Top | Frostings, Icings, and Sauces

Basic Butter Frosting

(recipe, Caroline Cummins)

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Unlike a classic buttercream frosting — a rather involved process calling for candy syrup and meringue as well as whipped butter — this is basically just butter beaten with sugar and a bit of milk and flavoring. (The Joy of Cooking refers to this type of frosting as a "quick icing," while Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, confusingly, calls the same recipe "Vanilla Butter Cream Frosting.") If you don't have a stand mixer, you can whip this frosting by hand, but your arms will get very tired very fast. For flavor variations, see the Notes below.


  1. ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  2. 2 to 4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
  3. 2 to 4 Tbsp. milk or cream, plus more as needed
  4. 2 tsp. vanilla extract


  1. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Begin to whip the butter on low to medium speed. At intervals, sift some of sugar over the butter and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat, increasing the speed as necessary, until the sugar is fully incorporated and the butter is light both in color and texture. Taste as you go to decide where to stop on the sweetness scale.
  2. Add the liquids and whip until blended. If the frosting is too thick, add more milk or cream as needed to reach the desired thickness. If it's too thin, add more sifted sugar as needed.
  3. Use immediately to frost a cake (such as a 9-inch, 2-layer cake) or 2 dozen cupcakes. Or store, covered, in the fridge for a few hours; the frosting will harden slightly as the butter chills, but you can bring it back to room temperature and beat it again before using.


Variations: You can replace the vanilla extract with other extracts, such as lemon, orange, or mint. You can also replace the milk with coffee, liquor (such as rum), or liqueur (such as Kahlúa). For chocolate frosting, melt 2 ounces unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate and add it to the frosting about halfway through the beating process.