Monday, 23 September 2013

Fresh Buttercream vs Instant Icing

Last weekend, I was teaching at the Cake and Bake Show at Earls Court. In between classes I had a chance to have a bit of a wander, trying my best to dodge the crowds and see if there were any new sugarcrafting tools on the market.

What I noticed was the increase in instant cake products, whether it was boxed cake mixes or canned / packet cupcake icing. I had seen these products advertised on the TV, however I thought that they still lived in the same realm as Microwavable Hamburgers, ie that everyone sees them but no-one actually buys them.

Rather than just being the target for bakers' ridicule, those things were actually selling! Big names such as Renshaw, Dr Oetker & Betty Crocker all had huge stands at the show, and lots of their instant cupcake icing was flying off the shelves.

The classes that I was teaching were on buttercream piping techniques, and I always like to offer the chance to attendees to ask questions as well as tell me any issues they have when they bake at home. During my final class I went slightly off-piste and asked the 50 class attendees if any of them had ever used ready-made cupcake icing. About a quarter of them timidly raised their hands. When I asked them what had prompted them to go for the ready-made icing, the answers were the same; It is easier, it is quicker, it is not as messy as making buttercream from scratch.

When I asked the same question on Twitter & Facebook earlier today, those feelings were echoed by some. People often also voice the issues that they have when making/piping buttercream, explaining that they will buy the ready made icing as a back up and then resort to using that once their own buttercream gets the better of them. These replies were thankfully the minority, with many more saying that they much preferred home-made buttercream for a variety of reasons.

In the words of a Queen Cupcake Blogger, the canned Cupcake Icing that she was sent for reviewing purposes was "like coloured lard". Instant Icing is not kept in the refrigerated section of the store, rather it is found on the shelf with all of the other baking items. As a result, there is no butter in it. After looking on google for the ingredients of a popular canned option, some of those listed are glucose syrup, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, polygycerol esters of fatty acids, salt, thickener, hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose, potassium sorbate, citric acid and lastly Nitrogen as the propellant for the can. Sounds delicious, right?!

I don't doubt that it is quicker to buy a readymade pack from the store, and yes, making buttercream can be messy but it is surely far better to put a fresh product on your cupcakes than one that includes all those nasties listed above. Producing your own treats from scratch also gives you a certain satisfaction, so I will list a few tips and tricks below that will make it easier for you to make your own rather than buy the canned stuff.

1. Make sure you use real butter, ie the stuff that comes in a block. In the Crumbs Couture kitchen we use Lurpak unsalted butter. If your butter is soft, the icing sugar will incorporate better. If you forget to get this out before you start baking to allow it to come to room temperature, never fear! Do not microwave it, simply grate it into your bowl using a cheese grater. This will turn it into little slivers of butter, increasing its surface area, which will make it soften faster as well as give the sugar more to stick to!

2. Add your icing sugar in stages, rather than all at once. Even if you are using a stand mixer or a handheld electric mixer, start by mixing your icing sugar and butter with a wooden spoon. This will allow it to incorporate & come together before you really blitz it, meaning you will avoid the cloud of icing sugar that puts so many home bakers off making their own buttercream! Once it has all come together, then you can start mixing it at high speed. If you are using a stand mixer pop a tea towel over your machine to contain any left over unmixed sugar.

3. To make your buttercream a bit smoother, add milk. If your kitchen is very warm and your buttercream is curdling, add more icing sugar by the tablespoon until it has recovered. Adjusting the milk vs sugar ratio allows you to adjust the consistency. Do not add more butter than your recipe states.

4. Once you start piping your buttercream, do not decant it all at one time. Depending on the size of your buttercream portion, use it in parts, making sure to mix each batch again before you use it. This way you can make sure that even the buttercream you pipe last will be just as smooth as that which you pipe first. If you leave it to stand, if you get to it after 15 to 20 minutes, it will stiffen, making it harder to pipe.

5. If you invest in reusable piping bags and good quality star / round nozzles, it will be a cheap way to decorate your cupcakes and cakes. Making the actual buttercream yourself is much cheaper than buying it in a can or snippable packet. When you make it yourself it is much easier to adjust it for your own needs, such as adding flavourings or colours.

6. If you wash your utensils as soon as your cupcakes go in the oven, and start making your buttercream immediately, you should be well on your way by the time the cupcakes are done, so your frosting can be used once the cupcakes have cooled. When you think your buttercream is done, mix it for another 5 minutes. This will ensure it is super fluffy and easy to pipe.

7. My buttercream recipe is 1 part butter to 2 parts icing sugar with a tablespoon of milk for each 500g of sugar I use. I always use sifted icing sugar, if it is lumpy you will end up with clogged piping nozzles and uneven swirls. To decorate 24 cupcakes, I use 250g of unsalted butter, 500g of sifted icing sugar, a tablespoon of milk and then I add my flavouring / essences.

In the process of looking about on the web for info for this post, I was quite surprised to see that there are a few celebrity bakers out there who are endorsing ready-made icings in videos and blog posts. I, for one, would never encourage people to put additives on their cupcakes, and even the busiest of us can spare 10 extra minutes to whip up some real buttercream! For those of you who said the instant option is easier when you bake and decorate with your kids, I think the home made version is much more fun as well as better for your kids in terms of them not ingesting lots of E numbers.

Next time you are in the supermarket & feel tempted by the easy option of any product, turn it over and read what goes into it to make it last longer. I am sure you will put it back and wander to the aisles where you can buy the ingredients to do it yourself. After all, nothing tastes better than that feeling of satisfaction having made it yourself from scratch.


  1. I usually make a large batch of buttercream, use some on cupcakes or sponge sandwiches then freeze the leftovers for another day. That way you can also build up a stock of several flavours too. I tried a well known brand of "buttercream" in a can just for research. Not only did it taste disgusting, it was messy to use too. Never again!