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I broke my buttercream.

Broken Buttercream

Hi, my name is Lindsay, and I have a fear of cooked sugar.

This time, the results were disastrous.

Take 1: Cooking the sugar syrup, as per the instructions for this White Chocolate Mousseline Buttercream. Darn pan seizes up on me, goes rock hard before I can even get it out the pan. I’m sure I had a stray sugar crystal in there somewhere, but geez! Does it have to be so hard?

Take 2: Trying Alton Brown’s trick, and added a bit of corn syrup to the sugar mixture to keep it from crystallizing. However, our candy thermometer was too slow and the sugar syrup was too shallow in the pan to get an accurate read on it. I let it boil for a little while, but to stir? Not to stir? I stirred it. And probably took it off too early. But after my first attempt, I didn’t want to chance it doing that again.

Take 2 seemed to be going well. My egg whites whipped up beautifully with the sugar syrup, and most of butter went in without a hitch. But then, all of a sudden, well, you see what happened. It was a downhill slope from there, the more I mixed it to try to fix it the worse it got. I whipped that stuff for a good 5 minutes after it curdled, to no avail. Hopeless. Into the trash it went.

Take 3: Screw cooked sugar. These cupcakes need frosting, and frosting they will get. But there will be no cooking of anything involved. In goes the butter and tofutti cream cheese. In goes the powdered sugar. White chocolate. Vanilla. Voila. Buttercream.

So, somebody please tell me what went wrong? Was it the corn syrup? Did I take the syrup off the heat too soon? Did I not let the egg/sugar mixture cool completely? Am I just a dunce? While the American Buttercream is easy, these cupcakes I made last night would taste so much better without the sickeningly sweet frosting, I’m just not sure that perfect frosting is worth this amount of trouble.

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17 CommentsLeave a Comment →

  1. 1
    Posted On December 14, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Oh, Lindsay this sucks! Cooking sugar is a fear of mine! I hate when the buttercream curdles. I hate wasting things and losing cups of sugar and cups of butter makes me want to cry… I had my buttercream curdle once, and I thought that beating it a little more would help, but I think I had gone past the point of no return. But I’ve had AMAZING results with martha’s swiss meringue buttercream. The frosting is silky smooth, soft, and not overly sweet. You cook the egg whites with the sugar, after its warm you whip it up, then add butter. Voila! No corns syrup needed.

    Reply

  2. 2
    Shane
    Posted On December 14, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Lindsay,

    I’m a culinary student and have had the same complications as you. The recipe for traditional buttercream that we use here at school calls for italian meringue. That being, sugar and water being cooked to soft ball stage or 238 degrees F. (to make sure there are no sugar crystals on the side of the pot, use a pastry brush soaked with water to wash down the sides) The hot sugar is then added into egg whites that are already about half way whipped up (keep the mixer on while adding the sugar). The meringue is then whipped to stiff peaks. After that, cool (not completely cold) butter is whipped in gradually. It helps to have the butter cut into small cubes. The reason why your buttercream seamed to ‘curdle’, or break, is because the mixture got too cold. In order to fix it, heat up the bowl with the buttercream on top of the stove (directly above the flame making sure not to burn yourself) for a few seconds until the mixture melts slightly. After that, continue whipping. Your problem should be solved! You can refrigerate the buttercream mixture for about a week. When the time comes to use it, scoop some out and put it back into your metal mixing bowl. Once again you will need to heat it back up over the stove to slightly melt it. Then whip it until its soft. If its too hard, dont be afraid to ’1-2-3′ it over the flame again.
    The reason for cooking the sugar to 238 degrees F and then adding it to the eggs is to make sure they ‘safe’ for consumption as well as to slightly aid in the denaturation of the egg whites so they whip up. Adding a little bit of tartaric acid (cream of tartar) will also keep the meringue more stable. If this recipe is followed, you dont need corn syrup (which is just an invert sugar that helps prevent unwanted re-crystallization of sugars).

    Here is the recipe:

    Sugar 3 lb.
    Water 1 lb.
    Egg white 1 ½ pt.
    Butter 5 ½ lb.

    This recipe will make a lot of icing. You should consider scaling it down :)

    I hope this helps!

    Reply

  3. 3
    Posted On December 15, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Thank you both for those suggestions!

    Amanda – I have done the Swiss Buttercream (see: Chai Latte Cupcakes from a few weeks back), and it was lovely. I had commented in that post that it seemed a bit unstable, and someone else suggested I try this buttercream instead. But I agree with you about wasting ingredients, I hate it! At least this happened *before* I dumped 4oz. of good white chocolate into it!

    Shane – Wow! Thank you for all of that! Interesting that my mixture might have been too cold, I assumed the opposite. If I give this another try, and god forbid it should curdle again, I’ll surely try warming it back up. Now I just need to get a better candy thermometer…

    Reply

  4. 4
    monica
    Posted On December 16, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I’ve made a similar buttercream to the one Amanda is referring to. The egg whites, sugar, vanilla & cream of tartar are cooked in a bowl over a boiling pot of water til the sugar is dissolved, while mixing the whole time. Once that’s done I transfer to the bowl of a standing mixer & whip up in the standing mixer til it’s soft white peaks are formed, then add the butter in small amounts, bit by bit until it’s blended. if it becomes grainy, I just keep mixing and has always come back together for me. I’ve also added cocoa powder to it for flavor instead of melted chocolate. tastes good to me. everyone loves it.

    Reply

  5. 5
    Posted On December 17, 2008 at 5:25 am

    If you want an easy life but don’t want it to be ‘sickenly sweet’ then why not just use your tried and true method but with less powdered sugar? If you’re not cooking the buttercream it will work just as well if you sugar to taste. You can even not use sugar at all but you’d probably prefer the results with some.

    Reply

  6. 6
    Posted On December 17, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Hey, thanks for posting your results. I’ve been scared to try making a “cooked” buttercream and the comments you’ve received have helped inspire me to go ahead and try it.
    ~ingrid

    Reply

  7. 7
    Posted On December 30, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    I broke my buttercream on Christmas and Fu-REAKED! But after some googling…i found a saving post that said to just KEEP ON BEATING and that it would fix itself. Guess what? I kept on beating and it DID!!! It righted that most icky frosting wrong and was SOOO yummy! Good luck! xo

    Reply

  8. 8
    Charlie
    Posted On January 31, 2009 at 2:11 am

    What Monica is talking about is a Swiss buttercream, The egg whites are mixed with sugar and then cooked over hot water while stirring. After this is heated to the correct temperature, the whole thing is beaten till the Swiss meringue is formed and cooled, and then the butter is incorporated.

    Your attempt was Italian Buttercream, where you use a sugar syrup heated to soft-ball stage to cook the egg whites. Soft ball is about 238, but this changes with altitude and humidity. Just get a spoon and a small cup of cold water. When you think the syrup is about at the right temp., use the spoon to get a small amount of syrup and dip it in the cold water, then try and roll it between your fingers. Too cool, and the syrup will simply dissolve in the water. Just right, and you will be able to form a soft ball with the sugar. It will feel sort of like a dried ball of rubber cement. Too hot, and it will form a hard ball, that resists being smooshed. I find the old fashioned method the easiest to measure the temp. on a small amount of syrup, and you don’t have to worry about the thermometer not heating fast enough. Also, don’t worry about the small amount of syrup you will loose testing, it shouldn’t even be a teaspoon’s worth.

    What Shane said about heating the buttercream should solve your problem, but I would be a little worried about using an open flame. It might work when you are dealing with 10 lbs. of frosting, but I would stick with a bowl of very warm tap-water for a small amount of buttercream.

    Good luck in the future. Take a half-hour just to boil some sugar and try to gauge the heat using the ball test. You can use a thermometer to check yourself. A little time and a few cents worth of sugar will cure that fear of sugar syrup forever, and, you will never need a candy thermometer again.

    Also, if you don’t like super-sweet desserts, check out Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible.” Fool-proof recipes, good explanation of the science of frostings, and some really great ideas for additions to buttercreams. You will never ever again think of getting powdered sugar anywhere near a cake, unless it’s just to dust the top.

    Reply

  9. 9
    Posted On February 28, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Hi, I have yet another tip to add to the others, when my IMBC looks like it’s about to curdle, I take a thick kitchen towel, soak it water as I hot as I can stand and then wrap it around the bowl while I keep beating….it works perfectly!

    If you’d like a step by step demo, here is where I learned to make my very first batch of IMBC:

    http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=87490

    Reply

  10. 10
    emma
    Posted On July 25, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    thanks guys – I was losing it on a batch of buttercream and grabbed my laptop – 2 minutes over a pot of boiling water and it is like glass again. I was about to throw it out and start over. Now I am just waiting for it to cool back down so I can spread it! Next time I will go for the baking towel trick right away -cause I saw it happening and made it worse – assuming my butter was too cold!

    Reply

  11. 11
    Bryan
    Posted On March 24, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I was able to fix my curdled buttercream by just beating it on high until it was smooth. I know that it doesn’t work every time, but I was lucky today =P

    Reply

  12. 12
    judy
    Posted On April 17, 2010 at 2:37 am

    Hey. When I was at the CIA and some dude messed up the buttercream, all you have to do is take a blow torch adn heat up the bottom of the metal bowl and whip it. It worked. Maybe you should a put it over open flame.

    Reply

  13. 13
    Posted On September 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    I am such a rookie evidently that I’ve never even heard of cooked buttercream before! Now that I have though, watch out. I must try it.

    Reply

  14. 14
    Jia
    Posted On June 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Oh goodness. I read this in a tizzy after breaking my cooked frosting. I had nothing to lose by heating the frosting so I scraped it off my ugly (fuzzy navel-flavored) cake, and put it over an open flame. It worked! I bow down to the masters of buttercream

    Reply

  15. 15
    Steve Troilo
    Posted On November 19, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Thought Id add my 2 pennies. Its all about temp, well almost. If your adding a puree to flavor its possible that the puree can separate from the butter. It will act just like a curdled buttercream but no amount of beating it will bring it together. Example: I had a strawberry swiss meringue buttercream was perfect the night before. Next day, I went to rewhip, I like to use a torch to heat up the sides of my bowl while the kitchen aid does the work. It looked curdled, but a little different. The buttercream was seperate from the puree. I added a stick and a half more butter and wa la. Pulled right back together. Other than that its all temp, I use ice packs (or frozen peas) to wrap my bowl when too warm and soupy, and the torch when I need heat.

    Reply

  16. 16
    Ashleigh
    Posted On August 23, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Thank You SOOO much, tried a swiss buttercream, no amount of beating fixed it then I read the comment to heat it up a bit, did so it turned out beautifully smooth and creamy I owe you guys some cupcakes!

    Reply

  17. 17
    Stephanie
    Posted On August 23, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Wow wow wow! I have made IMBC before and it never broke. My IMBC broke on me twice. (I threw out the first batch thinking I had done something wrong. ) When the second batch failed, I found this post. Life saver!!! My brother’s wedding is tomorrow and I don’t have time to re-think the frosting. I would never have thought to heat the bowl. Thank you!!!

    Reply

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