Mixing and matching cakes with frostings is one of the most creative and fun aspects of home baking. And to do it properly, you must know the characteristics of each type of frosting.
But how sweet is a meringue buttercream? And what, exactly, is ganache? Frostings and buttercreams are different in their ingredients, the way they’re mixed, and their final texture, all of which could be considerations when you’re determining which frosting you’d like to pair with your cake.
Here’s a cheat sheet for common types of frostings and buttercreams, so you can choose the best partner for your cake.
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American buttercream is basically regular old frosting—a timeless fluffy combination of butter and sugar. Confectioners' sugar is the best choice because it thickens the frosting, eliminating the need for eggs, and—owing to its superfine texture—provides stability without the grit. We add a little heavy cream for an ultracreamy consistency you can't get from butter and sugar alone. This is typically the sweetest frosting option.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Swiss meringue buttercream is less sweet than most frostings, and it's also one of the easiest buttercreams to make. It starts with a cooked egg-white meringue, to which you gradually add softened butter—and lots of it—until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Its ultrasatiny texture makes it an elegant and decadent option.
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French buttercream is also a moderately sweet, butter-packed frosting. It's richer than Swiss meringue buttercream because its egg base is egg yolks rather than whites. Pouring a hot sugar syrup over the yolks ensures they are cooked to a safe temperature. Then, as with a Swiss meringue buttercream, a generous amount of softened butter is whipped in.
German buttercream starts out like American buttercream—butter is beaten until light and fluffy—but then an egg-based pastry cream (that has already been cooked and cooled) is added. The custard contributes a super-creamy texture for a soft, light buttercream that, while rich, isn't overwhelming. We fill layers of our Chocolate-Espresso Dacquoise with a German buttercream.
Seven-minute frosting is the frosting for you if you like marshmallows or meringues. This frosting is playful, simple, and sweet; and since it doesn't contain butter, it isn't very rich. Although the egg white base requires cooking, the frosting is easy to prepare, taking just 7 minutes to whip up (hence the name). The sticky frosting looks particularly nice in swirls and billows.
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Ganache is simply a decadent, truffle-like mixture of melted chocolate and cream. Depending on the amount of cream used, ganache can be a pourable glaze (like in our Chocolate-Raspberry Torte recipe), a fudgy filling (like in our Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes with Ganache Filling recipe), or a whipped frosting (like in our Chocolate Sheet Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting recipe), making it a versatile option.
Whipped cream is all that's needed for rustic cakes or those that are particularly rich, such as Rich and Tender Shortcakes with Strawberries and Whipped Cream or Cast Iron Hot Fudge Pudding Cake. When whipped cream is being used in place of frosting, we prefer to make it in the food processor. Whereas whipping cream in a stand mixer produces light, billowy peaks, the sharp, fast-moving blades of a food processor can't add as much air. The result is whipped cream with a denser, creamier consistency that's ideal for spreading over a cake; it can also be piped on to make a decorative edge.
And because the smaller air bubbles created by the food processor are more stable than the bigger bubbles created by a stand mixer, we've found that processed cream keeps its thick, dense texture for two full weeks.