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.

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  1. DJRFsays:

    I just have a question, can you use whipped butter for Italian meringue buttercream?

  2. Libby Wardallsays:

    Hi Step, been using these recipes for years, wanted to share 2 tips. When I do stacked cakes I make Italian buttercream for the outside and pipping and French buttercream for the filling. The whole egg is used! Adding 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder to French BC – OMG

  3. Shivssays:

    Thanks a lot for this lovely blog..I have tried american butter cream and swiss meringue buttercream cream and out of the 2 I prefer swiss meringue on my cakes. But as I don’t have a stand mixer it becomes a tedious job to keep on mixing swiss meringue. I just wanted to ask whether using stand mixer gives better texture to the swiss meringue buttercream?

  4. Orestessays:

    In Cuba all cakes or most of them are covered with meringue, which we use from the French, Spaniard, Italian and other European influences. By the way, Americans always disregard Spanish culture and tend to exalt French and Italian. Any way, I always found American frosty and buttercream on cakes lardy and disgusting in general.

    • Collyn Montoyasays:

      Being of Cuban descent, your comment piqued my interest so I searched for “Spanish meringue buttercream,” Cuban meringue buttercream,” “Spanish buttercream,” and any other variation I could think of. I 100% agree with you about American buttercream, btw. Any time I’m served a cake with frosted with it, it tastes as though I have a mouthful of disgustingly sweet grease. Eeew! I have tried all the other types of meringue buttercreams – at least I thought I had until I read your comment. If you could point me in the direction of a Spanish style meringue buttercream frosting, I’d be forever grateful. Thanks!

  5. Peggysays:

    Nice of you to give kudos to Simone. Thanks for the recipes. Do you find that the swiss buttercream has a very greasy feel in your mouth?

  6. Jennasays:

    Very late to this, having just found it but it is awesome! I bake quite a bit for family parties and have been watching cooking competition shows for ideas. I have been wanting to try the different frostings but had no idea what the differences were. Thanks so much! This was so informative and easy to follow. Yeah!

  7. Leticia DE LA Cruzsays:

    How do I make the Swiss butter cream chocolate frosting

  8. Nikkisays:

    I thought that granulated sugar would not be good…live and learn…Thank you!!!

  9. Maureen Delvessays:

    I refuse to use icing sugar frosting recipes. I call my favourite recipe European buttercream because it uses whole eggs but the method is the same as Italian Meringue. It pipes very well and has a rich flavour. My alternative choice is a German Buttercream.

  10. Carol Riossays:

    Does anyone know what frosting is used for the fresh made cakes at Price chopper or stop and shop. Cause the flavor and texture of those frostings are delicious.

  11. Tolusays:

    Is there a recipe and instructions for the pink frosted double layer cake somewhere. I think it is pretty fetch

  12. Lizsays:

    I see that the French version heats the egg whites to kill salmonella but will salmonella be killed in the other 2 versions once the hot sugar is added? Thanks!

  13. Linda Hewishsays:

    Since I live in the US, I generally use American butter–but I know that the European butters can taste quite different. For instance, Plugra (a brand available in the US) has a much more “tangy” taste than US butter. Any thoughts on the butters? THX!!

  14. Amandasays:

    I’m a swiss meringue buttercream lover for it’s lightness and love it as a filling in cakes, but I also add some Crisco and powdered sugar to up its stability and piping ability too. I guess that would be a mixture of American and Swiss when it comes to wanting to pipe details. :) Love your recipes!

  15. Velmasays:

    I’m looking for a good frosting to decorate cakes with. I live in Texas and use a buttercream recipe that incorporates Crisco shortening AND a high ratio shortening (2 cups) plus 6-7 cups of powdered sugar – its so sweet my teeth hurt just thinking about it lol BUT it holds up well in this heat of ours. I’m wondering how a butter based frosting would do. Any comments??? Guidance??

  16. Dirksays:

    Hi Stef,
    You’re missing out on “German buttercream” though (also called Crème Mousseline). It is made from butter and pastry cream. You should give it a try.
    Love your site :)

  17. Stefsays:

    Hi Chrys,

    Just saw your comment and feel bad that I never responded. Thanks for your sweet note. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to play around with other frostings in the past few months. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  18. Chrys Marcosays:

    I have been using powdered sugar for too many years already, time for a change. I used ‘salted’ butter in my recipes to kind of cut the sweetness, works fairly well. But now . . am definitely going to start up with your ideas. Thanks a million . . love your site!!!

  19. Sheilasays:

    I cannot speak for the rest of Europe but here in the UK we DO use powdered sugar for buttercream. That is the only way I know to make it. I have never heard of buttercream using regular granulated sugar.

    Great, informative advice and recipes though!

  20. Ginasays:

    Wow, who knew! I don’t like frosting much either but using butter and less sugar sounds tempting, thanks…Gina F

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