What’s the Difference Between Italian, Swiss, and French Buttercream Frosting?

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I was the strange kid who always wiped off and threw away the buttercream frosting from slices of birthday cake. As I became a baker, I learned that most buttercream frosting we consume in America isn’t made with butter; grocery store cakes are typically frosted using shortening. I developed an American buttercream recipe that I adore which uses real butter and vanilla bean paste. But, I didn’t stop there – I discovered European buttercream frostings.

European buttercreams are lighter, richer, and much less sweet than their American counterpart; it is very likely that your favorite neighborhood bakery is using one. Do you know how to make Italian meringue buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream, and French buttercream frostings? Here’s the scoop (or swirl)!

All about Buttercream Frosting

Similarities Between Italian, Swiss, and French Buttercream Frostings

Let’s start our frosting journey with the similarities between Italian meringue buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream, and French buttercream.

  • Put away your powdered sugar. While American buttercream requires piles of powdered sugar, the European versions use granulated sugar and much less sugar overall.


  • Italian, Swiss, and French buttercreams all use real butter! Hooray! The butter flavor comes through big time in these frostings, so make sure that you love the taste of the brand of butter that you choose.

French Buttercream

  • Italian, Swiss, and French buttercreams all use eggs. They use them in different ways (we’ll discuss that in a minute), but they all use them.

Adding Butter

  • Italian, Swiss, and French buttercreams require a lot of mixing – up to twenty minutes. Although you could prepare the frostings without a stand mixer, I would highly recommend one for these recipes.
  • When preparing Italian, Swiss, and French buttercreams, temperature is extremely important. If the frosting is too hot or cold when you add the butter or the butter that you are adding is too hot or cold, things can go awry. These errors are not insurmountable. You’ll use the same method to repair all three frostings, so once you learn it, you are all set! I’m going to tell it to you now even though you don’t have the frosting recipes yet because you can’t hear it enough – you should tape it to your mixer and never forget it: “Keep Mixing!” Mix and mix and mix (we’re talking 10+ minutes here) and, in all likelihood, that will solve the problem of too hard, soupy, or curdled frosting. If your frosting is really warm, you may need to refrigerate it for a little bit and then mix and mix again.

Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Italian Buttercream

Italian meringue buttercream frosting is sweeter than French or Swiss, but not as sweet as American. To prepare it, pour a hot sugar syrup over whipped egg whites and whip until the mixture cools off. Then, add in butter one tablespoon at a time, beating until you have an airy frosting.

Piping Italian Buttercream

Italian buttercream is very easy to work with. It pipes like a dream!

Sugar Syrup

The sugar syrup is the part that scares some people away from Italian meringue buttercream. First of all, it’s hot (about 240 F), so you have to be super careful not to get any on you – it will burn. Second, you’ll absolutely need a candy thermometer to ensure that you get the temperature correct. Once you work with the sugar syrup a few times, using it will start to feel like second nature.

Pouring Sugar Syrup

Be sure to pour the sugar syrup away from the edge of the bowl since it will cool and harden immediately if it touches the metal.

Make sure you check out my recipe and complete instructions for making Italian buttercream!

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Swiss Buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream frosting is very similar to Italian meringue buttercream in that they both use egg whites. Swiss is preferred by many bakers because it doesn’t use the hot sugar syrup and the egg whites are heated to 160 F in a double boiler to remove any salmonella risk.

Swiss Buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream is easier to prepare, but does it taste as good? That’s a personal preference. To me, the two frostings taste almost identical. However, I find the Italian meringue frosting to be a bit easier to work with and the Swiss meringue frosting to be a tad bit lighter.

French Buttercream

French Buttercream

French buttercream uses egg yolks rather than whites. Anyone who has ever had a sunny side up egg knows that yolks have much more flavor than whites. This translates to the frosting. French buttercream is the richest and tastiest of the three. Its flaw is that it is the least stable. Do not try to pipe this frosting. It will just keep melting on you and lead to extreme frustration and possible tears (I may be speaking from personal experience here.).

Like Italian meringue buttercream, French buttercream starts with a sugar syrup and requires a candy thermometer.

It is also important to note that, because of the egg yolks, French buttercream has a yellow color. This makes it a challenge to color and a poor choice for a cake that needs a bright white look.

French Buttercream

French buttercream is wonderful for spreading on top of cakes or cupcakes or for using as a filling between layers of cake, but not recommended for intricate designs.

The Recipes

I have recipes for all of the buttercream frostings mentioned in this post:

Special Thanks

Huge thanks to Simone Faure from La Patisserie Chouquette for all of the fabulous cake toppers you see in this post! She’s an incredibly talented baker and a genuinely good person.