This Summer, something happened to me that has never happened before (to my knowledge at least): one of my cakes melted in the outdoor heat. I made a birthday cake for a dear friend’s daughter – my vegan vanilla cake with vegan vanilla buttercream. The party was outdoors and the temperature was around 85 degrees. I refrigerated the cake up until I needed to drive it to the party, thinking that would be enough to preserve it for a few hours. But about an hour after the cake was displayed, the thing started melting (along with my heart). Thankfully, these were the kind of friends who were able to laugh about it with me as it all fell apart. Here’s a before and after:
Although it was a first for me, it got me thinking about so many of you who live in hot and humid climates. I’ve even gotten questions over the years from said people wondering how to make their buttercream more heat stable. The fact of the matter is, the butter in buttercream frosting starts to break down when it’s in an environment that’s above 82 degrees, and vegan butter has an even lower melting point. So, I thought I’d do some experimenting on how to add stability to your buttercream (both vegan and non) for those hot and humid days while keeping your frosting nice and tasty.
For my experiment, I created four mini cakes and frosted them each with different frostings using my favorite vanilla buttercream recipe as a base:
- All butter (aka the recipe as-is)
- Half butter and half shortening
- Half butter and half shortening + meringue powder for added stability
- Half vegan butter and half shortening (with coconut milk as the liquid)
I refrigerated each cake until firm before placing them in the direct sun on an 88 degree day with 35% humidity and here’s a video of what happened:
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Buttercream Heat Test Results
Over the course of the two hours I had the cakes in the sun, none of them completely melted, which was kind of disappointing because I wanted things to be more dramatic. The day just wasn’t hot enough. So in the end, I had to break out the hair dryer to see what would happen with more heat applied.
After I cranked up the heat on these cakes, the all-butter buttercream frosted cake melted into soup:
The cake with the half vegan butter and half shortening got a huge air bubble in the frosting that started to melt:
The half butter and half shortening frosted cake looked pretty good after one hour but this is after two hours out in the direct sun + hair dryer:
And the half butter/half shortening with added meringue powder had relatively no change:
I did try an all-shortening frosting because I hear that’s really heat stable, but just couldn’t get over how terrible it tasted. You’d have to use a lot of flavoring to get it to taste normal (and even then, the texture is a little weird).
I concluded that when you’re up against crazy heat (according to these test results at least), use half butter and half shortening with meringue powder. If you’re in need of vegan frosting, you can chance it with half vegan butter and half shortening or try the all-shortening route (with the meringue powder omitted) if you can get it to taste good. I’m going to add my preferred recipe below and in the notes, I will show you how to adapt the recipe for using all-shortening, making it vegan, etc.
What is High Ratio Shortening?
When you think of shortening, what do you think of? Crisco is what I thought of before all my research into heat stable buttercream. It turns out that Crisco (and most shortening) is made with zero trans fat – in other words, it won’t add enough stability to your frosting. So in order to add that stability, you need what’s called high ratio shortening. That means the shortening has a high ratio of fat with added emulsifiers and no added salt or water. In other words, the micro emulsifiers in it help your frosting to hold more sugar and liquid and thus make it more temperature resistant.
Unlike Crisco though, high ratio shortening can’t be found at your typical grocery store. I found this high ratio shortening on Amazon, which claims to be made specifically for cake making, but there are other brands (Sweetex is one I hear about a lot) that cake decorators use. You might be lucky and live close to a cake decorating shop that sells high ratio shortening, so check your local area to see.
What is Meringue Powder?
Meringue powder is basically powdered egg whites, but it also contains cornstarch, sugar for sweetness, gum arabic for thickening, and cream of tartar which helps with stabilizing. If you want to try just adding meringue powder to your buttercream without adding any shortening, add 1 Tbsp (per batch of frosting) by mixing it into the powdered sugar before adding it to the butter in the linked recipe.
With taste and stability in mind, here’s my new go-to recipe for heat stable buttercream:
Heat Stable Vanilla Buttercream
A tasty vanilla buttercream that stands up better to hot and humid environments. Makes enough to fill and frost a double layer cake, fill and crumb coat a triple layer cake, and frost about 20 cupcakes.
- 1/2 Cup (113g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 Cup (100g) high ratio shortening
- 3 1/2 Cups (420g) powdered sugar
- 1 Tbsp meringue powder
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 Tbsp whole milk or heavy whipping cream, room temperature
- 1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
With a hand mixer or paddle attachment on your stand mixer, cream the butter and shortening on medium-high until it’s creamy and light (almost white) in color. About 7 minutes.
Whisk the meringue powder into the powdered sugar. Then, with the mixer on low, add the meringue/powdered sugar mixture one cup at a time, scraping down after each addition and making sure each cup is fully incorporated before adding the next one.
Add vanilla, milk, and salt and mix on low for another minute until fully incorporated.
Make Ahead Tips: This buttercream can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. When you’re ready to use it, bring it back to room temperature and re-whip in your stand mixer to bring back to smooth buttercream consistency.
To Make It with Vegan Butter: substitute an equal amount of vegan butter (I love Earth Balance Sticks) for the unsalted butter, omit the meringue powder, add 1 Tbsp vanilla instead of 2 tsp, add 1 Tbsp dairy-free milk instead of 2 Tbsp whole milk (my favorite is unsweetened coconut milk), and salt to taste.
To Make It All-Shortening: omit the butter and use 1 Cup of high ratio shortening, 1 Tbsp of vanilla (and ¼-½ tsp of any other flavorings you’d like, such as butter extract, almond extract, etc), 4 Tbsp of whole milk or non-dairy milk, and keep the salt amount the same.
To Make It Extra White: After all ingredients have been incorporated, add 1-2 tsp of Americolor Bright White or icing whitener of your choice.
Did you try this recipe? I want to know that you think! Let me know in the comments below or feel free to tag @sugarandsparrowco on Instagram and show me. I love to see what you create! And if you have a go-to recipe for heat stable buttercream or technique that you swear by, let us all know in the comments. We’re all in this together!