The simplest frosting for cakes and cupcakes is a basic buttercream frosting that you can make with butter, shortening, and confectioners sugar.
In general, butter frostings offer a superior rich creamy mouth feel, but they tend to melt easily, especially on a hot day or in a warm kitchen. On the other hand, frosting made with shortening is much more stable, but it tends to have a greasier mouth feel.
As a compromise, we make frosting using both butter and an emulsified vegetable shortening like Crisco. The recipe below uses two parts butter and one part shortening, but you can use equal parts shortening and butter if you prefer.
Some types of buttercream involve cooking a sugar syrup, then drizzling it slowly into the egg whites. But the buttercream recipe described below is much simpler. It's made by creaming the fat and sugar together and then adding egg whites and flavoring. It's really easy.
Some bakers make what is called "decorators buttercream" using all shortening, but these frostings aren't used for frosting a cake. Rather, they're used for making little decorative flowers, piping onto the cake borders and so on.
Note: You can make this buttercream frosting without egg whites, but the egg whites give the frosting a little bit more firmness. Your best bet is to use liquid pasteurized egg whites that you buy at the store.
After the basic buttercream recipe below, you'll find two useful variations, one for making chocolate frosting and one for cream cheese frosting.
Simple Buttercream Frosting Recipe
- 1 lb. unsalted butter
- ½ lb vegetable shortening
- 2 lbs. confectioners' sugar
- 2 oz. egg whites (or whites of two eggs)
- 1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 tsp lemon juice (optional)
- Combine the butter, shortening, and sugar in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment on slow speed, cream the ingredients together until fully mixed.
- Now add the egg whites, vanilla, and lemon juice while beating at slow speed until the frosting is smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula. You can add a few drops of food coloring during this step if you want a colored frosting.
Note: Don't beat on high speed and don't use the whip attachment. Whipping basically adds air to the frosting, which will make spreading it smoothly onto the cake very difficult.
The recipe above will make about 6 cups of frosting, which is enough to frost one round 10-inch or 12-inch two-layer cake. If you're frosting cupcakes, this recipe is enough for about 48 cupcakes, assuming about two tablespoons of frosting per cupcake. But if you'll be piping the frosting on in a tall swirl, you should probably figure 24 cupcakes instead.
You can store this frosting in the fridge, covered in plastic wrap, for up to 10 days. If you do refrigerate it, let it come to room temperature and then just give it a quick whip before you use it. A little milk or water can help you get the right consistency.
Chocolate Frosting Recipe
To make chocolate frosting, melt ½ lb. unsweetened chocolate and let it cool. Then, during step #2 above, slowly pour the melted chocolate into the frosting. You can thin the frosting out with a little bit of milk or cream to achieve the right consistency.
Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe
To make a delicious cream cheese frosting, make the basic buttercream frosting above but leave out the egg whites and substitute 1½ lbs cream cheese for the butter and shortening.