Oh, buttercream frosting.
Now, most people think that “real” buttercream includes these ingredients: butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and maybe a little milk. It’s “real” because it uses butter instead of shortening. Only, it isn’t. That version is a “quick buttercream,” which is extremely high in sugar: usually 4 – 5 cups per cup (1/2 lb.) of butter! It makes a good decorator’s frosting because it can be stiff. But is it, in any way, “healthy?” Not a chance.
Real buttercream frosting is very different. It’s a cooked frosting made with beaten eggs (or sometimes just egg whites), a small amount of sugar, and butter. But it is truly delicious and has an amazing texture.
I’ve studied real buttercreams for a while. I even tried making some once, around 2002. I knew nothing about baking or cooking and tried to follow a recipe, only to end up with slightly sweetened butter. Now, a good buttercream is like that anyway, by its nature. But it should be more than that. I was disappointed and never used it.
I tried another recipe around Christmas in 2011. It was good, but not the best. I sampled a few from local bakeries. I knew I had to make a good one! I read every recipe I could get my hands on and tried to learn how and why they work. Eventually, I figured out what the goal was, method-wise. Then I went into the kitchen to create.
What came out was, in my opinion, the best buttercream ever. If you’ve only had powdered sugar frosting, it’s not like that at all. It’s smooth, buttery, sweet, and rich without overly sweet, gritty, or heavy frosting. You just have to try it. It’s amazing.
The best part? Per pound of butter (2 cups!), it uses less than 1 cup of sugar, yet is still plenty sweet! That’s 10% as much as your standard powdered sugar version. Not bad for a real food dessert. 🙂
Read the recipe carefully — several times. I’ll note all the tricky spots for me so that, hopefully, you can make it without problems. Then enjoy!
Refined-Sugar Free Vanilla Buttercream
- ¾ cup sucanat or organic cane sugar (you could use honey or maple syrup too — just follow the directions but skip the water)
- ¼ cup filtered water
- 2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks (room temperature)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 lb. unsalted butter (room temperature)
- 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- Large glass bowl (or stainless steel bowl from a stand mixer)
- Stand mixer or hand-held mixer with whisk attachment
- Small saucepan
- Candy thermometer
Step 1: Gather all your supplies now because you won’t have time to do it as this happens. The temperature of the eggs and butter is very important, so set them out ahead of time. A stand mixer will make this quite a bit easier, but it is possible to do it with a hand mixer — I did.
Step 2: In your saucepan, add your sugar and your water. I wanted a “pure” vanilla flavor, so I’m using organic cane sugar. I have used sucanat before, too, and it is yummy; it just adds a definite “flavor” to it. Attach your candy thermometer to the pot so it is in the sugar but not touching the bottom. Turn it on medium-high. Do not stir.
Step 3: Add your eggs and yolks to a large glass bowl and add a pinch of salt, maybe 1/8 tsp. If you like measuring. I don’t.
Step 4: While your sugar syrup is cooking, whip your eggs until they are thick, quadrupled in volume, and almost gelatinous — they should form very soft peaks, though because of the yolks, they will never be a “meringue.” This is okay.
Step 5: Continue heating syrup until it reaches 240ºF degrees (the “softball” stage). Watch the thermometer. This process took 15-20 minutes.
Step 6: Remove the candy thermometer when your sugar syrup reaches 240ºF. If using a stand mixer, turn it on low so it’s constantly beating the eggs. If not, grab your hand mixer in one hand and turn it on (in the eggs, please, so there’s no mess!) and grab the pot handle in the other hand. You will pour the hot sugar syrup down the side of the bowl.
Running it down the side lets it cool off slightly before hitting the eggs, making it less likely to cook them. It prevents it from splashing up and burning you. It also allows it to incorporate slowly.
Step 7: Beat the egg mixture constantly as you add the sugar syrup. It is cooking the egg proteins gently, making them fluffy. Once the sugar syrup is all in, the mixture should resemble marshmallows in taste and texture.
Step 8: I stopped my mixer just to taste it and play with it for a minute. 🙂 Keep beating it until the mixture is cooled down to room temperature — this should take less than five minutes. And it is important.
Step 9: Now, it’s time to add your butter. It must be room temperature and very soft. We are creating an emulsion here; if the ingredients are vastly different temperatures, it will not happen. It will fall apart into a soupy mess (which is possible, though annoying, to fix). If the egg mixture is too hot, it melts the butter and separates — put it in the fridge for a few minutes and resume beating. If the butter is too cold, it doesn’t incorporate well, and you have the same issue — place it over a pot of simmering water to heat it up and then keep beating. Or, make sure your ingredients are at the right temperature and skip all that. 🙂
Step 10: Add butter, a couple of tablespoons at a time. Your mixture will deflate and become very runny and strange-looking — that is normal. It will stay thin and odd-looking until you add the last 1/2 cup of butter. Then, suddenly, it will thicken and whip up nicely. Frosting!
Step 11: At this point, add your vanilla and mix again briefly. It’s done! Transfer to a glass storage dish and keep in the fridge for a week or so or in the freezer for a month or more. You must let it soften before you can frost a cake with it.
Store frosted cakes in the fridge or freezer. Try the chocolate cake I posted last week. I covered the outside of mine with sliced almonds!
What’s your favorite use for frosting?