While working as a pastry chef here in the U.S., I’ve noticed that many Americans prefer shortening-based cake frosting over real buttercream.
Probably because it’s what’s used in supermarket cakes, it’s in the center of so many cream-filled goodies, and is the basis of the frosting-in-a-tub that you can buy at a grocery store, shortening-based products, for many, is a household staple.
However, let’s explore the question: Is shortening the best choice for buttercream cake frosting? Or not?
Why Bakeries Use Shortening
Besides being cheaper (up to 1/3rd the price less) than butter, shortening also has a longer shelf life and is more a more stable ingredient, able to be stored in a bucket at room temperature for weeks/months/even years without spoiling. When it comes to cake frosting, shortening whips up to a fluffier volume and is better at withstanding heat. In fact, this type of frosting usually doesn’t even require refrigeration. It’s also bright white so you can achieve any colors with it.
The Drawbacks of Shortening
The word “shortening” does not mean the same that it did 150 years ago. Back then, it meant lard, a natural animal fat. Then it meant margarine, a synthesized vegetable fat. Now it means hydrogenated vegetable oil, another kind of synthesized fat that is proven to cause heart disease. Shortening is one of those ingredients that you use at your own risk or at the risk of whomever eats your baked goods.
Some people complain of shortening-based frostings being “too sweet.” Since shortening does not melt at body temperature, when it gets inside the mouth, it coats the palate and clings there for a while. That can result in an undesirable cloying sensation. Sometimes the solution to complaints of a frosting being “too sweet” is not to tinker with the sugar but rather to switch from using shortening to butter. Or to not use buttercream at all but instead, chocolate glaze.
The Benefits of Butter
Although it’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, butter has been proven to be healthier to consume than shortening and margarine. Butter not only has a pleasing taste but it melts at body temperature so it has an appealing mouth feel too.
Because butter is soft at room temperature and hard when cold, a cake can be frosted, chilled, then smoothed using the blade of a bench scraper or metal spatula. My preferred technique for finishing buttercream-frosted wedding cakes involves using a bench scraper, a turntable, and a few rests in the fridge. In the end, I scrape off excess buttercream until the surface is smooth.
Why Butter is More Challenging
Butter is a perishable food item that is far more sensitive to heat and cold than shortening. Because it contains water, it expands when frozen and contracts when warmed, which can cause a cake to crack if it transitions from one temperature extreme to another too quickly. Whenever dealing with a genuine buttercream cake, make sure that the transitions from hot-to-cold or from cold-to-hot happen as gradually as possible to prevent fissures. Here are some tips on how to freeze/thaw a cake before frosting.
Buttercream Frosting Recipes
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