.  In fact, I think food that never spoils is not food I want to eat!

Today I want to share with the world my unique recipe and detailed way explaining how I make it, because again, if you are so inclined to make this yourself, then you deserve down-to-earth instructions on how you can do it!  But if not, you have my number ;D.

Recipe ingredients

Jennifer Bratko‘s Swiss Meringue Buttercream

6.25 oz egg whites (by weight, not liquid volume.  Could be 5 eggs, could be 7, for best results always weigh if you can).
7 oz sugar (or 1 cup)
pinch of salt
1 lb of unsalted fine quality butter, 72 degrees or warmer

In a medium saucepan, put about an inch of water and bring to a boil.  In the mixing bowl of your Kitchen Aid, put your egg whites, sugar and salt and lightly whisk.  Then put your mixing bowl over your pot of boiling water.  Like so:


You need to keep the eggs moving with your whisk to prevent scrambling them, but you want to get the temperature of the eggs up to 160 degrees.  “But Wait!”, you say, “I don’t have a candy thermometer! How do I know the temperature?””  Well, the sugar will dissolve at 140 degrees, and your eggs will start to really steam and get foamy by 160.  As long as you are in this range you are fine!  It generally takes me about 3 minutes for one batch to get to temperature.

Remove your bowl from the pot of boiling water and pop it onto your Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the whisk attachment.  Beat on high until stiff peaks form and the bowl is cool to the touch. This may take 10 minutes or more. “Uh, Jen, I only have a hand mixer, can I still make this?”  Why, yes you can!  It just might take a little longer and you have to stand there.  A stand mixer allows me to channel my inner Ronco and “Set it, and FORGET IT!”

This is important – you have to get STIFF PEAKS with your meringue.  Sometimes I’ll even let my meringue (gasp!) deflate a bit. It IS possible to have a cool bowl and only medium peaks… If you can’t scoop your meringue to one side of the bowl and have it stay put, then it’s not stiff enough.  So channel your inner Dore and “Just keep mixing, just keep mixing…”

Stiff peaks

OK, stiff peaks reached… now swap out to a paddle attachment and add your room temperature butter. Yeah, dump the whole pound in there, I won’t mind, and neither will your meringue.   Mix on LOW. Yes, LOW. Not medium low, not #2, but the lowest setting your mixer has. “But wait!”, you say, “I’ve been mixing for 3 whole minutes and it looks weird!”   Yes my friend, it’s gonna look curdled and soupy.  That is exactly what it’s supposed to look like!

Science, baby.  Science is happening.  This step can take up to 15 minutes because you are creating an emulsion with eggs + sugar (which you did over the stove), then sugar/eggs + butter.  But butter is generally 80% fat, 20% water, so the fat from your butter is going to emulsify FIRST with your sugar/eggs, leaving the water content to bond last. You can’t rush it, you just need to let those molecules bond and do their thing. DON’T crank your mixer up on high because you are impatient! It will eventually come together, but it’ll be mad at you.  You broke it (the meringue) so it’ll give you the finger.  When you allow science to do it’s thing, you should get about 5 cups of fluffy, silky, sexy buttercream.  BUT, if you rush it, it’ll taste like sweetened gobs of butter, will be really yellow and opaque looking, and give you a full cup less in volume.

TIP! If you can pick your pieces of butter up with your fingers and it’s still firm-ish, your butter is too cold and will take much longer to emulsify. So for perfect results make sure that butter was pulled out the night before and is nice and soft.

“But wait!”, you say, “I forgot to pull it out the night before!” Try grating your cold butter with a cheese grater to maximize surface area to warm it up. Then let it sit to warm up for as long as possible before use.

Once you have light, fluffy smooth finished buttercream, you can add a whole variety of flavorings, spirits, purees, and chocolate to it.

So there you have it!  I hope this makes it as clear as possible to get best results, please post your successes, failures, and feed back below.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE 1/14/14: I have made more sweetened versions of this by adding as much as 14 oz. of sugar for one batch.  If you make as written and you want more sweet, you can tweak it a bit and in this case, add more sugar and come up with your own recipe!