Recipe Collection: Refined-Sugar Free Vanilla Buttercream

Oh, buttercream frosting.

Now, most people are under the impression that “real” buttercream includes these ingredients: butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, maybe a little milk.  It’s “real” because it uses butter instead of shortening.  Only, it isn’t.  That version is a “quick buttercream” and it is extremely high sugar: usually 4 – 5 cups per cup (1/2 lb.) of butter!  It does make a good decorator’s frosting because it can be made very stiff.  But is it, in any way, “healthy?”  Not a chance.

Real buttercream frosting is very different.  It’s a cooked frosting, made with beaten eggs (or sometimes just egg whites), a small amount of sugar, and of course, butter.  But it is truly delicious, and has an amazing texture.

I’ve studied real buttercreams for awhile.  I even tried making some once, almost 10 years ago.  I knew nothing about baking or cooking and tried to follow a recipe, only to end up with slightly sweetened butter.  Now, a good buttercream is sort of like that anyway, by its nature.  But it should be more than that.  I was disappointed and never used it.

I tried another recipe around Christmas last year.  It was good, not the best.  I sampled a few from local bakeries.  I knew I had to make one that was good!  I read every recipe I could get my hands on, and tried to learn how and why they work.  Eventually, I figured out what the goal was, method-wise.  Then I went into the kitchen to create.

What came out was, in my opinion, the best buttercream ever.  If you’ve only had powdered-sugar frosting, it’s not like that at all.  It’s completely smooth, buttery, sweet, and rich, without being that overly-sweet, gritty, heavy frosting.  You just have to try it.  It’s amazing.

The best part?  Per pound of butter (2 cups!), it uses less than 1 cup of sugar, yet is still plenty sweet!  That’s 10% as much as your standard powdered sugar version.  Not bad, for a real food dessert. :)

Read the recipe carefully — several times.  I’ll note all the spots that were tricky for me so that hopefully you can make it without problems.  Then enjoy!


  • ¾ c. sucanat or organic cane sugar (you could use honey or maple syrup too — just follow the directions but skip the water)
  • ¼ c. filtered water
  • 2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks (room temperature)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 lb. unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
You will need:
  • Large glass bowl (or stainless steel bowl from a stand mixer)
  • Stand mixer or hand-held mixer with whisk attachment
  • Small saucepan
  • Candy thermometer


Gather up all your supplies now, because you won’t have time to do it as this is happening.  The temperature of the eggs and butter is very important, so set them out ahead of time.  A stand mixer will make this quite a bit easier, but it is possible to do it with a hand mixer — I did.

In your saucepan, add your sugar and your water.  I wanted a “pure” vanilla flavor, so I’m using organic cane sugar.  I have used sucanat before too and it is yummy, it just adds a definite “flavor” to it.  Attach your candy thermometer to the pot so that it is in the sugar but not touching the bottom.  Turn it on medium high.  Do not stir.

Meanwhile, add your eggs and yolks to a large glass bowl and add a pinch of salt, maybe 1/8 tsp. if you like measuring.  I don’t.

While your sugar syrup is cooking, whip your eggs until they are thick, quadrupled in volume, and almost gelatinous — they should form very soft peaks, though because of the yolks they will never be a “meringue.”  This is okay.


You are waiting for your syrup to reach 240 degrees, the “softball” stage.  Watch the thermometer.  Mine’s not quite there in the picture below, but almost.  This process took 15 – 20 minutes.

When your sugar syrup reaches 240, remove the candy thermometer.  If using a stand mixer, turn it on low so it’s constantly beating the eggs.  If not, then grab your hand mixer in one hand and turn it on (in the eggs, please, so there’s not a mess!) and grab the pot handle in the other hand.  You are going to pour the hot sugar syrup down the side of the bowl.

Notice how close to the edge I am.  This is important.  Running it down the side lets it cool off slightly before hitting the eggs, making it less likely to cook them.  It prevents it from splashing up and burning you.  It also allows it to incorporate slowly.

Beat the egg mixture constantly as you add the sugar syrup.  It is cooking the egg proteins gently, making them fluffy.  Once the sugar syrup is all in, the mixture should resemble marshmallow in taste and texture.

I stopped my mixer just to taste it and play with it for a minute. :)  Keep beating it, though, until the mixture is cooled down to room temperature — this should take less than five minutes.  And it is important.

Now, it’s time to add your butter.  It’s important that it be room temperature and very soft (like mine above).  We are creating an emulsion here, and if the ingredients are vastly different temperatures, it will not happen.  It will fall apart into a soupy mess (which is possible, though annoying, to fix).  If the egg mixture is too hot, it melts the butter and separates — put it in the fridge for a few minutes and resume beating.  If the butter is too cold, it doesn’t incorporate well and you have the same issue — place it over a pot of simmering water to heat it up and then keep beating.  Or, make sure your ingredients are the right temperature and skip all that. :)

Start adding butter, a couple tablespoons at a time.  Your mixture will deflate and become very runny and strange looking — that is normal.  It will stay thin and odd-looking until you are adding the last 1/2 cup of butter.  Then, suddenly, it will thicken and whip up nicely.  Frosting!

At this point, add your vanilla and mix again, briefly.  It’s done!  Transfer to a glass storage dish and keep in the fridge for a week or so, or in the freezer for a month or more.  You will need to let it soften before you can frost a cake with it.

Store frosted cakes in the fridge or freezer.  Try the chocolate cake I posted last week.  I covered the outside of mine with sliced almonds!

What’s your favorite use for frosting?


  1. Cat Slate says

    Would this work with Splenda, Xylitol, or Stevia? I can’t have even a little sugar, but this recipe sounds delicious.

    • Kate Tietje says

      I might try xylitol. Splenda’s not especially healthy, and stevia doesn’t have the bulk/volume needed. Xylitol might work though. Let us know if you try it!

      • Randa says

        Xylitol, is not a healthy option! It’s chemically processed from wood, you would be better off just using sugar. Better to use honey or maple syrup.

  2. says

    Ooo, a french buttercream, I made one of those for the first time in February. The whole eggs make it SO yummy rich. Personally, we like just a little more texture to our icing and those cooked buttercreams are so incredibly silky and ethereal. It may just be our sugar addiction that makes us feel that way! But I made a tiny batch of a super simple butter loaded quickie buttercream that has heavy cream whipped into in it and is also very silky and fluffy light while still having some more oomph. When mixed together with the french one it was perfect for us and made the frosting a bit more temperature stable too.

  3. Susan Alexander says

    This looks amazing!! If you’re going to use maple syrup instead of sugar/water, would you use 3/4 cup?? I cook a lot with maple syrup these days…

    • Kate Tietje says

      Hi Susan, I think that should work well. I know it works with honey. I want to try it with maple syrup too someday.

  4. says

    I just made this frosting with 3/4 c of honey instead of sugar. It only took the honey a few minutes to reach soft ball, so my eggs were nowhere near ready for it. So watch out for that!

    The vanilla is really good, but I also made some chocolate by adding cocoa powder and that is the best! Thanks for this recipe!

  5. Sarah B says

    I want to make a strawberry buttercream for my daughter’s birthday. do you all think i could add chopped or pureed strawberries to the finished product or would that mess with the texture?

    • Kate Tietje says

      Hi Sarah, it should work fine. Just make sure the puree or whatever is at room temperature, because if it’s too cold that could mess with the texture. But adding stuff in the final step is how you flavor this normally. :)

  6. says

    WOW! I have never made a butter cream frosting before, and this was an excellent tutorial. Thank you so much for including so many details, I just made half a batch, using honey (no water) and it is so delicious I can’t even believe it. Thanks! :-)

  7. Christy Belisle says

    I tried this but it failed to thicken up. :o/ I used 3/4 cup of honey instead of sugar. Is there anything I can do to fix it?

    • Kate Tietje says

      Yes! Try refrigerating briefly to cool it down a little, then add more butter. It tends to stay soupy until it suddenly thickens. Did you make sure to heat the honey until it reached 238 degrees? If the honey wasn’t hot enough to cook the eggs properly and form the “meringue” then it may not hold its structure properly. (I wanted to find a way to do it “raw” but it can’t be done, as far as I know, for this reason. I tried it and it stayed soupy.)

  8. tara says

    I made this today after seeing the recommendation on Used organic sugar and regular salted butter (that’s all I had). First time I ever made a cooked buttercream frosting and it turned out awesome! I love the light texture and that it’s not too sweet. I can definitely taste the salt from the butter (also used a few shakes during the beating of the eggs), but I don’t mind the slightly salty sweet flavor. Although next time I’ll try it with unsalted butter. A definite keeper for a frosting recipe! thanks!

  9. Stephanie says

    Wow! I just stumbled on your website and AM SO EXCITED to explore it more. I have been playing with a healthier version (aka less refined sugar) of a butter cream frosting for years and my attempts have been sub-par. I am so looking forward to trying this one! THANK YOU!

  10. Greenmama says

    This was sooo good, thank you so much for the recipe. I had been wanting to make swiss buttercream GAPS-friendly and was so excited to find your post so I didn’t have to do the guesswork myself. I made half a recipe (with honey) and it was just barely enough to ice two layers of your pound cake recipe. I put vanilla in the center for the filling and then added cocoa powder to frost the outside with chocolate (my son couldn’t decide which he wanted). They were both terrific, but I think the chocolate was the favorite in our household. I will definitely be making this again, thank you so much!!

  11. says

    Wow, I just made this using the exact recipe (using honey) and directions above, and it came out great! I made the whole thing with my hand mixer and regular beaters (I don’t have a whisk attachment for any of my mixers!) and it worked just fine. I agree with another comment that the honey comes up to temperature faster than sugar/water, so be ready with your eggs; it took my honey probably less than 5 minutes to reach soft ball stage on medium heat. And of course I started to worry when I was adding the butter and it turned first soupy, then grainy and chunky, but it smoothed out into glorious silky frosting by the time I added the last piece of butter! I was really hoping to have an icing I could do ahead for my daughter’s 4th birthday (instead of a meringue or whipped cream that had to be prepared last-minute) and this is it! Thank you!

  12. Caitlin says

    Hi Kate! This looks so good, I can’t wait to try it! I was wondering, would this recipe be amenable to a natural food coloring (i.e. red cabbage for blue or Matcha tea for green)? Does it do well as a decorator icing? Thanks so much! ~Cait

    • Kate Tietje says

      It’s sort of difficult as a decorator’s icing because when it’s workable, it gets too soft very quickly. It can be colored though.

  13. Caitlin says

    Hi Kate! I’m really excited to try this recipe for my son’s birthday coming up! I was wondering, do you think it is amenable to adding a natural food coloring (i.e. red cabbage for blue or Matcha tea for green)? Does it do well as a decorator icing? Thanks, can’t wait to try this!

    • Caitlin says

      I’m sorry didn’t see your original reply! I didn’t think my comment posted properly :) Thanks for getting back to me!

    • Kate Tietje says

      It’s very soft and melts easily, so you probably could — but you’d need to put the cake in the fridge after adding this and before adding the fondant so it would stay put, and it would need to stay refrigerated.

  14. rachael giglio says

    I am looking forward to making this for my sons birthday party! finally a frosting recipe that doesn’t use a ton of sugar! My question is does it keep well? In order to avoid a huge rush on party day I was going to try to make this today but was wondering if it would keep for a few days? I would assume it would need to be refrigerated and then come back to room temp to be spreadable.

  15. Munch Much says

    When one works hard enough, something great usually comes from it, just like this seemingly wonderful version of buttercream frosting, I say seemingly because I haven’t made it yet, but I’m very happy to see that this version is lower in sugar and butter. Good job and thank you!

  16. larissa says

    I am wondering if this would work for decorating cookies? i am hoping to have the kids decorate their own cookies at my son’s bday party, and i could probably keep the icing cold (relatively) until decorating time – hmm. also can you freeze this like you can w/ the other buttercream?

    • Kate Tietje says

      It can be frozen, yes. You also don’t want to keep it too cold, it takes a good hour to soften enough to be appropriate for decorating. It will not be as firm as “normal” decorating icing and will melt as the kids touch it, of course. But it should work well enough that they’ll enjoy it. Add some naturally-dyed sprinkles or something and I’m sure they’ll love it!

  17. says

    Would this work okay for cupcakes…Looking for something a little more healthy for a company picnic. I’ve always used the usual powdered sugar buttercream. I need something that will hold up to put an edible image on top.

    • Kate Tietje says

      It would have to be refrigerated before and after adding an image to hold it. It will get very soft after it has been sitting out for an hour or two.

  18. Lacey says

    YUM! I just made this to go with your white bean cake and it was delicious. My only change (and admittedly, it’s a big one) was that I used about half the amount of butter you suggested and it still emulsified beautifully. It’s VERY rich – I can’t imagine how buttery it would be if I used the full amount? I also used coconut sugar and it was delicious – gave it a real toffee kind of flavour. Thanks for the great recipe, I’ll use this again!

  19. says

    After a bit of trepidation, I just made a half batch of this. I was afraid of ruining it on the first try as I seem to be good at doing, and I did not want to waste precious butter and honey. Ha ha! However, I followed your instructions to a “t” and, just as you said, it came together into perfectly whipped frosting at the last minute. Amazing! I can honestly tell you that I have never been a big lover of frosting my entire life, including childhood. Well apparently that is because I had never experienced REAL buttercream before. I daresay that I may never make a different frosting after this. You’ve made a convert out of me. :-) I almost never comment on recipes – though I find the comments of other readers’ extremely helpful – and I certainly don’t ever gush. I honestly think many bloggers think too highly of their recipes, so I have learned to go into it with tempered expectations. Well congratulations for completely exceeding my expectations beyond what I ever thought possible for frosting. LOL. Okay I’m done now. I just had to comment. Thanks so much for your very detailed instructions. I probably would have ruined it otherwise. 😉 ~ Amelia

    P.S. We’re frosting leaf shaped sugar (cut out) cookies (made with almond flour and honey) after nap time today with my girls! :-)))

  20. Sarah says

    Is there any way you know of to not use eggs? We are gluten and egg free and I always find these amazing baked goods recipes, but they almost always call for eggs. Thanks!

    • Michelle says

      Did anyone ever answer this for you? Just found out my baby boy is allergic to eggs, so I’m trying to learn how to make egg-free things so we can switch over as a family together as time goes on. Thanks!

    • sabrina says

      You can sub an egg with a ‘chia egg’. Many vegans use this method when cooking and baking. You would use 1 Tablespoon of chia seed to 3 Tablespoons of water. Mix together with a fork and let sit for a couple of minutes or so. It will gel together and look like an ‘eggy’ texture. Hope that helps!

  21. Angèle says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you !!! You are a cooking genius!!! I am the mother of four boys and our family has been following the GAPS diet for almost two years therefore any icing containing sugar has been completely out of the question. I have been looking for a replacement to traditional icing for most of our time on GAPS. I made this one tonight to frost our heart shaped Valentin’s day cake and it was absolutely divine! The boys loved it so much they were eating the icing by itself. A few notes on how I made it: I used honey and omitted the water as per the recipe and I also used room temperature ghee instead of butter. It is the middle of winter here in Northern Canada therefore the ghee was not completely liquid. The only difference I noticed with these changes is that the icing did not form much peaks when I was done all the mixing as it did in the photos of the post but it hardened up nicely once in the fridge and was very easy to use to frost the cake.

    Thanks again,

  22. Lara says

    I was just wondering about the texture and consistinsey after putting the frosting in the fridge once it’s done? I’ve made a lot of different BC icings (never one like this) and never had any luck with it having that smooth texture when I bring it out of the fridge and get it to room temp, it doesn’t spread nicely on the cake or look good. Thanks for any pointers you might have.

    • Kate Tietje says

      Hi Lara, if it’s fully softened, it will be very smooth and work well. Since it’s mostly butter it behaves very similarly to butter.

  23. bloggymommy says

    How do you think this would work without eggs? I have an egg intolerance, but would love to try this recipe :-)! Thank you!

    • Kate Tietje says

      I have not tried without, but you might try by using gelatin instead. I haven’t tried that, but it could work.

  24. katie says

    this is the most AMAZING frosting i have ever made – my hugest issue with frosting is always that it’s way waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too sweet, but this has the perfect hint of sweetness! I followed your recipe exactly (using a hand mixer with a bit of help, and a pot instead of a glass bowl cos i… don’t have one of those) and it turned out completely divine!

  25. Jessica says

    I just wanted to say that I made this and people who have said they don’t like buttercream frosting LOVED it! Thanks for the detailed instructions. I used some local honey and it tasted amazing.

  26. says

    Is there a way to make this without a candy thermometer? I don’t have one, and I live in an Asian city, so things related to baking or sweets are a bit harder to come by. How would I know when my honey has reached the correct temperature?

    • says

      Yes. You can keep a bowl of cold water next to it, and when you drop a small amount of the sugar syrup in and it forms a squishy ball, it’s done. (If it immediately forms a hard/stiff ball or is too stiff to even form a ball, it’s done too much, but will still work.) I estimate all the time on the temperature/doneness and honestly it still works out fine.

  27. Devon says

    I’m really excited to try this recipe this weekend. I am wondering how much frosting this recipe will make. I am making two average sized round cakes and cutting each in the middle to make layers (there will be three) so I’m wondering if I need to double the recipe to fill and cover everything. What do you think?

  28. AJ says

    Katie, I have two questions. Could I substitute mint extract for the vanilla? I’m making chocolate cupcakes and wanted mint icing to accompany them. That being said, I have never used buttercream icing before. Will it work on cupcakes? I read some comments that made me think that it would not be firm enough to sit on the cupcakes. I hope it will because I have been looking for a great icing recipe that doesn’t involve so much sugar and I am hoping this is it!!

    • says

      Hi AJ,

      Sure, you can use mint extract instead of vanilla. You might need a little more of it, but can add to taste. It is firm enough to sit on cupcakes, but not firm enough to use for decorating (like if you wanted to pipe flowers). You *can* use it for decorating if partially refrigerated but you have to be really careful. Normal icing though is fine!

  29. Angie says

    Hello, I just purchased your ebook and there was a link from the Orange Medallion cookies to this frosting. However, do you happen to have a Paleo version of frosting that would go with these cookies?

    By the way LOVE the book, Baking with Coconut Flour.
    Thank you.

  30. Heidy says

    I want to make strawberry frosting for my sons birthday but want it to be low sugar. Do you think it would work to fold in some strawberry puree at the end?

  31. Jen says

    So I used salted butter, and forgot, and added my pinch of salt. Probably won’t do that next time. 1/2 cup of maple, 1/4 cup of honey, it was pretty good! Can’t wait to put it on the flour-less brownies I just made. Thank you for this recipe (along with non-refined sugar options)!

  32. Lynn says

    Hai Sweetheart :)

    Superb way to have it less sugar and i just love your video. Thanks. Just wondering….in Malaysia the climate is a bit warm here….dose the buttercream can melt little bit if its on a warm weather here.
    Appreciate your feedback ya.
    Thank you,dear.

    • says

      Hi Lynn,

      I would probably keep the buttercream itself, or anything frosted with it in the fridge if it’s warm, because it could melt and would be ruined.

  33. Justin says

    Hi Kate, I look forward to trying this. I was planning on using it for carrot cake but wanted first to make sure that I could safely substitute the vanilla for lemon juice/zest or just something more carrot-cakey. Thanks for the recipe!

  34. Jami says

    Hi there, I am wanted to do a refined sugar free smash cake for 1 year old I was hoping to do decorative roses all around would this froating work for that? I am having the hardest time finding frosting that doesn’t use sugar but could still be stiff enough. Any suggestions?

    • says

      Hi Jami,

      Yes, “but” lol. You could use this, but it will be very soft and you will have to work with it when it’s still rather cold (but not too cold) and once the roses are made, keep it frozen. Alternately, you could frost the cake with this and make the roses inedible. OR if you do the swirly sort of “roses” as the cake frosting, this would definitely work for that.

  35. TerriK says

    Hi Kate,
    I am making this to decorate a 10″ x 3″ round pound cake – with decorated borders. How many recipes should I make?

  36. Heidi says

    This frosting is amazing! We just did a test batch with honey. It’s so yummy I can’t stop eating it off the spoon. I’m using for my son’s 3rd bday on coconut flour/cacao cupcakes. Thanks!

  37. Z.K. says

    I just tried this recipe. I used raw honey instead (3/4 cups), and as someone else mentioned, it takes much less time for the honey to reach the softball stage. It takes about the same time as it takes to get the eggs to the very soft peak stage (4-5 minutes).

    Followed the recipe exactly otherwise, especially followed the rules on temperature (which made things very easy). Turned out amazing. It tastes like high end vanilla ice cream. 100% recommend. This is genius.

  38. says

    LOVED this! Made it this morning, and just loved everything about it! Perfectly light and airy, yet super creamy with a delicious flavor and not crazy-sugary-sweet like almost all frostings. Will definitely make it again.

  39. leah says

    This is heavenly!!! Seriously BEST icing recipe I’ve made in 2plus years. (I have been clean eating since then and love finding recipes that I can use/tweak to my liking!! I’m a little obsessed with cleaning up recipes… I didn’t have to with this one!)
    I subbed organic maple syrup like suggested and omitted the water and used organic butter. I want to make again with spectrum vegetable shortening or nutiva palm oil/coconut oil blend shortening.
    Great directions – easy to follow. (we make marshmallows all the time so I was used to that part!)
    THANK YOU!!!!


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