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Buttercream Basics

Updated: May 29, 2023

Cake decorating doesn't have to be overwhelming. And more importantly, pretty should still taste amazing. I don't believe in sacrificing taste for appearance. There is nothing worse than deciding you are going to splurge on a piece of cake and end up feeling like it was a complete waste of calories. I believe every bite should be decadent, and savored. I get so many questions related to cake decorating. Before you can jump into complicated designs, you need to learn to create a great foundation. As a self taught baker, I can say I have definitely learned most of what I know through trial and error. I'm still learning and hope I will continue to learn for years to come. The remainder of this post is dedicated to sharing the fundamentals of cake decorating with buttercream. I hope to inspire you to get creative.

In my last blog "baked from scratch", you learned how to ensure success when baking cake layers from scratch. The foundation of any great cake is well baked, moist cake layers. When cake decorating, I always start with frozen cake layers. You can use fresh cooled cake, but frozen layers create a firmness that makes decorating easier. For me, I plan ahead for the week and have a cake layers baking day. If you are just creating a single cake, you can bake a day before and freeze, or even the morning of and have placed your wrapped layers in the freezer for 1-2 hours prior to decorating. If you choose to not freeze, ensure your cake layers are completely cooled. Any warmth will melt your buttercream and make a mushy mess.

That brings us to the next most important ingredient for your cake decorating, Buttercream. You can find a buttercream recipe anywhere, and for the most part, they are all totally fine. I will add a couple options at the end of this blog for your reference. But you have to use butter, not margarine, and it must be a room temperature. Do not melt the butter. I leave mine on the counter for 1-2 hours prior to starting to get to room temperature. A little trick in case you forget to take out the butter.... (do not microwave). Pour boiling water into a glass or bowl large enough to cover the block of butter. Dump out and wipe down the glass or bowl, then place over the block of butter and allow the warmth to soften the butter. Room temperature butter is soft enough to create a indent with your finger but not so soft that it begins to melt.

Here is where my bias comes in. I use Swiss meringue buttercream over American buttercream. American buttercream is a little less fussy to make and where you might like to start if you are decorating for the first time. American buttercream has a sweeter and more granular consistency. I prefer the fluffy and less sweet consistency of Swiss meringue, but in my early days of decorating, I did use American buttercream. Whats the difference?

American buttercream is basically butter and icing sugar, with a little whipping cream, whipped to the desired consistency. Swiss meringue heats egg whites and sugar until sugar is dissolved, then whips to form stiff peaks before adding butter. This is where the fluffy, silky goodness comes from.

Next up is deciding if you are adding a filling between your cake layers or just buttercream. If choosing to add a filling, like a berry puree or lemon curd for example, you will need to create a dam. I put a thin layer of buttercream to cover the cake layer. Next, I fill a an icing bag with buttercream and pipe a dam around the outer rim of the cake. This creates a dam to prevent your filling from oozing out when you place the next layer of cake on top. The filling needs to be cool when doing this. If you filling is still warm, the buttercream will melt and you will have filling pouring out. Do not skip this step, trust me.

Now you are ready to coat the outside of the cake. Before you start, tools you will need include a turntable. An icing spatula. A scraper, and a pipping bag and tips. Gather these together and place your cake on a cake board on the turntable.

If you are just starting, here is a great basic kit to get you going.

I use a dollop of buttercream to secure the cake to the cake board, it will prevent it from slipping around. If you are wanting to add color to your buttercream, Set aside a portion of buttercream in a smaller bowl and add a few drops of your desired food coloring to the buttercream. Mix until you are happy with your color choice. I use Color Mill, as they provide great color without affecting the taste and texture of the buttercream.

Using your offset spatula, begin adding buttercream to the outer portion of the cake. Don't worry about getting it smooth right now. Work all around the cake layers to cover the cake with a generous portion of buttercream, including the top Once you have covered the cake, grab the scraper. Place the scraper vertically to the side of the cake and gradually turn the turntable while holding the scraper against the cake. Do not press firmly against the cake or you will scrape all the buttercream off. Hold firmly at a distance from the cake that allows for a layer of buttercream. This should yield a smooth consistent layer of buttercream. You may need to stop periodically and scrape off the excess buttercream from the scraper. This will take a little practice but keep at it and before you know it, you will be a pro. You may have to add a little buttercream to areas that have hollows and scrape again.

Here are the tools I use:

Once you have completed the scraping, you will have a cake with smooth sides and an uneven top. Take your offset spatula and start to smooth off the edges in a gentle motion towards the inside of the cake. Work your way all around the entire cake and level the buttercream. It takes practice to prefect this technique enough to get a crisp edge. Don't worry, you will get there. If you aren't getting the edge you desire, you can always pipe a border to cover up the edge that you aren't happy with.

Here is a great piping bag and tip starter set:

Now chill your buttercream covered cake and decide on your finishing design. A piping bag with several different tips will add options for a simple finish. Sprinkles are another easy but classic design choice. Fresh florals are also an easy and eye catching way to dress up a cake. Experiment with lots of design options. You can always scroll through pinterest for inspiration.

I do hope this has answered your basic cake decorating questions and inspires you to get started. Don't forget to show me you results. I look forward to seeing your progress. Tag me @gingerandspicecakery Stay tuned for the next blog release.

As Promised:

American Buttercream recipe

Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe

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