Vegan Life | Recipes

Vegan Buttercream Frosting

July 8, 2021

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vegan buttercream in ramekin

Buttercream frosting is easily my favorite vegan cake frosting of all time. It has a rich flavor and a thick, creamy texture that just works well on almost any cake or cupcake. This recipe makes a vanilla buttercream which is perfect for a white frosting base, or for coloring in a variety of colors. The best thing about this recipe is how easy it is to make. With just a few ingredients and a stand mixer, you can have delicious vegan frosting in minutes.

If you need some moist and delicious vegan cake recipes to pair this frosting with, try my vegan vanilla cake or my divine chocolate cupcakes.

A side view of a vegan vanilla cake with buttercream frosting
My vegan vanilla cake frosted with buttercream frosting

How much frosting should I make for a batch of cupcakes or a layer cake?

The short answer is you should probably make more than you think you need. Leftover frosting can be frozen, so it's better to have extra than to run out in the middle of frosting.

How much frosting you're going to need for a batch of cupcakes will vary widely depending on how much frosting you want to use on each cupcake. If you want picturesque bakery cupcakes with huge piles of frosting on top, I'd recommend making 2 or 3 batches (4-6 cups of frosting). But for me personally, that's usually way too much frosting to actually eat. I like a nice spatula-frosted layer on top that's maybe 3/4 of an inch thick or less. If you prefer that kind of cupcake, 1 batch (2 cups) should be enough for 24 cupcakes.

For a 3-layer 6-inch cake (or a 2-layer 8-inch cake), you'll need approximately 2 batches (4 cups) of frosting. But you may use more or less depending on how thick you like your frosting to be.

How to add color to your frosting

If you want to color your frosting, make sure that you're using vegan food coloring. Many food colorings have weird insect-derived ingredients that are not vegan. You would typically want to use a gel food coloring in frosting to avoid watering down the texture, however, vegan liquid food coloring is much easier to find. So I recommend adding in liquid food coloring before adding in your non-dairy milk. Then, if your frosting still needs some moisture after adding the food coloring, you can add the non-dairy milk as needed. This food coloring from Whole Foods Market is the one I use most often.

How to frost a layer cake

To frost a picture-perfect layer cake, you'll need to start with the right tools:

  • A cake decorating turntable will allow you to spin the cake so you can spread and smooth the frosting along the sides.

  • Grease-proof cake boards provide a moveable base for your cake, so you can transfer it from the turntable to a stand or plate. Make sure they're grease-proof so you can clean up any frosting without leaving a stain on the board. You should get a board that's about 2" larger than your cake (so for a 6" cake, purchase 8" boards).

  • Slip-proof shelf liner is optional, but it's nice to cut and place underneath your cake board so the cake doesn't slide around while you're spreading the frosting.

  • A flat icing spatula will help you spread the frosting evenly around the cake. Use a small spatula for smaller cakes.

  • An icing smoother can be used to make the top and sides of your cake beautifully smooth.

  • A pastry (piping) bag and large piping tips are optional. You can use a large round tip to pipe the icing between the layers before spreading it out. And you can use star tips or other shaped tips to place decorative frosting on top or at the base of the cake. I recommend reusable pastry bags to minimize waste.

cake decorating tools: piping bag, decorating turntable, icing spatula, shelf liner, cake server, icing smoother, and piping tips

Before you start, you may wish to freeze your cake layers. This will make them firmer and less likely to crumble when you spread the frosting. Normally I'll freeze the layers overnight, and take them out when I'm preparing the frosting. That way, they're not fully frozen, but they still remain firm while I'm frosting them.

Begin by placing your decorating turntable on a table, then place a piece of shelf liner on top (if you're using it). Put a cake board on top of the shelf liner, as close to the center as possible.

Use your icing spatula to spread a small amount of buttercream on the center of the cake board. Then press your first layer onto the cake board, keeping it as close to the center as possible. It's important for your entire cake to be at the center of the turntable so you can get a smooth finish with your icing smoother.

spreading buttercream on a cake circle on a decorating turntable

Pipe or use the spatula to pile some of your buttercream on top of the first layer. Spread it around evenly, making sure to fill in any air pockets. You can make each layer as thick or thin as you'd like, but I normally use about 1 cm (3/8 in) of frosting between each layer.

spreading frosting on top of the first layer of cake

Place your second layer on top and press down gently to ensure that there's no air between the cake and the frosting. Check the cake from the sides and spin it around a few times to make sure that the cake is straight, and adjust it if needed. If you have additional layers, repeat frosting and adding the layers on top.

gently pressing to remove space between frosting and cake

Once your top layer has been placed, you can begin to create your first buttercream layer. This layer should be very thin and provide a base for the thicker buttercream layer that will go on top of it. It will also catch any crumbs that fall off of the cake so they're not spread into the main layer of buttercream. Pipe some frosting on the top and sides or use the spatula to place it. Then use the spatula to spread a thin layer along the sides and top of the cake, making sure that it's fully covered.

Once you have your cake coated, use your icing smoother to smooth out the frosting and make it as thin as possible. Don't be too aggressive with the icing smoother; gentle pressure is best. Be sure to use long, smooth strokes on the top of the cake, moving from the center to the edges. On the sides, hold the smoother vertically against the side of the cake and spin the turntable.

using an icing smoother on the first layer of frosting
Use your icing smoother to get the first layer of frosting smooth and thin.

Place the cake in the freezer for about 5 minutes, until the frosting is hard. Then you can apply your final layer of buttercream. Be sure to set some buttercream aside if you plan to pipe additional frosting on the top or base for decoration.

Place more frosting on the top and sides of the cake using your spatula or pastry bag. Spread it with the spatula until you have a thick, even layer. Finish the cake with your icing smoother, using very gentle pressure to smooth out the frosting.

Put the remaining frosting in a piping bag with a star tip or other decorative tip. Pipe as desired on the top or around the base of the cake to add some flair to your buttercream!

a piping bag adding decorative stars to the top of a cake

If you'd like more specific instructions for the ombre design, you can find those over on the recipe for my vegan vanilla cake.

How to frost cupcakes

You'll need some tools for frosting cupcakes, too, but far fewer tools are needed for cupcakes than for layer cakes. You'll only need either a small icing spatula (for a thin layer of frosting) or pastry bags and piping tips (for thick, fancy frosting).

Make sure you're starting with cupcakes that have cooled completely. If they're even just a little warm, your frosting may soften or melt, so be patient!

To spatula-frost cupcakes, scoop a bit of buttercream with your spatula, then spread it on top of a cupcake. I generally spread about 3/4 of an inch to an inch of frosting (2-2.5 cm) on top of each cupcake.

To pipe frosting on cupcakes, you'll need to first decide on a style. There are many different styles of cupcake piping, but the most common use a star tip or a round tip. With the star tip, the most common method is to pipe the frosting in a circular motion, making smaller and smaller circles until you've created a point at the top. Using a round tip, it's common to pipe in the center and allow the frosting to move outwards towards the edges of the cupcake, then repeat with smaller layers on top.

Since it's easier to learn to pipe cupcakes by watching than by reading, I recommend checking out this video by Cupcake Jemma. She suggests that you practice your technique on parchment paper so you can reuse the frosting over and over again until you get it right.

Cupcakes are often topped with sprinkles or other toppings. If you've spatula-frosted your cupcakes, it may be easiest to just dip the frosting right into a bowl of sprinkles. For piped cupcakes, you will probably want to sprinkle your toppings on top to avoid messing up any designs you've piped out.

In addition to sprinkles, I also like to used shaved chocolate, dried coconut, chopped nuts, or crumbled cookies to top my cupcakes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes this frosting dairy-free and vegan?

Standard buttercream is made of butter, heavy cream, and powdered sugar. In this recipe, we'll use vegan butter in place of the butter, and a smaller amount of non-dairy milk in place of the heavy cream. Not all powdered sugar is vegan (it is often processed with bone char), but as long as you look for powdered sugar that's labeled "vegan," you're safe. Organic sugars are often vegan. I typically buy Whole Foods' 365 brand organic powdered sugar, which is vegan.

Do I need to use 3 cups of sugar?

You could certainly use a little less sugar if you wanted to, but the flavor and texture will change. The sugar is there to balance out the buttery flavor and also to keep the texture lighter. If you want to lower the amount of sugar per cupcake or slice of cake, I would personally keep the recipe the same and just use a thinner coating of frosting. The cake recipes on this site don't need huge amounts of frosting to mask the taste of the cake, because the cake is delicious on its own!

Vegan Buttercream Frosting

Yield2 cups

Prep Time20 minutes

Cook Timen/a

Total Time20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup vegan butter sticks, softened to room temperature (I used Earth Balance)
  • 3 cup vegan powdered (icing/confectioner's) sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tbsp. plain, unsweetened non-dairy milk

Instructions

  1. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed, mix up your vegan butter until it’s soft and creamy. While your butter is being mixed, sift your powdered sugar to eliminate clumps. Turn off the mixer, then add 1 cup of powdered sugar, and slowly turn the mixer back on. (If you start mixing too quickly, your powdered sugar may be kicked out of the bowl). Repeat with the remaining powdered sugar, one cup at a time. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.

  2. Add your vanilla, salt, and food coloring (if using) to the bowl and mix until well-incorporated. Add additional food coloring if needed to achieve your desired color.

  3. Add your non-dairy milk a little at a time until you reach the desired consistency. Your frosting shouldn’t be too stiff or too runny. It should be spreadable, but it should also be thick enough to stay put when spread on the cake. You may need to use more or less than 1 tablespoon of non-dairy milk, especially if you added liquid food coloring in the previous step. If you accidentally add too much milk, you can thicken the frosting with additional powdered sugar.

  4. To get a light and fluffy texture, turn up the speed on your mixer and let it whip the frosting for a few minutes.

Notes & Hints

For non-dairy milk, I recommend canned coconut milk or regular almond milk. Canned coconut cream can be used as well, but you may need a bit more of it.

When adding non-dairy milk, keep in mind that you may want your frosting to be a bit thicker for layer cakes than for cupcakes, because it needs to hold the weight of the cakes above it.

If you make too much frosting, it can be frozen. Before using the leftovers, let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

For frosting instructions and more FAQs please see the post above.

Nutrition Data

Serving Size: 1/24 of recipe; Calories: 111Fat: 6 g.; Saturated Fat: 2 g.; Cholesterol: 0 mg.; Sodium: 80 mg.; Carbohydrates: 15 g.; Fiber: 0 g.; Sugar: 15 g.; Protein: 0 g.; Vitamin A: 0 mcg. RAE; Vitamin B12: 0 mcg.; Vitamin C: 0 mg.; Vitamin D: 0 mcg.; Calcium: 0 mg.; Iron: 0 mg.; Potassium: 0 mg.; Zinc: 0 mg.

Note: This data should be used only as an estimate. Please see the nutrition section of my terms and conditions for more information on how this data is calculated.

Four vegan dishes: Creme Brulee, Detroit-style pizza, General Tso's Tofu, and Lemon Tart

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Steph Sunshine

Hi! I'm Steph, and I love to explore vegan food, health, and of course, the world. I'm sharing my best vegan recipes, and things I've learned and loved from my travels and health journeys.

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