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Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC) – An Essential Recipe

Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC) is my favorite cake frosting. This is the exact recipe I used for 10 years in my wedding cake business.

Italian Meringue Buttercream
Italian Meringue Buttercream

Meringue buttercream has the perfect balance of rich flavor from the butter, and lightness from the meringue. It’s not overly sweet and it can be flavored with an endless variety of add-ins. It’s strong enough to pipe buttercream roses and stays soft at room temperature so it melts in your mouth.

Ingredients for Italian Meringue Buttercream
Mise en place – “everything in place”

Proper temperature is important for a silky smooth Italian Meringue Buttercream

This is a fairly standard Italian Meringue Buttercream recipe except for the temperature of the sugar syrup. I’ve seen a lot of recipes that have you boil the syrup well into the firm ball stage (248°F), but I find this makes a buttercream with a texture that is too tight and marshmallow-y.

I like to boil the syrup to the softball stage (235°-240°F) for a slightly softer buttercream, and I think it whips up a little lighter. Also, don’t forget that even when you take the pan of syrup off the heat the temperature will continue to rise.

Waiting until 248° might mean your syrup is over 250° by the time you begin pouring it into the egg whites.

What’s the difference between soft ball and firm ball syrup? It’s the amount of water in the syrup. The higher the temperature of the syrup, the less water there is relative to sugar. So using a soft ball syrup means there’s a little more water in the buttercream.

But Italian Meringue Buttercream can take quite a bit of liquid without breaking down. I often add rum, limoncello and other liquid flavoring to the buttercream with no adverse effect on the texture.

a thermometer showing sugar syrup temperature of 235 degrees fahrenheit

The scariest moment for those who’ve never made a meringue based buttercream is when the butter goes in. The whole thing kind of breaks down and then comes back together.

It might sound scary and complicated, but it’s really not. There’s a lot of leeway with the temperatures and the buttercream will almost always come together.

How to fix Italian Meringue Buttercream

  • If you’re working in a warm kitchen and your buttercream is just a little too soft you can refrigerate it briefly and then re-whip it until it’s light and fluffy.
  • If your buttercream is just a little too cold (my kitchen is fairly cool in the winter and I often have this problem) you can warm the bowl and then whip it until it’s light and fluffy.
  • I use a propane torch to warm up the buttercream, which is fun, but you can use a bowl of warm water as shown in the photo below.
  • If you do have a propane torch and want to use it, here’s what you do; with the mixer running, wave the torch back and forth across the outside surface of the bowl to warm the buttercream. Keep it moving at all times to avoid burning the buttercream. You’ll see the edges melt a bit and then mix in. This works fast, so be careful.
A stand mixer bowl full of buttercream with a smaller bowl of warm water underneath
To warm the buttercream, slip a bowl of warm water under the mixer bowl while the mixer is running.

Tips for making perfect Italian Meringue Buttercream:

  • I’ve only come across two unfixable problems with this buttercream. If the meringue and/or the butter are way too warm when they’re combined the buttercream will break down and can’t be rescued.
  • Don’t worry if it looks just a little curdled, that’s OK. But if the buttercream becomes soupy and grainy the meringue has broken down and the buttercream can’t be fixed.
  • If the butter is too cold when it’s added to the cooled meringue you’ll end up with lumps of butter that can’t be whipped out. Make sure the butter is soft and pliable, but not at all greasy or melted. The best temperature for the butter is about 70°F.
  • Any extra buttercream can be double-wrapped in plastic (so it doesn’t pick up any off flavors) and frozen for a few weeks. Bring it back to room temperature and then re-whip.
  • The only limit to the flavors you can make with this buttercream is your imagination. You can add melted chocolate, lemon curd and/or lemon extract, orange zest, raspberry puree, instant coffee, whatever you can think of to create your favorite buttercream flavor.
A swirl of buttercream on an icing nail. Stand mixer in the background.
Melt in your mouth texture, but firm enough to pipe, Italian Meringue buttercream is a great all-purpose frosting.

As I said, this is my favorite buttercream. But I also love Swiss Meringue Buttercream, which is very similar to IMBC except that you warm the sugar and eggs over a water bath rather than making a sugar syrup.

If you want a buttercream that is just as light and airy as a meringue buttercream, but with a slightly richer flavor and color, try making classic French Buttercream. It’s made with egg yolks instead of egg whites.

Watch the recipe video to see how-to make Italian Meringue Buttercream from start to finish.


Now that you’ve made this recipe what should you do with the extra yolks? Check out this collection of recipes that use extra yolks for some great ideas.

If you love this recipe as much as I do, please consider leaving a 5-star review.

Italian Meringue Buttercream

Italian Meringue Buttercream

Yield: 16 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

Light, fluffy and not too sweet, Italian Meringue Buttercream is a dream to work with. It takes on almost any flavor and is strong enough to pipe roses and other decorations.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) water
  • 1 cup (8 oz, 226g) granulated sugar, divided
  • 5 large (6 oz, 170g) egg whites, at room temperature (see note 1)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 pound unsalted butter (453g) room temperature, cut into 16 pieces
  • 1 tablespoon real vanilla extract
  • Other flavorings to taste

Instructions

  1. Combine the water with 3/4 cup granulated sugar in a small saucepan. Cook the sugar syrup on medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is melted. Once the syrup begins to boil do not stir the syrup. Allow it to cook to 235°-240°F (soft ball stage).
  2. While the syrup is boiling, whip the whites on medium high speed. When the whites are at soft peak reduce the mixer to medium low and slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt. Increase the speed to medium high and whip to full peak.
  3. As soon as the syrup is at the correct temperature, remove the pan from the heat. With the mixer running on medium low, pour the hot syrup in a steady stream between the edge of the bowl and the whisk. Increase the speed to medium high and continue whisking until the whites are cooled to about 80°F.
  4. When the whites have cooled, with the mixer running on medium, add the butter one piece at a time. Add the vanilla and increase the speed to medium high and whip until the buttercream comes together.
  5. Store at room temperature until ready to use.

Notes

Note 1: I always use fresh egg whites. If you use pasteurized egg whites from a carton make sure the package says they can be used for meringue. Some markets sell pasteurized eggs still in the shell, those can also be used for this recipe.

If the buttercream becomes "spongy" while standing re-whisk to correct the texture. The buttercream can be refrigerated 3-4 days or frozen for several weeks.

Return to room temperature and re-whisk before using.

Did you make this recipe?

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Kristen Kaa

Sunday 11th of April 2021

I have made this three times. As I am using my stand mixer to cool the meringue to add the butter, it's taking at least 30 minutes on the highest speed. As such, preparing, making, and cleaning up is taking me hours. I love the texture of this, but there has got to be a better way. I'm considering Swiss or French buttercream instead. Any suggestions?

Susan

Wednesday 14th of April 2021

@Eileen Gray, please excuse a reply I sent you.

Susan

Wednesday 14th of April 2021

@Kristen Kaa, can you use egg beaters instead of fresh eggs ?

Kristen Kaa

Monday 12th of April 2021

@Eileen Gray, Thank you for the suggestions. I will definitely try testing the temperature with my finger. I used a digital thermometer, but it makes sense that I got a high reading because it was so close to the bowl. I also used frozen veggies to cool the bowl one time to expedite the cooling but the texture was off. I was able to "fix" it later, but more dishes to do, more clean up, etc.

Thank you again!

Eileen Gray

Monday 12th of April 2021

When you're waiting for the meringue to cool don't just touch the bowl to measure temperature. Stop the mixture and stick your finger into the meringue to see if it still feels warm. I find that sometimes the bowl feels warmer than the actual meringue. Also, I'll give you a little cheat. If you use slightly cooler butter and throw it in very quickly you can get away with the meringue being a little warm. Just be careful because if the butter is very cold you might end up with lumps. As I said, it's a bit of a cheat you can use when you get very comfortable making IMB. I do that all the time. Also, you can try making Swiss Meringue Buttercream instead.

kim jobin

Thursday 1st of April 2021

Hi Eileen, I'm trying to understand what is happening. I made several batches of the IMB. I use 4 egg whites with 1/3 cup sugar. The syrup is 1 cup of sugar. I will vary between 1/4 cup of water and 1/3 cup of water. (I was trying to see if there was a difference).I will use the syrup between 235-240 no hotter. In one batch it whipped up fine but it was very dense and heavy and could only cover 20 cupcakes. The second batch whipped up also but it was very light an airy and could cover 35 cupcakes. Do you have any idea what might have been the difference?

Eileen Gray

Friday 2nd of April 2021

The amount of water you start with in the syrup won't make a difference since that water boils away until you reach the softball stage. More water will just mean it will take longer to get the syrup to the softball stage. I would guess that the difference in texture of the buttercream is due to the the temp of the butter, bowl, room, etc. If the room, bowl and butter are cooler the buttercream won't whip up as light as if everything is a little warmer. If your buttercream seems dense try warming the bottom of the bowl as the buttercream whips. If you have a blow torch you can wave it back and forth over the bottom of the bowl or you can place a bowl of warm water under the bowl to warm it up.

Cate

Monday 29th of March 2021

I really don’t find any difference in the quality of the buttercream Going to 248°F. Using a high butterfat butter is key. The problem with your temperature is it won’t kill salmonella. FDA guidelines to kill salmonella state the egg whites must be held at a temperature of 132°F for six minutes. Even those of use who use 248°F are not holding the egg whites at 132°F for that six minutes standard. That is why I use Swiss meringue buttercream more often than not.

Eileen Gray

Monday 29th of March 2021

This is the recipe I used to make wedding cakes for 10 years. So I've made, literally, hundreds (maybe thousands) of pounds of IMBC. I find a definite difference in the texture of the buttercream when the syrup is cooked to the firm ball stage. I agree that if you're concerned about salmonella you should use Swiss meringue instead.

Mariam

Monday 22nd of March 2021

Is this the type of buttercream they use to coat continental cakes? I’ve been looking for the name for so long!

Eileen Gray

Tuesday 23rd of March 2021

I'm not sure what you mean by "continental cakes". Do you mean European style cakes?

Savannah

Monday 8th of March 2021

Hi! This looks amazing! If I need enough icing for a crumb coat, final coat, and piping, should I make a double batch/1.5 batch of the icing?

Eileen Gray

Monday 8th of March 2021

This recipe should be enough for filling, a crumb coat, final coat and border on an 8" or 9" round cake.