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
The recipes for my favorite vanilla and chocolate buttercreams frostings are included in the following book:
Smooth Buttercream Cake Frosting
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I use a high-ratio shortening from a bakery supply store, which I understand to be the trans fat variety, like lard, which was the original shortening. I live in SW Florida with 99% humidity year-round, so I always use shortening in my cakes and frostings. Never liked the 100% shortening buttercream, so I use 2/3 butter and 1/3 shortening. I have also used cream of tartar to make a “high humidity” buttercream.
I’ve never heard of using cream of tartar to make a “high humidity” buttercream, but it sure sounds like something I could use. Would you explain how you use the cream of tartar, perhaps give a recipe? Thank you very much for this tip!
Jane, I’m uncertain about the accuracy of Free’s statement above so I’m going to weigh in on it.
Cream of tartar is often used in buttercream frosting but not for the reasons described above. As an acidic powder, it is often paired with sugar during the cooking process to help prevent crystallization, which turns the sugar syrup grainy, which in turn makes buttercream grainy. Cream of tartar can also be paired with egg whites since the acid helps them whip to the highest possible volume. For both of those reasons, we see it appear most often in buttercream recipes that involve combining whipped egg whites with soft ball sugar syrup. The most common examples are Swiss or Italian meringue.
I can’t think of a scientific reason why cream of tartar would help combat the affects of humidity on a buttercream. Acid, in that case, would only benefit the recipe by lowering the pH of the frosting, which would add a safeguard against the growth of bacteria. However this would be more easily achieved by simply adding lemon or an equivalent kind of acid that has the added benefit of imparting tasty flavor.
Disclaimer: I am not a chemist, so the extent of my knowledge ends here.
I do agree with Free that using all or some high-ratio shortening in a buttercream recipe results in a more robust buttercream when it comes to tolerating heat and humidity.
I’m trying to make a pound cake, Could I substitute the shorting for butter or do I have to use shorting?
I do not recommend omitting butter in a pound cake if you want it to taste homemade. It’s a key ingredient. Shortening just doesn’t have that butter taste.
I’ve used margarine in my pound cake and it tasted fine.
I have been using all butter for a few years now. I used to use 3/4 butter with 1/4 shortening, but all butter doesn’t leave the greasy feeling in your mouth. I’m so glad I found your site and will be a go to for tips and tutorials.
Very nice information.
Just foUnd you…thanks for all the good information. Im making my first batch of frosting soon, and didn’t want to use shortening.
Years ago, my mom and I were in our favorite bakery, deciding which goodie to have when a woman,clearly not from the area, asked for the calorie count on something. The response:
“We use real sugar, real butter and real eggs. If you want to count calories, the supermarket is down the road.”
The only question I have is how do you make a white, (possible traditional, wedding cake).. I have used a half butter , half shortening icing before and with just half butter it wasnt white, so I opted for all shortening with butter flavoring to get the white. Im not completly happy with any icing recipes ive found, the consitency is there but not the taste, so im def gonna try this all butter recipe (fingers crossed) but I did wonder about the color and also the sweetness as stated before in some one elses post.i feel like the more shortening in my recipe the more it cut the sweetness and also the grittiness ive found in my icings,, do you taste any gritiness with the all butter recipe? Thanks hopefully I dont seem negative toward all butter..I havent found my perfect recipe so I am def gonna try this all butter just ?s after my long road of trial and error..
I have made pure white wedding cakes while working in bakeries that used commercial fondant or non-dairy whip (like whipped cream but more synthetic). Both of those finishes were as white as can be. When it comes to all-butter or real white chocolate, you always have that yellow tone to make a more ivory finish. You can whiten up a yellow frosting with titanium dioxide. I have seen but not tried the trick of adding a tiny bit of purple to neutralize the yellow tone.
There is zero grittiness in my buttercream frosting recipes because of the way that it’s processed.
I definitely prefer the taste of real butter buttercream. Can you tell me what the shelf life is of real butter buttercream? How long can a cake be left out on the counter in an air conditioned room? How long will it last in the refrigerator? Thanks!
My all-butter buttercream lasts for 7-10 days at room temperature and for 1-2 months in the refrigerator. How long it lasts seems to depend on the freshness of the butter. Here in the US, our dairy products are highly processed to give the butter a longer shelf life so if you are using a farm fresh butter, keep in mind that the shelf life may be as short as 4-5 days. For longer term storage, you can also freeze it.
A cake covered in all natural buttercream can sit out in an air conditioned room for hours. As long as the cake was cold to begin with, it will remain somewhat cold on the surface for quite a while. If the room is 65 degrees F, that buttercream should hold well. However I prefer to rotate cakes in and out of the fridge during the decoration phase so that they never completely thaw out or end up sitting out for too long. Big cakes take longer to get soft than small cakes because they have a larger core, which insulates the cake. Smaller cakes will start to get soft in a shorter amount of time.
When it comes down to the displaying cakes at the event itself, they need to be able to sit out for up to 3-4 hours and using this buttercream, they are still okay. I prefer to let them come to room temperature before serving anyway because cake tastes much better when it’s soft.
Thank you! This is just the information I’ve been looking for. Can you clarify what you do when you are not in an air conditioned room at 65 degrees, but a warmer room instead? Or outside on a warmer day? Thanks again!
In warmer climates, it helps to work at night after the sun has gone down. There are some things you can do during the day to prevent the heat from getting in like closing windows in the morning and pulling shades to keep the sun out. A few hours before frosting, turn the refrigerator temperature down because you will be opening and closing that door a lot. Keep the cakes up top in the fridge where it’s coldest and move all the food down below so it doesn’t get frosty. Allow the cakes some extra time to chill between each stage of handling.
I only ever worked at one bakery with air conditioning. All the rest of them were HOT during the summers, so I assure you it is possible to operate in a warm kitchen (except with modeling chocolate – that needs a cool environment). The key is to hustle.
Makes sense! So do you take any precautions at the event itself if it is warmer there? Or will starting with the cold cake avoid any problems? I guess I’m wondering if having the cake out at a party in a room that is warm with people would cause any problems with the buttercream. Thank you!
It’s okay if a cake gets a little worn out-looking on a super hot day. No one is going to judge that! Starting out with it cold helps a lot. That will buy a couple extra hours of time. Just make sure to put the cake in the coolest possible place FAR away from sunlight.
This is the first post I came across that suggests all butter icing for cakes.I am planning to make a cake shaped of an animal that requires froating /decorating. The Wilton pan suggested using veg shortening and butter for butter cream icing using diffent tips to decorate the animal. Initially I was worried as I do not want to feed my child veg shortening which initiated my search for an alternative method. My question is if I use this all butter recipe for piping do you think it would keep up? I plan to make the cake on the same day and store in a cake box in the refrigerator will that work? or would I need a different recipe for a “stiffer” icing? your help is greatly appreciated.
You make a good point that all-butter buttercream is more challenging to pipe with because it gets softer from the heat of your hand. Shortening-based frosting does make piping easier since shortening doesn’t melt at body temperature so you don’t have to worry about softening. Nevertheless, I still stick with the all-butter stuff and do what it takes to make it work.
I often use parchment paper cones for piping, and with that method, my hand makes less contact with the frosting reservoir in the cone, so I find that works well. When using larger piping bags with tips and couplers, I make a point not to hold onto the bag any longer than I have to. Any time I’m not piping, I put the bag down. I also don’t fill it up very much; instead I put just enough frosting as is needed in the bag. First, that allows for more control while piping and second, that prevents the whole supply from getting soft before I’ve had a chance to use it. It’s important to pipe rather swiftly with this type of frosting.
It always helps to finish a cake one day in advance so that it has time to set up before you transport it or put it on display for a party but I understand this is not always possible. If you plan to make a cake and eat it on the same day, start early and make sure your fridge is nice and cold. If the box is very thick, allow it to vent so the cold air can get in. You can also put some metal sheet pans into the fridge a few hours before the cake is done so they get nice and cold. If you set the cake on top of them, they will help cool it down faster and if you transport the cake on top of them, they will act like ice packs.
can i use butter instead of shortening while making the chocolate for peanut butter cups?
Yes, absolutely. I have only ever used butter for making peanut butter cups.
Just an interesting fact: Crisco was invented as a cheap way to make soap and candles. Not something I want to ingest. And btw, many people are fearful of butter because they think saturated fat is bad for us. It isn’t, but rancid, industrialized oils are. It is such a pleasure to see a baker who enjoys working with REAL ingredients.
Yes! Thanks for this. I can see we are on the same page.
OH!! you are so correct about butter! The jello/crisco/mushroom soup recipes of the fifties still dominate the baking of many. Having never or rarely tasted butter in a baked good, they have no idea what a difference it makes. If you’re going to spend the time, money and calories to bake, use the butter!
You are so right! Butter is the best. Yes, it does soften easily but your technique of “in-and-our-of–the-fridge” while smoothing works.
Thanks for all the good advice. I love your book.
I usually use a combo of butter and shortening for my American buttercream. I love butter. There is a picture of me standing butt naked in the fridge eating a stick of butter (i was two). My family had a dairy for the majority of my childhood so I grew up eating real butter. I don’t know why but, to me, all butter buttercream tastes sweeter than the shortening kinds. I have found that I can add more sugar, thus making it thicker, to the shortening based buttercream compared to all butter. Of course shortening has none of the great taste that butter has so I use 1-2 parts butter to 2-3 parts shortening depending on the weather. I currently use shortening with 1 trans fat because the hi ratio shortening is so expensive. It costs more than butter! At my cake supply
Hooray for butter!! Thanks Kristen!