How to Make Perfect Italian Meringue Buttercream: Step-by-Step

Here are all the tips you need to make smooth, creamy Italian Meringue Buttercream, perfect for flawless cake frosting.
By Lindsey Farr

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In culinary school we made 5 different types of buttercream, but Italian Meringue Buttercream is my favorite! It has a lighter texture and taste than Swiss Meringue and German; it doesn’t taste like pure butter like French Buttercream; and it isn’t saccharine, tooth-achingly sweet like an American Buttercream.

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Over the past 2 months, I’ve made this buttercream a lot.

Italian meringue buttercream (IMB) seems complicated at first; it’s definitely the most sophisticated of its peers. Simply put, it is made by whipping egg whites to stiff peaks while simultaneously cooking sugar to the soft ball stage; you then slowly pour the sugar into the whipping egg whites; and, finally, add butter.

A whole lotta butter.

They don’t call it buttercream for nothin’.

I love this frosting because it is light and airy but simultaneously rich and creamy. It is also magically stable and will keep for months in the freezer! So stable, in fact, if you think you totally messed it up, take heart, it’s probably totally fixable!

I actually think IMB is easier than Swiss Meringue Buttercream. (Get the Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe here)

Tips for Italian Meringue Buttercream Success

  • There is no rule that you have to whip the egg whites on high while you cook your sugar, so if they have reached stiff peaks and your sugar syrup is stubbornly stuck at 220F (been there), just turn down the mixer to low. Don’t stop that mixer! I didn’t say that! I said LOW.
  • Pour your sugar syrup in with the mixer on HIGH. Do you want scrambled eggs on your cupcakes? I didn’t think so. Turn that mixer up!
  • Pour the sugar down the side of the bowl. Don’t hit the whisk because I don’t need to tell you that 235F syrup in the face is unpleasant. Don’t be that person. You will know if you did it right because there will be one little lava trail of cooled sugar down one side of the bowl.
  • This sounds obvious and it’s in the instructions, but I’m going to say it anyways: cook your sugar to 235F. Soft ball syrup is a range but if you shoot for 235F, then by the time you get from the stove to the mixer and the syrup has inched up a few degrees, no love has been lost. You will know if you overcook your sugar because there will be a pool of cooked sugar in the bottom of your mixer. No bueno.
  • When you start adding your butter, you want it to be soft but still a little cool. If it’s not totally soft enough, add it a little bit at a time and squeeze each piece before tossing it in. That’s right, squeeze your butter! It’s kinda fun. And kinda gross at the same time.
  • If your buttercream gets soupy, switch from the paddle back to the whisk and beat it on high. All is not lost. Trust me. Whip it; whip it good.
  • If your buttercream breaks (looks curdled) when you start adding the butter, take heart, it will come together. Add the butter in little pieces and squeeze each one to soften it. If you have a kitchen torch you can torch the outside of the bowl with the mixer on high, but keep the torch moving! You want to warm the bowl not melt the buttercream.
  • To refresh refrigerated buttercream: Throw it in the mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth; then switch to the whisk to whip it up until light and fluffy.
  • To refresh frozen buttercream: Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, let warm slightly at room temperature and then proceed with the refreshing refrigerated buttercream instructions above.
  • You can speed up the refreshing process by warming the bowl over a gas stovetop flame or with the kitchen torch. Just be careful to constantly move the bowl or torch because you don’t want to melt your buttercream.

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First, you want to make sure that you have everything measured out and ready to go. This recipe is simple but it does require seamless execution. You also want to make sure that your mixing bowl is clean and free of any residual fat, or your meringue will not whip up and there will be sadness abound.

Continue whipping your egg whites until they form stiff peaks (photo 1 above). Ideally your meringue should reach stiff peaks at the same time that your sugar syrup reaches 235?F. If your egg whites are whipping too fast, reduce the mixer speed to medium. You can also adjust the heat on the sugar syrup to make it cook faster or slower.

To test your syrup you can either use a candy thermometer or you can do it the old-fashioned way, which is what I did here. Take a tiny bit of the syrup on a spoon and dip it into ice water, reach in and grab the sugar. If it dissolves, it isn’t close to ready; if it forms a little malleable ball, it’s ready!! I don’t have a photo of this stage because if I had taken the time to snap a photo, my sugar would have over cooked.

Turn your mixer up to high and SLOWLY pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl as in photo 2 above. Be very careful not to hit the whisk. Ideally you pour it in one solid stream down the edge because it will solidify where it hits the bowl, so if you pour it in three different places, you will be losing sugar. Sadness.

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Keep whipping the Italian meringue on high until it forms stiff peaks like in the first photo below, but what is more important than the stiffness of the meringue is the temperature of the meringue. Before you begin adding the butter, the bottom of the bowl should feel barely warm (picture 2). There is so much sugar in this meringue that it will not over whip before it cools appropriately. Even though my meringue had reached stiff peaks in photo 1, I still needed to whip it another few minutes for it too cool.

When the bowl feels just slightly warm, switch to the paddle attachment and begin adding your butter a piece at a time like in picture 3. I take my butter out of the fridge when I begin measuring my ingredients. Before adding each piece squeeze the butter. When I am making this (and not taking photos) I use disposable gloves.

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Continue to beat the butter in on medium-high until the buttercream is smooth and there are no remaining pieces of butter. The buttercream in photo 1 above is still a bit lumpy. Not there yet!!! Photo 2 is smooth and creamy. At this stage I switch back to the whisk, add any desired flavorings and beat it until it is light and fluffy. You are now ready to frost!

How to Make Perfect Italian Meringue Buttercream: Step-by-Step
 
Here are all the tips you need to make smooth, creamy Italian Meringue Buttercream, perfect for flawless cake frosting.
Author:
Recipe Type: Dessert, Frosting, Tips
Serves: 700g or enough for 24 cupcakes or 1, double tier layer cake
Ingredients
  • 2 cups sugar (375g), divided
  • ⅔ cup water (150g)
  • 5 large egg whites (150g)
  • pinch salt, optional
  • pinch cream of tartar, optional
  • 2 cups butter, cubed (4 sticks or 1 pound), cool but not cold
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the Chocolate Variation:
  • 1¼ cup semi-sweet chocolate, melted but not hot
Instructions
  1. You want to make sure that you have everything measured out and ready to go. This recipe is simple but it does require seamless execution. You also want to make sure that your mixing bowl is clean and free of any residual fat, or your meringue will not whip up and there will be sadness abound.
  2. Mix half of the sugar with the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir just until the sugar dissolves. When the pan heats up, brush around the sides of the pot with a clean pastry brush dipped in water to dissolve any sugar crystals adhered to the sides of the pot. You can also use a paper towel that you roll up (I did because I forgot my brush at school.)
  3. When your sugar starts to bubble begin whipping your egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. You can add a pinch of salt and/or cream of tartar for stability if you wish. I only used salt in the photos you see. When your eggs begin to look frothy, slowly begin adding your sugar, whipping constantly on medium-high.
  4. Continue whipping your egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Ideally your meringue should reach stiff peaks at the same time that your sugar syrup reaches 235?F. If your egg whites are whipping too fast, reduce the mixer speed to medium. You can also adjust the heat on the sugar syrup to make it cook faster or slower.
  5. To test your syrup you can either use a candy thermometer or you can do it the old-fashioned way, which is what I did here. Take a tiny bit of the syrup on a spoon and dip it into ice water, reach in and grab the sugar. If it dissolves, it isn’t close to ready; if it forms a little malleable ball, it’s ready!!
  6. Turn your mixer up to high and SLOWLY pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl. Be very careful not to hit the whisk. Ideally you should pour it in one solid stream down the edge because it will solidify where it hits the bowl, so if you pour it in three different places, you will be losing sugar. Sadness.
  7. Keep whipping the Italian meringue on high until it forms stiff, but what is more important than the stiffness of the meringue is the temperature of the meringue. Before you begin adding the butter, the bottom of the bowl should feel barely warm.
  8. When the bowl feels just slightly warm, switch to the paddle attachment and begin adding your butter a piece at a time. I take my butter out of the fridge when I begin measuring my ingredients. Before adding each piece squeeze the butter.
  9. Continue to beat the butter in on medium-high until the buttercream is smooth and there are no remaining pieces of butter. At this stage I switch back to the whisk, add my flavorings and beat it until it is light and fluffy. Pipe or spread as desired!!
For the Chocolate Variation:
  1. When your butter has been completely incorporated, pour your chocolate in all at once and immediately fold it in with a spatula or beat it in with the paddle attachment. You want to make sure that your chocolate is melted but not hot and it is also still warm enough to flow freely in a continuous stream. If your chocolate is too hot, you will melt your butter cream; but if it is too cool, then you will have pieces of chocolate in your frosting.

 

Lindsey Farr

Lindsey Farr

I'm a financial analyst turned blogger at American Heritage Cooking and, most recently, a culinary student at the International Culinary Center in New York City! I love posting healthier meals, old-fashioned comfort foods, and all things sweet! I also have a serious weakness for cupcakes!

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18 Comments
  1. Hi Lindsey, I lived in Clarksburg, WV as a child. Clarksburg has a large Italian population. We used to buy the most delightful pastry horns filled with what was called marshmallow meringue creme. I’m wondering if this recipe might be used to fill pastry horns? I would love to experience that taste from childhood again. Unfortunately I discovered that the old bakery is closed so I have been looking for another source for this tasty treat.

  2. Hi Lindsey,i love baking and always looking out for new ideas.Please forward me any good recipe or something that is to die for,(lol),,many thanks christopher

  3. I might be missing something here. The recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar but the instructions state to mix only half of the sugar with water. What is the other cup of sugar for?

    1. Hi Jenn, it will be fine at room temperature for several hours, but after that you should store it in the refrigerator or freezer. It will keep for 2 weeks in the fridge and 3 months in the freezer. Just let the buttercream come to room temperature and then re-beat it with the paddle attachment until smooth again.

  4. I just don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. By the time I get to the point to switch paddles and add butter everything looks beautiful! I switch to the paddle, start adding butter (the bottom of the bowl is barely barely barely warm) and here I sit with frosting the consistency of a thick batter. I’ve tried switching back to the whisk and have spent the last 10 minutes praying over it and nothing. This is the second time today that this has happened and I was even more meticulous the second time. Super frustarted. :(

    1. Hi Bre! I understand your frustration. Pop that bowl in the refrigerator for a little bit and then try whipping it with the whisk attachment. I promise it will come together. Even if you forget it in the fridge and its too hard – let it sit out at room temp for about 20 minutes, beat it with the paddle attachment and then switch to the whisk. You’ve totally got this!

      If the bottom of your bowl is barely warm, then your butter is too warm when you added it and that’s why you got soup. If your bowl is room temperature (not warm) then you can add softened butter, but otherwise you butter needs to still be a little cool or it will melt when it hits the meringue and you will end up with soup! This is not the end of the world – just fix it like I suggest above :-) I hope that helped

  5. hi! I am planning to use this buttercream to decorate cupcakes….if I decorate them and throw them in the fridge will they be ok the next day? Or would I be better off making the frosting and re-whipping and decorating the next day? I usually do an American buttercream so this is my first attempt at something different :)

    1. Hi Kim,

      You can do either and they will be delicious either way. You only need to rewhip from the fridge or freezer if you are going to frost something – that makes the buttercream workable. Buttercream tastes best at room temperature because of the quantity of butter in it – I would just bring the cupcakes out of the fridge several hours before you plan on serving them and this way they will be the perfect texture and taste!

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