To my surprise, there is a controversy raging over whether buttercream frosting must be refrigerated. If it must be, I have been guilty of breaking that rule since the age of 5 when my sister’s mother-in-law taught me to make her version of chocolate buttercream frosting. Since then, that has been my go-to recipe for yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting, which happens to be my favorite dessert.
Buttercream frosting does not need to be refrigerated. Even though it contains butter and milk or cream, the small amounts used are rendered stable when added to a pound of confectioner’s sugar. The exceptions are frosting with egg, cream cheese, or meringue powder which must be refrigerated.
Just to be clear, here is a more detailed list of the versions of buttercream frosting that require refrigeration:
- Buttercream Frosting with cream cheese/Must be refrigerated within 2 hours of frosting.
- Royal Icing made with powdered sugar, meringue powder, and water/Must be refrigerated within 2 hours of frosting.
- French Buttercream Frosting adds egg yolks to the recipe/Must be refrigerated within 2 hours of frosting.
- Swiss and Italian Buttercream Frostings add egg whites to the recipe/Must be refrigerated within 2 hours of frosting.
Now let’s explore the subject in greater detail.
How Long Does Buttercream Frosting Last Before and After Being Spread on a Cake?
How long buttercream frosting lasts depends to a great extent on the ingredients and how it is stored.
Here are recommendations for how long buttercream frosting lasts before and after spreading on a cake, with refrigeration and without:
- The most common type made with confectioners sugar, butter, and milk or cream: If you make it before it is needed, it lasts 3 or 4 days in a covered container when refrigerated; if made the day before used, it isn’t necessary to refrigerate; after being spread on a cake, the cake and its frosting will be good for 3 to 4 days unrefrigerated and up to a week in the refrigerator.
- If the frosting is made with cream cheese rather than butter, the frosting and the frosted cake must be refrigerated as soon as possible after being frosted and will last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
- If the frosting is made with eggs, the frosting and the frosted cake must be refrigerated as soon as possible after being frosted and will last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
How to Tell If Buttercream Frosting Has Gone Bad
The two best and most common ways to tell if buttercream frosting has gone bad are:
- The frosting begins to separate and will soak into the cake, making it soggy.
- The cake will probably go bad before the frosting, and you will start to see mold growing.
What makes certain types go bad faster are mainly the ingredients and the method of storage. Frosting made with cream cheese or eggs will go bad quickly if not refrigerated. Also, cakes that are left uncovered for an extended period or placed in an area that comes in contact with direct sunlight or a heat source will not last very long.
Things That Help Buttercream Frosting Last Longer
To make cakes along with their frosting last longer, they can be refrigerated or at least kept in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight or a heat source. Buttercream frosting will last for a day or two unrefrigerated, and 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but there are a few things you can do to extend the life of the frosting before and after frosting the cake. Here are a few of those things:
- Refrigerate if not using right away.
- Store unused frosting in an airtight container to avoid airborne contamination. I really like to use containers designed to hold ice cream, like this one found on Amazon. They have a non-stick surface, are easy to get the frosting out of and clean up nicely.
- If there is any buttercream frosting left over after frosting the cake, it can be refrigerated for 3 or 4 days or frozen for up to 2 months.
- After the cake is frosted, store in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and.ny heat source.
- The knife or other utensil used to serve the cake should not be used with any other food to avoid cross-contamination.
What to Do If You Have Too Much Buttercream Frosting
In my opinion, there is no such thing as too much buttercream frosting as I just put any leftover frosting in an airtight container in the refrigerator and snack on it until it is gone. But, if you make a lot extra, here are some ways to use it:
- Refrigerate for several days if you are planning to make another cake or cupcakes.
- Freeze up to 2 months for use at a later time.
- Make another cake or cupcakes as a gift to family or friends.
Types of Buttercream Frosting That Would Not Be Safe to Ever Leave Unrefrigerated
Basic American-style buttercream frosting made from confectioners sugar, butter, vanilla (or another flavoring), and a small amount of milk or cream will be good for up to 3 or 4 days after spreading on a cake.
On the other hand, versions of the recipe which include cream cheese or eggs should be refrigerated within 2 hours of making or spreading on the cake as those ingredients will remain good only for a short time without refrigeration.
Can You Make Buttercream Ahead of Time?
Buttercream frosting can definitely be made ahead of time. Buttercream has the best taste and consistency on the day it is mixed, but if you have time constraints, make it ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap and leave it out at room temperature, as long as it isn’t too hot. Stir to bring it back to the right consistency right before you use it.
If you need to make buttercream even earlier, you’ll want to refrigerate or freeze it. It can be refrigerated for 3 or 4 days and frozen for up to 2 months.
Can You Refrigerate Buttercream?
You can refrigerate buttercream, but don’t refrigerate it if you’re going to be using it for a complicated cake decorating project as it is always easier to work with and tastes best when fresh. But do go ahead and refrigerate any leftover buttercream to use later for other projects.
Just be sure to cover it with plastic wrap or place it in an airtight container, position it on a shelf in the refrigerator away from any highly fragrant foods such as onions or seafood, and leave it for up to one week. When you’re ready to use it, give it time to come to room temperature, add some extra liquid if needed, and mix it to a spreadable consistency with a spoon or electric mixer.
Can Buttercream Frosting Be Frozen?
Yes, buttercream frosting can be frozen for up to 2 months in an airtight container to avoid cross-contamination with other food. When ready to use it, move the frozen frosting from the freezer to the refrigerator at least 24 hours before using it and then allow it to sit at room temperature at least 2 hours before spreading. When completely thawed, just stir by hand or with an electric mixer adding a little milk if necessary to bring it back to the right consistency to spread.
Interesting Facts About Frosted Cakes
- Frosting was originally called icing because the sugar granules resembled ice crystals.
- One of the forerunners of the frosted cake was made in England as early as the 1500s and 1600s and was known in various areas as the Marchpane, the Marchpaine, or the Marzipan. It was a thin layer of cake made of sugar, finely ground almonds, and some sort of liquid, possibly rosewater, formed into a circle with a raised rim, baked over hot coals, and then covered with a mixture of fine sugar and rosewater and baked again until it rose high.
- Although we consider Marzipan to be only a decoration, the Tudors made it as a separate dish, decorated it with dried fruits, edible balls, sprinkles, and cookie cutters, and used it as a table centerpiece.
- History tells us that the first frosted, multi-layered cake was made by a French chef in the 1600s.
- The first wedding cake appeared in the 1700s, but Queen Victoria of England is given credit for designing in 1840 the multi-tiered wedding cake that we make today.
- Cupcakes were introduced to America in 1919 by Little Debbies, but the first frosted cupcakes were made in the 1950s.
Versions of Buttercream Frosting
Just What is Buttercream Frosting
Buttercream Frosting, in its basic form, is a combination of fat, milk, and confectioners’ sugar. While this basic form is delicious and easy to make, most people add some sort of flavoring, which can be vanilla extract, lemon extract or lemon juice, almond extract, cocoa, and an unlimited number of other flavors.
This basic recipe would look like this:
- 1 stick of butter or margarine, melted or at room temperature
- 1 lb confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- ¼ cup of milk
Combine melted butter or margarine with confectioners’ sugar and add milk to reach the desired consistency for spreading.
The most popular recipes are like this one:
- ¼ lb butter or margarine, melted or at room temperature
- 1 lb confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Combine melted butter or margarine with confectioners’ sugar and add milk to reach the desired consistency to spread. Mix by hand until there are no lumps, and the frosting is smooth. Add vanilla extract, stir well, and spread on any flavor cake.
Here are some variations to the basic recipe:
- Add a tablespoon of cocoa and 2 tablespoons of brewed coffee to make a chocolate mocha frosting. (This is delicious on a yellow, white, or chocolate cake and is the version I learned as a child.);
- Add 1 cup of coconut with the vanilla extract for a coconut frosting and be sure to garnish the top of the cake with extra coconut after it is frosted for a beautiful cake;
- Add ¼ cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice instead of the vanilla extract for a tasty lemon frosting;
- Add ½ teaspoon of almond extract in addition to the vanilla extract and spread this frosting on a cake made with a spice cake mix such as Duncan Hinds or Betty Crocker for a superb tasting cake that is out of the ordinary.
- Heavy cream or any type of milk, including almond milk, can be substituted for milk in this recipe. I’ve used reconstituted dry milk, evaporated milk, 2%, whole milk, and whipping cream. All versions work very well, although the taste may change slightly, especially with the almond milk.
Can Granulated Sugar Be Used Instead of Powdered Sugar
Granulated sugar cannot be substituted for powdered sugar in buttercream frosting because of the difference in texture. The granules in granulated sugar will not dissolve completely and will result in a grainy texture and a slightly crunchy frosting. Most frostings that are made with granulated sugar are cooked and contain more liquid than a buttercream frosting. Only use granulated sugar if your recipe calls for it.
Should I Use Salted or Unsalted Butter
Although I use whatever kind of butter I have on hand, usually salted, many cooks prefer using unsalted butter for all their baking projects and their frostings. The amount of salt in butter varies from brand to brand, making it difficult to know just how much salt the butter will add, so unsalted butter allows the cook much more control over the amount of salt in their food. But, I’ve never had any issues with butter adding too much salt and only use unsalted butter when the recipe specifically calls for it.
I always use salted butter in my buttercream frosting and have never had any issues with it, especially since no salt is added to the buttercream frosting recipe.
What Can I do if My Buttercream Frosting Separates?
If your buttercream frosting is separating before being spread on the cake, chances are you haven’t put in enough powdered sugar. Just stir in a little powdered sugar at the time until it reaches the right consistency.
Should I Use Butter, Margarine, or Shortening in My Buttercream Frosting?
Whether you use butter, margarine, or shortening in your buttercream frosting is a matter of taste. Many people like butter because of its rich flavor. But, there are advantages to each. Shortening changes the consistency just a little and makes the frosting easier to spread and better for piping. But, margarine makes a delicious frosting that is much more cost-effective than using butter.
What Kind of Buttercream Is Best for Piping?
Making the frosting a little thicker by adding more powdered sugar and using margarine or shortening instead of butter will result in a firmer frosting that is easier to work with.
When Should I Add Food Coloring to My Buttercream?
It is best to wait until the frosting is finished before adding food coloring because it is hard to judge the color until all the ingredients have been added.
What If My Buttercream Frosting Is Too Thick or Thin?
If your frosting is too thick, add a little more of the liquid you are using, whether it is milk, cream, or some kind of juice. If it is too thin, add more confectioners’ sugar, just a little at a time, until you have the right consistency. This type of frosting gives you a lot of latitude for adjusting ingredients as needed.
Whichever recipe you use to make your buttercream frosting, keep in mind that most cakes do not require refrigeration. Still, if your frosting recipe contains eggs or cream cheese, it requires refrigeration as soon after it is frosted as possible.
The basic buttercream frosting recipe shown above is one of the most versatile methods I know, not only can the flavors be adjusted, but the mixing of the frosting can also be adjusted. While most recipes call for an electric mixer to be used to make the frosting smoother and fluffier, I always mix it by hand. Although this method takes longer and will result in a heavier frosting (and gives your arm a workout), I prefer the taste that results from hand mixing.
This frosting and all its variations can be spread on layer cakes, sheet cakes, bundt cakes, and cupcakes, or any other kind of cake you can think of.
While this recipe can be adjusted to become any flavor, you wish to make. The versions I have included in this article are the ones I have personally made, but that is not to say they are the only versions possible. Use your imagination. The sky is the limit!