Does homemade buttercream frosting need to be refrigerated?

Buttercream frosting is a classic icing used to decorate cakes and cupcakes. With its sweet, creamy texture and spreadable consistency, it’s easy to see why buttercream is such a popular choice for bakers. Homemade buttercream starts with butter, powdered sugar, and a liquid like milk or cream. But once it’s made, many bakers wonder if it requires refrigeration to maintain its optimal texture and flavor. Here’s a look at whether homemade buttercream frosting needs refrigeration.

Quick Answer

Yes, homemade buttercream frosting does need to be refrigerated. The butter or cream cheese in buttercream can go rancid at room temperature, so chilling it is the best way to ensure safety and preserve flavor. Make sure to thoroughly chill buttercream frosting before decorating cakes or cupcakes, and then refrigerate any leftovers. If refrigerated properly, buttercream can last up to 2 weeks.

Does Buttercream Need to be Refrigerated for Food Safety?

Refrigerating homemade buttercream frosting is important for food safety. Buttercream is an emulsion of butter, powdered sugar, and a liquid like milk or cream. The dairy ingredients mean buttercream can be a breeding ground for bacteria if left at room temperature too long. Pathogens like salmonella and E. coli can multiply rapidly in frosting made with unpasteurized eggs or dairy products.

Refrigeration prevents bacterial growth by slowing down the reproduction of pathogens. Chilled to 40°F or below, buttercream is too cold for most bacteria to multiply quickly. Refrigeration also preserves the fresh, creamy flavor of buttercream by preventing the butter or cream cheese from becoming rancid.

Dairy Ingredients in Buttercream

Butter and cream cheese are the main ingredients in buttercream that require refrigeration. Butter is typically 80% milk fat, while cream cheese ranges from 33-55% milk fat. Higher fat dairy products like these are more prone to spoilage and rancidity than lower fat options.

Butter is emulsified, meaning the milk proteins and milk fat are suspended together with the aid of an emulsifier like lecithin. This emulsion can break down over time, causing the butter to separate and go rancid. Meanwhile, the additional moisture in cream cheese gives bacteria more room to grow.

Leaving butter or cream cheese-based frostings out too long allows bacteria levels to rapidly rise to dangerous levels. Dairy ingredients also quickly pick up other odors and flavors if left unrefrigerated. Within several hours at room temperature, buttercream can start tasting spoiled.

Foodborne Illness Risks

Consuming frosting made with contaminated dairy ingredients can potentially lead to foodborne illness. Symptoms generally occur within 1-3 days and can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Some pathogens may lead to more serious complications. Babies, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk for severe illness.

To avoid potential foodborne illness, buttercream frosting should always be refrigerated until ready to use. Leftovers should be promptly chilled in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag.

Does Buttercream Need to be Chilled for Texture?

Yes, chilling buttercream frosting helps maintain its smooth, creamy texture. The fat content is what gives buttercream its rich, velvety consistency that is perfect for decorating cakes. But the emulsified fat can start to break down at warmer temperatures, leading to undesirable changes in texture.

Refrigeration helps buttercream retain its spreadable texture. The chill also prevents the icing from becoming too soft. Warm, melted buttercream will liquefy and lose its ability to properly hold its shape.

Impact of Ingredient Temperatures

Using room temperature butter and cream cheese is key when making buttercream frosting. If the fats are too cold, they won’t properly emulsify with the sugar and liquid. This can lead to a frosting with a greasy, curdled appearance. Softened butter and cream cheese have air beaten into them, creating a light, fluffy texture.

But after mixing up homemade buttercream, it should be chilled before using. The emulsion needs time in the fridge for the fat crystals to re-solidify and firm up. Chilled buttercream holds its decorative swirls, flowers, and peaks much better than freshly made icing.

Preventing Sweating and Separation

Cool temperatures in the fridge also prevent buttercream from sweating or separating. Sweating is when droplets of moisture appear on the surface of the frosting due to humidity. Separation occurs when the emulsion breaks down and the liquid starts to separate from the fat.

Refrigeration helps limit sweating and separation issues. If buttercream seems too moist after chilling, a quick stir can re-emulsify the ingredients. Leaving the frosting out to re-soften before decorating can also help achieve the ideal texture.

Does Shortening-Based Buttercream Require Refrigeration?

Buttercream made with vegetable shortening instead of butter or cream cheese still requires refrigeration. While shortening won’t go rancid like dairy ingredients, chilling helps prevent sweating issues.

Shortening has a higher melting point than butter, so it makes a thicker, more heat-stable buttercream. But at room temperature or warmer, the icing can still start to sweat due to high humidity. The moist droplets on the frosting can lead to runny colors and cause decorative details to slide off the cake.

Chilling shortening-based buttercream ensures it sets up with a firm texture for decorating. The cold temperatures also help lock in air bubbles for maximum volume. Just like dairy buttercreams, shortening frostings should be thoroughly chilled before use and leftovers refrigerated.

Skim Milk Powder Option

Powdered skim milk is sometimes used in place of cream or milk in shortening buttercreams. Since it contains little to no milk fat, skim milk powder eliminates the risk of dairy-related spoilage.

But skim milk powder is still hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb moisture from the air. In humid conditions, moisture absorption can lead to frosting that appears wet or weeping. Refrigeration helps prevent this by cooling the buttercream below the dewpoint.

Should Decorated Cakes Be Refrigerated?

In general, cakes with buttercream frosting and decorative details need refrigeration for the best quality. There are some exceptions depending on the cake components and how soon the cake will be consumed.

Frosted Cake Shelf Life

Once a cake is frosted, it will last:

  • 1-2 days at room temperature
  • 3-4 days refrigerated

The cut surfaces of the cake itself are prone to moisture migration and staling when left out too long. Refrigeration preserves freshness and prevents the crumb from drying out.

For cakes with dairy-based buttercream, chilling is always recommended. The icing has a shorter shelf life than the cake layers if kept at room temperature.

Short-Term Storage

Cakes that will be consumed within several hours may not need refrigeration if the ambient temperature is cool. For example, a birthday cake brought out just before the party starts. Maintaining proper food safety techniques when transporting and handling the cake is key.

Shortening-based frostings can withstand a brief period out of refrigeration better than dairy. But in warm conditions, heat-stable frostings may still start to sweat.

Long-Term Storage

Any cakes that will be stored longer than a day need refrigeration. Extended time at room temperature allows mold growth and undesirable texture changes.

When refrigerating frosted cakes:

  • Chill uncovered until the icing sets, then cover loosely with plastic wrap or a cake dome.
  • Let come to room temperature 1-2 hours before serving for best flavor and texture.
  • Avoid storing cakes in the refrigerator more than 5 days maximum.

Tips for Refrigerating Buttercream

Follow these tips for safely and properly storing buttercream frosting:

  • Allow freshly made buttercream to chill in the refrigerator 2-3 hours until firm before decorating.
  • Place buttercream in an airtight container, squeezing out excess air before sealing.
  • To avoid absorbing fridge odors, store buttercream towards the front top shelf of the refrigerator.
  • If refrigerating a frosted cake, chill uncovered initially to allow the icing to fully set.
  • When storing buttercream long-term, freeze for up to 3 months rather than refrigerating.
  • Thaw frozen buttercream frosting in the refrigerator or at room temperature.

Avoid Condensation

Condensation can form on buttercream when refrigerated, especially if stored in a sealed container immediately after making. The moisture on the surface may cause decorations to slide or colors to bleed.

If condensation is an issue:

  • Let the buttercream chill unwrapped in the fridge until set before covering.
  • Wipe away any moisture before decorating or let the frosting come to room temperature first.

Re-Whip Before Using

After prolonged refrigeration, buttercream may need to be re-whipped before decorating or frosting a cake. The emulsified fat can separate slightly during chilling.

To re-whip:

  • Allow refrigerated buttercream to warm slightly at room temperature, about 20 minutes.
  • Use a stand mixer or hand mixer to beat the frosting until smooth, fluffy, and spreadable again.

Signs Buttercream Has Spoiled

Discard buttercream frosting if it shows any of the following signs of spoilage:

  • Mold growth – Mold will appear as fuzzy spots or filaments, often green, black, or white.
  • Curdled texture – Buttercream has curdled if it looks greasy, separated, and grainy.
  • Rancid smell – Spoiled dairy fats will produce a distinct rancid or sour odor.
  • Off flavors – Taste buttercream before using if the texture seems off. Rancid or bitter flavors are a sign it has spoiled.

To avoid waste, make only as much buttercream as needed for each use. Properly stored in the refrigerator, homemade buttercream frosting lasts 1-2 weeks.


Can you make buttercream without refrigeration?

It’s not recommended to make buttercream without planning to refrigerate it. The dairy ingredients require chilling to prevent bacterial growth. Leaving buttercream frosting unrefrigerated also leads to undesirable texture changes.

How long can buttercream sit out at room temperature?

Buttercream should not sit out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. After this point, the risk of foodborne illness starts to increase. The frosting may also become too soft and warm for decorating.

Can you freeze buttercream frosting?

Yes, buttercream can be frozen for longer term storage. Place it in an airtight container, smoothing the top and squeezing out excess air before sealing. Frozen buttercream keeps for 2-3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before using.

Should you refrigerate American buttercream?

American buttercream made with butter, powdered sugar, milk/cream, and vanilla also requires refrigeration. The dairy-based ingredients can spoil at room temperature. Chilling gives American buttercream a thicker, firmer texture for decorating.

What temp should buttercream be when decorating cakes?

The ideal temperature for buttercream decorating is around 65°F-70°F. At this consistency, it spreads smoothly without being too soft. Buttercream should hold its shape but not feel overly firm. Refrigerated frosting may need 20-60 minutes at room temperature to re-soften before decorating or piping designs.

The Bottom Line

Refrigerating homemade buttercream frosting is important for food safety and preserves the ideal decorating texture. The dairy ingredients can quickly spoil and go rancid if left unchilled. Chilling helps firm up buttercream so it can properly hold decorative piping, flowers, and details.

Buttercream absorbs surrounding fridge odors easily, so store it in an airtight container in the front top section. Allow chilled buttercream to come to room temperature before using. For the best quality, refrigerate any cakes frosted with buttercream as well. With proper storage methods, homemade buttercream can last up to 2 weeks refrigerated.

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