Biggest Mistakes When Making Buttercream and How to Fix Them

It can make you or break you.  It is one of the most important aspects of your product.  It is one of the most difficult skills to master as a tool and an ingredient. 

IT is buttercream.

Buttercream is one of the trickiest things to get just right, but once you do your decorating will take a fraction of the time and your customers will be banging down your door to get more of your yummy creation!

I’d like to clarify that I’m speaking of American buttercream in this post. I actually no longer use a traditional American buttercream, I now use a Meringue based buttercream, which is what I’d recommend to any cake decorator at any level. I’ll go into more detail about that in another post, but for now, let’s talk about all the problems and solutions for perfecting your American buttercream.

Everyone seems to have their own issue when it comes to buttercream, especially those just starting out, and my biggest was my icing being gritty!! I scoured the internet, youtube, pinterest, Cake Central and Cakes Decor forums… everywhere, to figure out why!  I tried nearly everything I could imagine to fix it.  I tried different recipes and different techniques to combine my ingredients and still it wasn’t right!

I finally had an epiphone and realized it wasn’t just my technique or recipe… it was also the ingredients I was using! Some blogs or tutorials were specific on what ingredients to use and some even recommended brands, but not with any explanation as to WHY you should use these specific items.  Because I am was a penny pincher I always bought the least expensive items I could get away with.  The less you have in costs the more money you make, right?

Well, sometimes that extra .20/per bag of sugar is worth it!

Here are the top reasons why your American buttercream icing is gritty, too soft, not flavorful, lumpy or airy and how to fix it!


1. You are buying the cheapest powdered sugar.

There are times when cheap is okay.  This is not one of them.  Be sure that your powdered sugar clearly and plainly states: CANE SUGAR on the bag.  If it does not say it, then it is not purely cane sugar.

Sometimes companies use other types of plants to create sugar.  Most of the time it’s from beets.  You can’t taste a difference when it comes to icing, but it will NEVER EVER make smooth icing. It will always be gritty no matter what you do. Pay the extra money and buy the real deal!  This  is what I use and this is another real sugar option.

I can not express to you enough how important it is to use CANE SUGAR.  Just do it.

2. You are using water or milk to thin your icing.

Yes, you can use water, milk, flavored coffee creamer, liquor, etc to thin your icing and it will taste wonderful!  But if you want really creamy icing, you must use heavy cream.  You can substitute full fat half/half in a pinch but I would recommend the heavy cream.  The extra fat from the cream gives it a smoother consistency than any other liquid I have ever used.

3. You aren’t beating your fats long enough or properly.

In order to get really creamy smooth American buttercream you must blend your fats properly.

Add your softened fat (butter/shortening/cream cheese) into your mixing bowl.  Beat it with the paddle attachment on medium speed for up to 2 minutes.  Stop about 15 seconds into it and scrape the bowl sides and bottom, then continue beating.  You want your fat to be smooth like cheesecake batter.

Here’s the big catch though: DO NOT OVER BEAT!!!!

You can actually break the fats down too much and then your icing will be too soft to work with.  It won’t matter how much extra sugar you add, there’s no real coming back from that point. So stick with around 2 minutes if you have a stand mixer.  Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl and restart for another 30 seconds or so if need be.

4. You are using Crisco or all vegetable shortening.

This statement has nothing to do with health or brand preference.  If you are using either of these products, go right now and get a small dab on your fingers.  Now rub your fingers together.

Do you feel that grit?  It feels kinda like salt between your fingers. I have no idea why it has that grit, but it does not dissolve.  There’s only one way to fix this.  Stop using all vegetable shortening!

Use all butter or use traditional shortening that contains both animal and vegetable fat sources.  I promise you, you can not taste any difference in the all vegetable shortening and the animal/vegetable shortening.  These companies have taken extra precaution and used ingredients that protect the flavor.

I happened across a blog of an AMAZING cake decorator that shared her recipe for buttercream.  She also explained that the shortening sold now doesn’t contain any trans fat and that is another reason your icing doesn’t feel right.  However, there is one brand that still contains 1 gram per serving and also happens to be animal/vegetable sourced.  That is Great Value!  There is another brand that Walmart sells but do not use that one!  It is not as smooth as Great Value and it doesn’t make as good of buttercream. When you look for the Great Value shortening look for the can that has a fried chicken leg on it and you will know you’ve found the right one!

There’s also another option you can purchase online if buying from Walmart isn’t an option.  It’s called High Ratio shortening and it’s what many bakeries use. It can be found here.

5.  Your icing tastes like powdered sugar and fat but not much else.

You MUST use flavoring when you make buttercream.  You need to use the right flavoring in the right amount to get really yummy icing!

I recommend using flavor emulsions.  These are different than extracts as they don’t contain alcohol.  If you use too much extract, your icing can become bitter.  

Emulsions are a little more expensive but they’re very worth it!  I actually use emulsion and extract in my buttercream and it works perfectly! I really like this one, especially if you use all shortening or don’t use all butter. This one is really unique and has a light almond-lemon flavor to it. 

You also need to up the amount of extract/emulsion that you are adding.  I use 1.5 tablespoons per 2 lb bag of sugar.  Again, if you’re using only extract you need to taste carefully and be sure you aren’t making it bitter. 

6. You aren’t using salt.

Salt cuts the sweetness while bringing out all the yummy flavors in your icing!  Salt is such an amazing tool to use in all cooking and baking. Just a tiny bit will bring your icing to the next level!

I personally use salted butter in my recipe.  If you use all butter and no shortening, only use salted butter for half of your fat.  Use unsalted for the remainder.

If you don’t want to use salted butter just add a pinch of salt to your icing while your fats are mixing. When you add it here it will become fully incorporated into the icing. Do not use large granules of salt, be sure it is fine ground.

7.  You aren’t mixing your buttercream long enough or with the right attachment.

Once you get your icing all blended together you need to let it mix thoroughly.  I recommend mixing it for 2-3 minutes on medium-low speed with your stand mixer. Be sure to stop a minute in and scrape your bowl sides and bottom.

You also must use the paddle attachment.  DO NOT EVER use the whisk attachment when making American buttercream.  This will whip so much air into your icing that you will spend hours re-icing your cakes because you are fighting the air bubbles.  ALWAYS use the paddle attachment.


There you have it!!! Give some of these suggestions a try and see how much better your American buttercream can be! Now that you know how to fix these mistakes check out the one tool no cake decorator can live without! It’s the one thing that can take your skills to the next level!

How about you?  Have you found any tips or suggestions that others could benefit from?  Let me know if any of these ideas solves your problems!

Don’t forget to Pin!


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