A Guide to Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Let’s talk about buttercream.  You may instantly think of good old American buttercream, the stuff with loads of powdered sugar in it.  That’s what I was used to for a long time, and I was really picky about frostings because of it.  I hated how the taste of powdered sugar would overpower the flavors of the cake it was on, and especially wasn’t a fan of the sugary crust that would form on the outside of it.  To me that stuff tastes like instant cavities!  Don’t get me wrong; American buttercream has its place, and I do use it as a base for frostings that have a heavy amount of peanut butter, cookie butter, or chocolate in them (they keep it silkier and less crusty).

But a few years ago, my sister Anna introduced me to the world of meringue buttercreams, and we have been smitten ever since!  As the name suggests, they have an egg-white base, making them thick and fluffy without adding a whole bag of white powder to the mix (no powdered sugar to be found in this recipe, folks!).  They are buttery, just sweet enough, light as air, and my absolute favorite thing to frost my cakes with.  After trying a couple variations, I found that the Swiss version was my favorite to make and that’s what I have stuck to.

A lot of people are intimidated by meringue, and I was no different the first time I made it.  But at this point I’ve made every mistake in the book, and I’ve learned that this frosting is SO forgiving!  I have never had to throw out a batch before, and I can’t say that about many other foods.  So I wanted to create an FAQ list and throw in some of my best tips and tricks to help you conquer your fears of Swiss meringue!  Let’s get into it.

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You want to start out with a super clean, heat proof bowl (glass or metal) and whisk.  You want your equipment to be completely clean and free of any leftover fat (butter, oil, egg yolks, etc.), otherwise the mixture may not whip up correctly.  Speaking of butter, make sure yours is still in the fridge.  We don’t want it to get too soft!  Combine the egg whites and sugar (two of only three ingredients!) in your bowl.  I like to use pasteurized egg whites to save time, plus I don’t have to worry about checking the temperature to make sure any bacteria from the raw egg whites (Salmonella, I’m lookin at you) gets killed off.  Just do whatever you’re most comfortable with.

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Now you’re going to create a double boiler by bringing 1-2 inches of water to a boil in a small/medium saucepan, and setting the bowl on top.  This allows the warmth of the steam to cook the mixture gently, so you don’t want the bottom of the bowl to actually be in the water.  Whisk the mixture continually as it warms, helping the sugar to dissolve.  Continue to heat the egg mixture until it reaches 150 degrees F on a candy thermometer, and is warm, smooth and no longer grainy between your fingers (when using pasteurized egg whites, the finger test alone is sufficient).

Remove the bowl from the stove and place on a stand mixer with the whisk attachment (you can also use a hand mixer or a whisk if you’re looking for an intense arm workout).  Start beating the meringue on medium-low speed, gradually working up to medium-high speed (about an 8 on a Kitchen Aid mixer).  At this point, move the unsalted butter from the fridge to the counter and let it come to room temp. Let the mixture beat (about 20 min) until glossy peaks form and the bottom of the bowl is room temp to the touch (Note: The temperature of the mixture is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! Let it whip until it’s completely cooled).

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Now it’s time for the butter to make an appearance!  Reduce the speed to medium-low, and begin adding the room temp butter one tablespoon at a time (butter shouldn’t be too soft, and should be as close to the temperature of the meringue as possible). To quickly soften very cold butter, microwave on DEFROST for 5 second increments, turning and making sure it keeps its shape.

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Once all of the butter is incorporated, the buttercream should be light and fluffy.  At this point you can flavor it and add any food colorings (I highly recommend using gel!).

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Voila!  You’ve got the fluffiest, creamiest frosting around.  At this point I like to beat it with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon to smooth it out and deflate some of the big air pockets.  This helps it look smoother and cleaner as you’re frosting your cake.

Thanks for reading!  I hope this has been helpful and you give SMB a try!  I would love to hear about your experiences making (and eating) it!

FAQs:

My buttercream deflated when I added the butter, and now it looks like soup!  Is it ruined?

Don’t worry, this has definitely happened to me!  This means the butter and/or the meringue was too warm when you combined them, giving it a wet, soupy appearance.  To fix it, simply place it in the fridge for 10 minutes or so to help it cool down, then begin to whip it again on a low speed.  It may take several minutes or more than one try, but eventually it will come back together!

I added the butter, and now my buttercream looks weird and curdled like cottage cheese! Should I throw it out?

I know it looks gross now, but there is still hope!  This occurs when the butter is colder than the meringue, keeping it from smoothly incorporating together.  Basically, the butter gets chunky and the meringue gets soupy.  Nice, right?  To fix this, you need to let it sit for 10 minutes or so to help it reach room temp.  Begin whipping it on low speed, and it will eventually come back together.  It may take some time and patience, but it will get there!

How do I know when my butter is room temperature?

This depends on several environmental factors: How warm is your kitchen, and how cold is your butter?  In the summer, when the oven’s on, or even in the winter when the heat is cranked up, I find that less is more with the time I take to defrost my butter.  Likewise, when it’s cold in my house, I may need to give my butter a little extra time to sit out, or even pop it in the microwave on defrost for a second.  If my butter has been in the freezer, I know it will need to sit out longer than if it was in the fridge.  Your butter is ready to go when it is still firm/not greasy but slightly pliable to the touch.  It should still be cool, but easy to cut with a butter knife. (Side note: I use this as a rule of thumb for all my baking, including cookies.)

How do I know when my meringue is room temperature?

The bottom of your bowl will be the warmest because it was directly over the steam, so you want to check it periodically to see how it is cooling.  Touch the bottom of the bowl and compare it to the side of the bowl.  Do this until you don’t feel any more warmth.  My best advice for you is to have patience; give it plenty of time to cool.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Print

A light, silky, meringue-based buttercream.


Credit: sprinklesandsuch.com

Ingredients

  • 3 cups unsalted butter (6 sticks)
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 10 egg whites (about 2 cups/300 g)
  • *For a small or semi-naked cake, half recipe: 3 sticks butter, 1 1/4 cup sugar, 5 egg whites/1 cup/150 g

Directions

  1. In a heat proof bowl (glass or metal) combine egg whites and sugar. Create a double boiler by bringing 1-2 inches of water to a boil in a small/medium saucepan, and setting the bowl on top. You don’t want the bottom of the bowl to be in the water, just the steam. Whisk the mixture continually as it warms, helping the sugar to dissolve. Make sure both the bowl and whisk are completely clean and free of any leftover fat (butter, oil, egg yolks, etc.), otherwise the mixture may not whip up correctly. Continue to heat the egg mixture until it reaches 150 degrees F on a candy thermometer, and is warm, smooth and no longer grainy between your fingers (when using pasteurized egg whites, the finger test alone is sufficient).
  2. Remove the bowl from the stove and place on a stand mixer with the whisk attachment (you can also use a hand mixer or a whisk, but let’s just say it will be a really good workout!). Start beating the meringue on medium-low speed, gradually working up to medium-high speed (about an 8 on a Kitchen Aid mixer). At this point, move the unsalted butter from the fridge to the counter and let it come to room temp. Let the mixture beat (about 20 min) until glossy peaks form and the bottom of the bowl is room temp to the touch (Note: The temperature of the mixture is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! Let it whip until it’s completely cooled).
  3. Reduce the speed to medium-low, and begin adding the room temp butter one tablespoon at a time (butter shouldn’t be too soft, and should be as close to the temperature of the meringue as possible). To quickly soften very cold butter, microwave on DEFROST for 5 second increments, turning and making sure it keeps its shape.
  4. Once all of the butter is incorporated, the buttercream should be light and fluffy. It is now ready for coloring and flavoring.

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