A Good Frosting Hack to Save Frosting


Buttercream frosting is delicious. Its sweet creamy richness on top of a good slice of cake can be the perfect amount of decadence for a wonderful treat. But it can be a bit tricky to make it, since you have to figure out the right balance of butter, sugar, and liquid. If one of them is off, then you won't have a good buttercream- it will have the wrong texture and look.

My friend Babs made a cake for her daughter's birthday, but as she was making the frosting something went off. The frosting probably got too much liquid in it, and it separated into little clumps of solids with bits of liquid in between. This has happened to me before and it sucks.

When your kid has a birthday party and the grocery store is closed and you can't buy all new ingredients to make new frosting, or you don't want to waste all the money you already spent on the frosting, it's kind of sucky. In the past, I just used it as is and said oh well (and embarrassingly I even posted pictures here on my blog, but since I refused to pay for hosting for these pics when the free site started charging a hosting fee the pictures all have a watermark, oh well...)

But this time when Bab's frosting flopped, I had the perfect idea. (And I looked on the internet to see if I could find other people posting about this idea, but in my quick search I didn't see.) 

Essentially with frosting what you have is an emulsification. See, I may not be a scientist but I know about emulsification. So let me teach you a bit about it.

Take oil. Take water. Pour them together. They don't mix. Because oil and water don't.

Unless you have an emulsification. Which is something that is a catalyst to allow them to do so. According to scientific words emulsification is the "process of dispersing one liquid (containing the bioactive compounds) in a second immiscible liquid, by applying electrostatic, or hydrophobic, or hydrogen bonding interactions between the bioactive compounds and an encapsulating material". I legit have not learned enough science lately to explain that in detail, but I can share what I learned in the kitchen. 

There is one main emulsified thing in many people's home. Mayonnaise. It is made from oil and liquid and yet it mixes them together without separating. Because of the egg. The egg is the ingredient that causes that "thing written up above regarding compounds and electrostatic that I don't understand enough to explain" to happen. Hollandaise dressing, for the record, is also an emulsification. 

But emulsifications can be finicky. Add a little bit too much of one thing, either at all, or at once, and it can fall apart and the emulsification breaks. When you're making mayonnaise what happens is instead of making fluffy creamy mayonnaise you now have a liquid. And it can happen in seconds. Usually when you're adding the oil a bit too quickly. And when that happens, you are left with a soupy mess that you need to decide if you'll use for something else, or toss... Or you can save it. 

I wrote about how to save flopped mayo before on my blog. In order to save your mayonnaise that separated, what you need to do is set aside the soupy mess, and take another egg and make the mayo again, using the soupy mess in place of the oil. The egg is the elumsifier here, so you just try it again slowly, with more of the emulsifier. And it works. As long as you don't repeat your mistake of too much oil at once.

Other emulsifiers that I am aware of, in the order of which I learned them.

Mustard. It emulsifiers. It usually needs some help, so like in this vegan mayo recipe it also needs some rice flour to help it emulsify enough to make something as thick as mayonnaise. But if you are making a regular salad dressing, with lemon juice or vinegar and oil, adding a drop of mustard to it will help it emulsify enough to have a smooth dressing instead of the oil and lemon/vinegar staying totally separated.

Flax seeds also work as emulsifiers which is why I use them for the base of my vegan mayo that I make regularly. And if I flop that mayo (which sometimes happens if I'm not being careful) I remake it the same way I wrote above, only instead of using an egg to restart the process, I use a flax egg.

And then I just learned that garlic cloves can be an emulsifier (though not the strongest one)! 

So when I was approached with this flopped frosting I had this brilliant idea (yes, I'll pat myself on my back because this is a great one). Because until that flop and my recent experience having discovered that garlic was an emulsifier, I hadn't really thought about frosting as an emulsification, but it absolutely is. You got your fat (butter) and your liquid (cream, milk, food coloring, etc...). What allows it to emulsify? To be honest it probably is the powdered sugar. That does make sense- solid powders often do allow us to emulsify, so like in cake batter you can have both oil and liquid together and it doesn't separate). But the base is the butter. And usually what makes buttercream break is too much liquid for that amount of butter and sugar.

So I suggested to Babs that she take a little more butter, mix it up in mixer or with a fork to soften it, and add the separated frosting bit by bit to it, mixing it in slowly, until it was all fixed and no longer separated. You can also add more sugar at this point, but I'd be very wary about adding any more liquid because it can separate once more.

And guess what? It worked perfectly. See the cake above? Quite clear that it isn't grainy and separated (unlike in my flopped picture that you can see quite clearly how messed up it was, and years later I'm still embarrassed I posted it...)


(And as I'm writing this, I'm laughing at myself at how I can make everything into a whole long post. Instead of writing "hey mix your broken frosting into butter a little bit at a time" I write a whole long thing about emulsification... I amuse myself...)

Anyhow, all that said, have you had this happen to you? Frosting that separated? What did you do about it? Does this look like a trick you'd try?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I've had this happen! First couple times I put it aside and made it into something else. Have heard the add-more-powdered-sugar trick and I guess that would work, but mostly I obsessed and stressed and fretted over bc frosting and haven't had it happen again. This is a great trick and would let me relax knowing that it can be rescued.

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