While working as a pastry chef here in the U.S., I’ve noticed that many Americans prefer shortening-based cake frosting over real buttercream.
Probably because it’s what’s used in supermarket cakes, it’s in the center of so many cream-filled goodies, and is the basis of the frosting-in-a-tub that you can buy at a grocery store, shortening-based products, for many, is a household staple.
However, let’s explore the question: Is shortening the best choice for cake frosting? Or not?
Why Bakeries Use Shortening
Besides being cheaper (up to 1/3rd the price less) than butter, shortening also has a longer shelf life and is more a more stable ingredient, able to be stored in a bucket at room temperature for weeks/months/even years without spoiling. When it comes to cake frosting, shortening whips up to a fluffier volume and is better at withstanding heat. In fact, this type of frosting usually doesn’t even require refrigeration.
The Drawbacks of Shortening
If you’ve ever used shortening, you may have noticed how hard it is to wash off your hands and utensils. I’ve always imagined that when it gets inside my body, it must leave a similar kind of grease trail behind. Beware that shortening is a hydrogenated fat, which contains – at the very least – traces of trans-fats, which cause heart disease. Like preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavorings, shortening is one of those ingredients that you use at your own risk (or at the risk of whomever eats your baked goods).
Some people complain of shortening-based frostings being “too sweet.” The reason for that criticism is not due to sweetness but rather to the fact that shortening does not melt at body temperature so when it gets inside the mouth, it coats the palate and clings there for a while. For some people, that results in an undesirable cloying sensation. In fact the solution to complaints of a frosting being “too sweet” is not to tinker with the sugar but rather to switch from using shortening to butter.
The Benefits of Butter
Although it’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, butter has been proven to be healthier to consume than shortening and margarine. Butter not only has a pleasing taste but it melts at body temperature so it has an appealing mouth feel too.
Because butter is soft at room temperature and hard when cold, a cake can be frosted, chilled, then smoothed using the blade of a bench scraper or metal spatua. My preferred technique for finishing buttercream-frosted wedding cakes involves using a bench scraper, a turntable, and a few rests in the fridge. In the end, I scrape off excess buttercream until the surface is smooth.
Why Butter is More Challenging
Butter is a perishable food item that is far more sensitive to heat and cold than shortening. Because it contains water, it expands when frozen and contracts when warmed, which can cause a cake to crack if it transitions from one temperature extreme to another too quickly. Whenever dealing with a genuine buttercream cake, make sure that the transitions from hot-to-cold or from cold-to-hot happen as gradually as possible to prevent fissures.
Nowadays I use an American style of buttercream that contains four ingredients: butter, 6X (confectioner’s sugar), milk, and genuine vanilla. I pass it through a food processor to eliminate lumps, which makes it super smooth.
Instructions and recipes for my vanilla and chocolate buttercreams are included in my new book. If you are looking for a great wedding cake frosting, there it is.
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