Monday, June 20, 2011

Swiss Buttercream (dairy-free, refined sugar free)

A short while ago, I was making these:Pounds upon pounds of rich buttercream was made, with much care, in my kitchen. Some was eaten, for quality control of course :), some was slathered on some wedding cake, and eventually some of it found it's way to my hips :) I do miss me some rich creamy buttercream. I have never been an icing girl, well that is until culinary school. My goal for my own frostings was simply that they tasted like ice cream :) I attempted to improve upon a swiss buttercream recipe I learned in school to make it taste like ice cream. And I succeeded. However, I suceeded with butter and white, refined sugar: two things I no longer eat.

So my journey began to make a dairy-free, refined sugar-free version of Swiss Buttercream. Hopefully, this recipe is just the first of many more like it. I would love to bring you recipes of light whipped healthier goodness!

I have been working some ideas for a new buttercream for a while; however, Iris of The Daily Dietribe recently issued a gluten-free birthday cake challenge. I love a good challenge. And for me making this dairy-free, refined sugar-free frosting was a ton of fun, but also quite challenging! I ran into several snafoos- so be sure to read the tips below. Don't let this recipe intimidate, it is actually quite simple if you follow it exactly.

First, here are some things about Buttercreams:
  • Most use the term "buttercream" to mean a variety of frostings- from shorening and powdered confectioners sugar to meringe and butter based frostings.

  • For the meringue-based frostings, there are three basic types, in order of stability:

    o French, which is egg yolks (not cooked) whipped with a fine sugar into a meringue and then with a sugar syrup that has been heated to at least 235 degrees is slowly added to the full meringue, then butter or shortening is added in. This buttercream is the least stable, and melts at the lowest temps so it is not ideal for wedding cakes and decorating. (this French section has been edited after a reader pointed out and oversight on my part)

    o Swiss (this recipe), which is egg whites and sugar cooked over a water bath and then whipped, butter or shortening is added in once cooled.

    o Italian, which is pasteurized egg whites and a small amount of sugar whipped to stiff peaks. Then a sugar syrup that has reached at least 235 degrees is slowly added. Then the shortening or butter is added in once the meringue cools. This is the most stable of all buttercream frostings and is ideal for a hot-day wedding!

  • If you get any kind of cake that is pre-decorated with frosting from a store (except Whole Foods- I checked), you will be most likely getting shortening with some form of hydrogenation as an ingredient. This means that the melting point of that fat in your store-bought frosting is most likely 100+ degrees F. I'll let that sink in while I remind you that your body's temperature stays at a cool 98.6 degree F. Eww. Not only is it harder on your body to break down something that it cannot even melt, but it coats your tongue and taste-buds so that you can't taste the goodness of what you are eating!
Now, on to the frosting de l'heur, which has no hydrogenated anything in it :)

Swiss Buttercream (with Chocolate Variation)

Dairy-free and Refined Sugar-free
Yields enough to frost 1 double layer 8" or 9"cake

Ingredients and Materials
  • 3 oz. egg whites (about three egg's whites)
  • 3 oz of grade B maple syrup (4.5 Tbsp)
  • 3 oz sifted coconut sugar (sifted before measuring to get out larger granules, about 1/4 cup)
  • 8 oz Spectrum Organics Palm Shortening, room temperature (1 cup)
  • (For Chocolate Buttercream) add 1-2 Tbsp melted bittersweet chocolate
  • small pot filled 1" full of water
  • Digital food thermometer or candy thermometer
  • Stand mixer (if you can only use a hand mixer, your arm may get pretty tired- but go for it if you like :)
  • Heat the pot full of water over high heat on stove top until simmering and then cut down to low- this will be the base of your water bath.
  • In the bowl that goes with your stand mixer (as long as it is stainless steel or glass-most are- if not, use a heat-safe bowl), whisk together the egg whites, maple syrup, and sifted coconut sugar.
  • Heat over your water bath, whisking frequently, until the mixture reaches 160F (be careful to not go higher) and the sugar is all dissolved. (yes, you might have to stick your fingers in the gooey egg white and sugar mixture for best results :)
  • Place on stand mixer and slowly turn speed to high and whip until stiff peaks are formed like this:
  • Keep whipping on medium speed until the mixture is fully cooled.
  • Then piece in the shortening by 1 Tbsp at a time while it is whipping on medium speed. The mixture will somewhat curdle and deflate a bit at this point- don't be afraid- keep mixing in the shortening.
  • Once all shortening is incorporated, turn mixer back up to high and mix until you get an aerated fluffy mixture.
  • Optional: you can add 1-2 Tbsp of melted, but cooled- not too hot, bittersweet chocolate at this point to make it a chocolate frosting.
  • Below is a sneak peek for tomorrow's Birthday Cake Challenge Post :)
  • Make sure your shortening is right at room temperature- this will help it emulsify better with the meringue.
  • If you get any fat at all in your whites- it won't whip. If you don't think you did, but just to be sure, you can add a small amount of cream of tartar to the whites/sugar mixture just before whipping into the meringue.
  • Also make sure the coconut sugar completely dissolves when cooking over the water bath. If not, your buttercream will have an undesirable grainy texture.
  • This icing does have an interesting maple flavor. If that's not your thing you can try with all coconut sugar; however, I have had mixed results with this. Also more viscous liquid sweeteners like honey and brown rice syrup do not work well because they weigh down the whites preventing a full meringue.
  • After you add in the shortening and begin to whip it back up, it takes a while 10-15 minutes. If you feel like it has been too long (which depending on the humidity and temp of your kitchen this can happen), walk away and get a relaxing drink and then come back and check on it :) I sometimes stand over the mixture nervously thinking- maybe this time will be the time it won't whip up. Trust me- it does come to life :) If you feel like it has been way, way too long- try adding another Tbsp or two of shortening.
This post has been linked up to:
Slightly Indulgent Tuesdays @ Simply Sugar and Gluten Free


  1. You're so right about buttercream. I make an agave based buttercream with real butter, of course. Love it. It's for very special occasions only. :)

    Thanks for linking up to SIT! Would love to share next week but I don't see a link back to the page. Can you add one? Thanks!

    Amy @ Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free

  2. Yes, buttercream is definitely a special occasion treat :) I'm trying not to enjoy it too much so I stuck the cake in the freezer for the time being!

  3. I think I once tried to make an italian buttercream and it was a HUGE fail because I used margarine (ick) and I didn't wait until it was cool. I think the fat started separating out after a while and it was pretty gross. I'm glad this version works out much better and is much better for you!

  4. Hey there, great post. I just wanted to mention that while a French meringue is egg whites whipped with sugar, the French Buttercream is made just like Italian Meringue buttercream, but with yolks instead of whites, so it is cooked, and is much richer. Adding butter to a french meringue will break it and turn it into a soupy oily mess.

    Happy baking!

  5. Sarah, thanks for catching that. At first I was intending on talking about the meringue bases- thus the incomplete "French" section. You are right. I actually wasn't aware of the yolks as I have never made French buttercream, myself. Learned about in school, but never made so I was a bit rusty on that one :)

    And Bean, usually margarine is not a great "fat" to add to a meringue based buttercream because it is too liquid in nature (made mostly of oils). It won't emulsify well- I think you really need butter or shortening. I wish it worked with Earth Balance because then at least it would have a nice buttery flavor. Maybe adding some butter extract could fix that!

  6. I had no idea Italian Meringue Buttercream was better for hot weather than SMBC--so glad I found your post! So I came here because I was looking for a butter-free SMBC, but now that I've read your post do you think the shortening would work in an IMBC?

    Also, I just made a batch of SMBC with Earth Balance butter-flavored sticks and it emulsified nicely. (However I did use white sugar; maybe that made a difference?)

  7. Evil Cake Lady (love that name :)- Italian is the more stable because of the higher temps of the sugar syrup (the closer to caramelizing- the more stable the meringue, thus more stable the entire buttercream). Yes, the shortening (palm or other) would most definately work with an Italian BC. So glad Earth Balance worked for you with using reg. sugar. It might work with another granulated sugar alternative (like sucanant/ evap cane, or coconut sugar). I have not had much luck with this recipe and Earth Balance- but I would rather have that buttery flavor!

  8. Eryn, thank you so much for your prompt and very educational response! I'm doing a friend's wedding cake at the end of the month and your post and information couldn't have come at a better time!

  9. Hi Eryn. How far in advance can this frosting be made? Thanks!

  10. Hillary M- the frosting can be made to sit out at room temp up to 2 days ahead (you still may have to rewhip a little before spreading on your cake). You can also make it up to 1 week ahead of time and store in refrigerator (or several weeks ahead if going to freeze), but you will have to let it come to room temp first (very important), and then re-whip some volume back into it. Let me know how it goes!

  11. Hi Eryn,

    Thank you so much for posting a recipe for a non-American "buttercream" that is dairy-free! I was a little intimidated by the seemingly complicated instructions at first, but I made it today and I think it came out well. I used sucanat instead of coconut sugar, as that is what I had on hand, and of course that added a slight molasses flavor, but it worked well for my taste.

    I do have one little thing to pick your brain about though: The only part I still am not sure if I got right was the very end. Everything went as planned through the curdling/deflating upon addition of the Spectrum shortening, but then after that I whipped it for probably around 20 minutes and was never really SURE it was the right "aerated fluffy" consistency to stop. Eventually I just decided it looked OK and stopped the mixer because it had been so long, but I guess I was expecting its volume to kick up noticably at some point and that didn't really happen. The temp in my kitchen is about 77 degrees F and our central air is on so it should be rather dry. Any hints you could give me for knowing when it's truly done? Is it possible to overmix it? Do you have any photos of the finished frosting still in the mixing bowl? I'm not really an experienced baker, so any help you could give me would be great!

    Thanks again so much for posting this! I recently had to stop eating a number of food groups and it's been a challenge to satisfy my sweet tooth with these restrictions. Much appreciated! -Meredith

    1. Meredith, So glad you tried it, and I commend you for making it through a somewhat complicated recipe! Yes, I do have a pic a cake I made with this icing here ( on the blog. It's not in the bowl though so I will address that too. First, it can take a while in a kitchen in the mid 70s to whip up. My kitchen gets almost to 80 sometimes so I have to throw the entire bowl with the whip attachment into the refrigerator for about 30 minutes sometimes. The heat from the mixer (motor) going for a while can keep the icing too hot to whip back up. Second, the volume of the icing will not be the volume of what the whipped egg whites and sugar was. It's more like the finished volume is about what the goupey mess once you add the shortening is- but what you are more concerned about is the thickness. The consistency should be "pipeable", as in if you put it in a piping bag or ran a knife through the icing in the bowl, it would not run back over on itself. It is kind of deceiving when you whip up all the whites and sugar to such a high volume and then it decreases a bit when you add the fat/ shortening. And third, it is very important that the sugar/ egg whites mixture reaches around 160 degrees in that early step because that will help stabilize the icing to be able to whip up later to that thickness.

      Hope all that helps and so glad you found the recipe! Good luck with your changes, I know that can be a HUGE challenge at first :)

  12. Totally a late post but just found this and looks like what I would like to try for my son's second birthday party. I read through your comments about how long it stores at room temperature and if put in refrigerator that you should re whip it. I was wondering though if once the cake is already made and frosted can and should it be stored in the refrigerator?His birthday is 23rd but celebrating with family on Christmas so wanted to split it into 2 small cakes for him to have each date.

    Also do you think coconut oil could be substituted for the palm shortening? I've used it in a frosting before but don't know if that would mess up the whole whipping of this one. Hope you see this in time but thanks so much for what looks like a great recipe. Thanks!

    1. Erin- so sorry I just now saw your comment. Hope your son's birthday celebrations went well! I know it's probably too late, but here are my answers for future ref :) If the cake is already iced it should be stored in the refrigerator and will be just fine. The re-whipping of the icing (stored in refrigerator) is to make it spreadable and emulsified again if any parts have separated. Also, I don't believe coconut oil would work since it is far less stable than palm shortening.

  13. Hi! I'm using this frosting recipe for a wedding cake and was wondering if you had any tips when applicating it to the cake? I've had a terrible time getting the frosting smooth (and the more I mess with it, the more it begins to separate). Any advice?

    1. Great question! Sometimes buttercream will separate, especially if it has been refrigerated, as different ingredients (fats and liquids) will change form at different temps. So sometimes when it comes back to room temp, or if it has been sitting out a while, it can begin to separate. The best thing to do when this happens is to re-whip it. What is already on the cake- just leave as a crumb-coat and re-whip the rest to have a smooth coat to go on top. The frosting may take several minutes to emulsify and come back together in a stand mixer with whipped attachment. Tip: once you are finished with the cake, store entire cake in refrigerator under a tupperware-type dome :)

  14. Hi, I'm trying to make your mocha birthday cake and I got confused about the frosting. Everything looked healthy and great in that recipe, but here it looks like that in order to frost it I need to use sugar and raw eggs? Is there any other way to make icing that doesn't involve those ingredients? I come from a country where you can't risk to eat uncooked eggs. Thank you!

    1. Valeria Nechaeva,
      You are actually pasteurizing the eggs in this recipe :) When you heat them over a water bath with the sugars to 160 degrees F, you heat it to a safe temperature to eat, killing pathogenic bacteria but not curdling the egg whites.


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