Perfect Cake Frosting: What’s The Secret?
I truly wish I could bestow some magic wisdom on everyone right now. Cake frosting should be the easiest thing in the world, but like the ukulele, it’s easy to do okay, but difficult to do really well. And despite speaking with every expert I could lay my hands on, I ended up with lots of opinions, but no definitive answer.
Guess that’s what keeps Betty Crocker in business.
For some, the tub of frosting at the store is a standby; for others, it’s a guilty pleasure, only to be invoked in extreme circumstances (say, during a heartbreak or, uh, once a month). For me, it’s a vague temptation that I never act on: I will eat almost anything, but the crazy colors and oddly pliable consistency of ersatz frosting are, apparently, the line I cannot cross.
On the other hand, I am not great at frosting. My birthday cakes are delicious but hideous — pretty on the inside (of your mouth). I tell myself that I’ve got the important end covered, but I want it all, like in the Enjoli commercial.
Somehow this allegedly easiest of tasks intimidates many of us, so for this edition of What’s The Secret, I test-drove every one I could find and will try to address any obvious pitfalls for the enthusiastic but inexpert cook.
Cream Cheese Frosting:
This appealing frosting masquerades as something somewhat healthy (like its common counterpart, carrot cake). It’s not. But the range of how unhealthy it has to be is great: I have made it with light cream cheese, vegan cream cheese and margarine, and Stevia, and ended up with a satisfying cupcake topper each time. In general, this frosting is a good choice for the warmer months because it’s less likely to melt.
• Soften your ingredients by leaving them out for about a half hour, or until they are room temperature — both the butter and the cream cheese.
• Make it chocolate whenever possible. More flavor means less tang, which some find too strong, and using melted chocolate chips helps keep it stiff enough to stay on top of things.
• A pinch of salt seems to help, but I don’t quite understand why; maybe it cuts the sweetness? If you have other theories, tell me in the comments.
This is easy, as long as you keep it simple: butter, powdered sugar, and a mixer (hand or stand) or food processor (you guys know how attached I am to my Cuisinart).
• A small amount of milk (like, 2 tablespoons to 8-12 ounces of butter) and a dash of salt improve the consistency and the flavor more than you’d think they could.
• Adding a small amount of mayonnaise (maybe 1/8 to 1/4 cup) will make it smoother and more spreadable.
• Replacing some of your butter with shortening (up to 1/3 of the butter) will make it more stable / less melty on a hot day, and will cut down on the cloyingly strong butter taste that some find a bit too much. On the other hand, it adds a slick, slightly waxy texture.
• Another way to cut down the butter flavor is to make a Swiss or French buttercream, which incorporate egg whites or egg yolks cooked slowly in a double boiler. But, personally, I have never gotten them to work, and my poor beleaguered editor had an extreme frustration-fest with one of these fussy versions. Feh, I say.
Melted Chocolate Chip Frosting:
The only secret here is to use your microwave. The double-boiler method — by which I mean a metal bowl set inside a pasta pot where an inch of water is boiling at the bottom — is fine if you’ve got the time and inclination, but you mustn’t feel guilty about taking the zappy route.
It would be very difficult to go wrong with this frosting. Let me know if you do, though.
A much-beloved, traditional frosting that allegedly tastes like fluffy marshmallows that have floated down from the very clouds of heaven. I would not know. Despite my acquaintance with a raft of experts, none of them have successfully talked me through this “fool-proof ” recipe.
I have tried and failed at this for the last time. For every effortless-seeming recipe out there on the internet, there’s always someone in the comments section who shares my lack of seven-minute talent. I know I’m in good company.
So I haven’t managed to find the magic bullet for frosting. But the good news is, as long as you avoid eggs and double-boilers, you can make a perfectly good frosting. You’ll never know unless you try!
Psst! What’s the secret?
Find out with all our What’s the Secret articles!