As cake makers, we often start out by trying different mediums such as fondant, ganache, or buttercream and eventually, we find one that makes sense to us and fall madly in love with it. For me, and if you’re reading this I guess for you as well, it’s buttercream.
When it comes to buttercream, there are many pros, such as ease of use and a delicious taste. However, there are a number of cons as well, but we often try to forget about them as the thought of them alone can send shivers down our spines. They often say, love is blind, right?
Condensation, cracks, melting…three things that would send any buttercream cake maker into a panic. Brace yourself, they do happen 😬.
Okay, okay, I’m not here to add to the shivers. As always, I’m here to help alleviate your stress so that you can cake smarter, not harder.
As with any REAL love story, there’s no such thing as happily ever after. If you want a love to last, you appreciate the good as well as accept the bad, learn to compromise and work with what you got – what you chose. So my dear friends, it’s time you face the ‘bad’ and start to learn how to work with them.
Let’s take a look at 3 common buttercream cons and how to combat them.
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Condensation occurs when warm air hits a cold surface.
When moisture-packed warm air comes into contact with a chilly surface, it cools down quickly and releases the water, which turns into liquid droplets on the cold surface.
If you ever experienced winter where you are, you most likely have seen droplets of water on your window pane when you’ve got the heater going inside.
Vice versa, if you’ve experienced summer, then you would have also seen droplets of water on your window pane when you’ve got the air conditioning going inside.
So understand that condensation is a natural occurrence, it’s unavoidable when warm air hits a cold surface.
When it comes to cake making, this usually happens in summer, especially on really humid days. When you remove a cake from the fridge, which is nice and cold and bring it into your room environment, which is humid and not as cold, the warm, moisture packed air hits the cold surface on the cake and – bam! – condensation.
Now, the more humid the air, the more condensation there’ll be.
Now that we’ve established that condensation CANNOT be stopped, let’s look at how we can cope with it.
How to Combat Condensation:
Reduce the moisture in the air.
When we think of moisture in the air, most of us think of naturally occurring humidity. Some days, the humidity is going to be higher. So, with a quick glance at the weather, it’s easy to tell how much humidity to expect your cake to be exposed to.
However, we tend to forget that we, too, contribute to the humidity of our living/working environment. On average, a family of four will create 100 pints (56 litres) of water vapour per week just through our daily domestic activities. Everything from showering, boiling kettles, running a bath, and even using a tumble dryer will add to the moisture in the air. The easiest way we can reduce moisture is to simply open a window. Opening a window allows fresh air to cycle through your house which is not only good for your cakes, but good for your health and your home’s feng shui as well
When that’s not enough, and you have a more serious humidity problem, consider a dehumidifier. We’re familiar with humidifiers, which inject moist air into your environment. A dehumidifier does the opposite. It removes the moisture from the air in your environment. You can get different sizes depending on the size of the space you want to filter.
Reduce the temperature difference.
Now that we know that condensation occurs when moisture-packed warm air hits a cold surface, we want to try and reduce that temperature difference between the two elements.
When it comes to buttercream cakes, which always need to be stored in the fridge, the cold surface element cannot be mitigated. So, we have to manipulate the temperature of the air.
In winter, even though it’s super freezing outside, if you’re working with cakes, try not to have the heater on full blast in the house.
Vice versa, in summer, if it’s super hot outside, crank up the air con. You want the temperature of the air to be as far from ‘warm’ as possible.
Of course, I’m not asking you to reduce the temperature in your home or venue to 4°C like a fridge would be set to. But, if your work environment is 30°C, that’s pretty warm for a cake. Try lowering it to 18-20°C and there will be significantly less of a temperature shock when your cake leaves the fridge.
If it’s out of your control, accept it.
Now, if you’ve reduced the moisture, controlled the temperatures and condensation still happens, there’s nothing left to do but to accept it. I used to freak out over condensation too but most of the time (if not all of the time), no one else noticed but me.
No one else but you – the cake maker – examines the cake on such an intimate level to notice a few drops of condensation or even a shinier sheen than normal. Unless your cake looks like it’s just been in the steam room, in which case you may want to give it a gentle pat with a sheet of paper towel. Otherwise, the bottom line is, if it’s out of your control, accept it and move on.
Cracks are the last thing you want to see on your beautiful, finished cake, as they usually occur AFTER the cake has been iced and decorated. There’s nothing more disheartening than spending hours perfecting something, only for it to acquire imperfections once you’re finished with it.
Cracks are caused by movement.
It’s that simple. Movement causes cracks. Remember that.
Where the cracks occur and the direction in which they occur can tell you a lot about what caused them. Let’s examine, shall we?
Types of Cracks and How to Prevent Them:
Cracks at the Bottom of Your Buttercream Cake
There are two very common places where buttercream cakes tend to crack. The first is at the very bottom where the cake meets the board and it has everything to do with the strength of your cake board. If you’re using a cake board that is too thin which cannot support the weight of the cake that’s sitting on it, it is going to bend when you grab at it to lift the cake up. When the cake board bends, it pulls away from the bottom of the cake thereby, creating cracks in this area.
I always suggest using MDF cake boards but sometimes even those aren’t enough to hold the weight of your cake. If your cake is particularly heavy, stick two MDF boards together or use a really thick drum board.
The second most common place to see cracks is in the middle zone of a cake tier, horizontally. When this occurs, you’ll find that these cracks usually correspond with the location of the cake filling in between two cake layers.
Horizontal cracks occur because cake layers have moved, usually due to fillings that are too wet or too soft.
There are a number of factors to consider when trying to combat horizontal cracks. However, the bottom line is, you have a structure issue. How can you prevent your cake layers from moving? This could be:
Vertical or Random Pattern Cracks
This last type is less common than the first two, but it happens. Vertical or random pattern cracks can occur anywhere on your cake. Although they’re still caused by movement, this movement is on a molecular level. This movement has to do with the water molecules in your buttercream contracting, expanding or even evaporating.
Without getting into too many details about the chemistry of water molecules, just know that the water molecules in your buttercream move differently when they’re at room temperature, fridge temperature (4C) and freezing temperature. Allowing your cake to rapidly move in and out of these 3 temperature zones can cause the water molecules to contract, expand, and even evaporate. These are the movements that cause cracks.
👉 In plain cake making terms, if you find vertical or random pattern cracks on your cake, chances are you’ve left the cake in the freezer for too long or your fridge is too cold.
👉 If you use the freezer in the buttercream cake making process like we do, only use it in short periods of time to prevent the buttercream from actually freezing.
👉 If your fridge is too cold (especially at the back), adjust the temperature.
👉 It’s also important that you store your buttercream cakes in an airtight container or a box while they’re in the fridge, to prevent the buttercream from drying out and causing cracks.
👉 Also, avoid filling and covering a cake with frozen cake layers. Water molecules contract when frozen then expand as they become warmer. If you cover the cake while the cake layers are frozen, the expanding movement of the water molecules as the cake returns to room temp causes cracks. To avoid this, always use fridge cold cake layers instead of frozen.
Melting is a buttercream characteristic that is not only natural but also obvious. However, it is the single most ignored buttercream con. For some reason, people are very resistant to accept this one trait. They insist on looking for a buttercream that can ‘withstand’ the heat.
Newsflash. There is no such buttercream. Heck, even us humans can’t withstand the heat, so how can we expect our food to?
Fact is, buttercream will melt when it’s left in a warm environment for a period of time.
The sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can find peace.
To prevent buttercream from melting, keep it cool.
Keep it cool when you’re making it, using it, storing it or transporting it. If you’re in an environment where YOU feel like things are a bit warm, well, your buttercream cake feels it too.
When working with buttercream:
Keep your work environment cool. That means turn on the air conditioning in summer and don’t blast the heater in winter.
When storing buttercream:
Keep buttercream and buttercream cakes in the fridge.
When transporting buttercream:
Keep the vehicle cool by turning the air-conditioning on full blast and keep your buttercream cakes out of direct sunlight. Check out our buttercream cake delivery tips here.
When displaying buttercream cakes:
Ensure the display environment is cool (no warmer than 20C) and keep the cake out of direct sunlight.
Despite its many ‘pros’, buttercream is not a medium without ‘cons’. If you haven’t encountered one, consider yourself lucky. But, don’t rely on that luck, as sooner or later, the buttercream boogeyman is gonna come for ya! 🤣
Jokes aside, it’s always a good idea to accept your chosen medium’s limitations early on. That way, you can reduce frustrations when mishaps occur and equip yourself with the knowledge and tools to problem solve in these situations.
If you’ve ever experienced one of these or if you have another one that’s not mentioned, share it in the comments below!