Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In Search of...Dairy Free Wedding Cake Frosting

So the wedding is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I was still in search of a good dairy free frosting. Their cake will be a three tier cake, and the couple requested the middle tier be dairy-free for their relatives who are apparently really allergic to all things dairy. The couple had vetoed the standard shortening-powdered sugar frosting as too sweet. I said I would go back to the drawing board.

The requirements for this dairy free frosting are:
  • not too sweet
  • looks similar to the italian meringue buttercream used in the other two tiers
  • no butter, no milk, no dairy whatsoever
  • needs to be heat stable to at least 85°F, but preferably up to 90°F (a girl can dream)
I made a one egg-sized batch of Italian Meringue Buttercream as a control:
  • 30g egg white
  • 58g sugar (divided 14g/44g)
  • 15g water
  • 91g butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
testing dairy free frostings

Then I started substituting non-dairy butter substitutes in the IMBC. I used Earth's Best butter-flavored stuff in a tub, and Canoleo in a tub, and Spectrum shortening. I also started increasing the amount of sugar syrup to counter the saltiness of the margarines, and the weird "butter" flavors. This just resulted in soft, marshmallow fluff-like frostings.

The shortening test was interesting. I used the normal amount of sugar syrup and could barely get 41g shortening emulsified into the italian meringue. The shortening had the best flavor (sugar, vanilla) but like most shortening-based frostings, left a greasy feel in the mouth.

testing dairy free frostings

I went back to the drawing board.

I decided to chuck the eggs as well and look for a totally vegan frosting. Searching around, I decided to try a vegan cream cheese frosting. Then I found a really awesome vegan baking website, The founder, Mattie Hagedorn, is the kind of baker I like. He's inquisitive, scientific, and creative. Just look at his post on how to make vegan butter and I think you'll agree. I want to make the cocoa butter butter, and play around with that!!

Anyways, he posted a couple of interesting frostings that he said were warm weather appropriate. He used soy milk powder to add creaminess and a sugar syrup for stabilization and silkiness. He had a version for butter flavored sticks as well as one for shortening. I was excited to try them out. Elsewhere on his website I learned that, when baking with vegan butters, it is important to use the sticks not the tubs. The margarines in the tubs have more water and salt apparently. I wish I had known that before my initial tests! I ran out and bought Earth Balance buttery sticks and non-buttery sticks.

Mattie's Rich Buttercream Frosting and Rich Vanilla Frosting both start with combining sugar, water, soy milk powder, and either agave or corn syrup. This is slowly heated to 230°F, cooled down to about room temperature, and then the butter or shortening and flavorings are added in. When using shortening (the rich vanilla frosting), you add apple cider vinegar, vanilla, and a little almond extract. This actually gives the frosting an intriguing flavor, almost butter-like. In fact, much more butter-like than those buttery flavored sticks, which continue to taste like maple syrup to me.

My initial tests were failures as I forgot the sugar syrup needed to be heated slowly at medium heat, and was heating it on medium-high. At that heat, the soy milk powder kept burning. Initially I used agave syrup but that turned the frostings from white to a caramelly brown.

My second round of tests, two days later, came out much better. By this time I had fired the buttery flavored sticks and was working exclusively with the rich vanilla frosting, using the non-butter flavored earth balance sticks and the spectrum shortening. The spectrum frosting had a really pretty creamy white look to it; a good match for the IMBC. The earth balance shortening sticks had a better mouthfeel--less greasy.

testing dairy free frostings

The vegan cream cheese is from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and is dead simple. I halved the amount of sugar and it resulted in a creamy, lightly sweet, lightly tangy product. (You can find the recipe, probably posted without permission, here.)

The question was now, which one would stand up to hot weather the best? Unfortunately the weather here took a turn for cool and rainy, so my initial plan of frosting some cupcakes and putting them out in the sun for a couple of hours was out. So I heated the bathroom to 85°F, frosted some cheap box cupcakes, and left them alone for a couple of hours.

testing dairy free frostings

I have to add a caveat here. Of the four frostings I tested in my hot bathroom, the IMBC and the VCC had been refrigerated for at least 24 hours before the test. The two shortening frostings had been made just before the test, and I think that is why they suffered so badly in the test. The shortening frostings didn't hold up so well. The Earth Balance shortening sticks began to break down pretty quickly. The Spectrum shortening held on for about an hour but began to break down too. The control, the IMBC, never broke down but did get all shiny and turned a yucky yellow color. Shockingly, the vegan cream cheese frosting never batted an eyelash. It didn't melt, or break down, or get oily/greasy, or deteriorate in any way. Totally not what I was expecting!

testing dairy free frostings
italian meringue buttercream after 2 hours in the hot bathroom

testing dairy free frostings
vegan cream cheese frosting after 2 hours in the hot bathroom

The next morning, the sun was out so I frosted a couple cupcakes with the now refrigerated shortening frostings, and left them out for a couple of hours. It was about 84°F and the Earth Balance frosting began to break down after about an hour. The Spectrum shortening started to break down at about 90 minutes, but not too badly.

I am still undecided about the frosting. The cream cheese tastes good, has a good mouthfeel, and stood up to hot temperatures better than I imagined. However it seems a little lowbrow for a wedding. If the temperature isn't too hot, I might go with the Spectrum frosting. It resembles the IMBC the best and is a close runner up in taste and appearance. Plus, it seems a little more appropriate for a wedding. Stay tuned, readers.


  1. I am fascinated. Simply fascinated! All this research and samples and testing under the sun. You are going to become Rose in no time!

  2. Impressive! I'm sure which ever one you choose it will be wonderful. Remember that Miette cake we made and I had to frost it with Tofutti cream cheese for the baby? People didn't know and loved it. Kids loved it. I made it really runny but flavor wise, it was good. It sat out for a long time and held up well.

  3. Jenn, thanks!! This experimentation is fun/fascinating, but I got to the point where I couldn't stand to look at let alone taste white frosting! I don't know about becoming Rose (I'm still too lazy most of the time) but she's been a great role model :)

    Vicki, ah yes, I do remember your tofutti frosting. I used tofutti for the vegan cream cheese frosting too--that stuff is magical.

  4. Hi~ Wow interesting observation!! I love reading such posts on experiments! :D

  5. I couldn't agree more with Jenn. Simply fascinating! I love it :o) Thanks so much for sharing your findings!

  6. faithy, thanks! I love posts on experiments too.

    Hanaa, you are welcome! I think you are closer to becoming the next Rose than I am, btw. You totally have the inquisitive mind!

  7. Which brand/variety of margarine did you use in the vegan cream cheese frosting? My favorite brand for daily use is exceedingly salty (Smart Balance Organic Buttery Spread -- oddly, the organic one is dairy free but the other is not).

    1. Gosh, I wish I could remember exactly which margarine I used for the cream cheese frosting--I can't believe I didn't make any mention of it! My best guess-as I still have some sticks in the freezer--is the Earth Balance Natural Shortening sticks. I did use the Tofutti vegan cream cheese, that I know for certain.

    2. Thanks so much for the fast answer! I'm off to search and see if you did a post on the final wedding cake -- I'm new to your blog! I'm planning on making an awesome zoo cake for my son's birthday party next saturday, and need it to be dairy free for the sake of my daughter. I tend to get all these grand hopes and ideas, then end up driving myself nuts trying to execute them! I'm not a baker by any means, but enjoy trying. I'm trying to leverage others' experience here and not reinvent the wheel!

    3. How fun! Hey, if you are interested in the dairy free chocolate cake I used for the cake, the recipe is over here. Good luck!

  8. There have recently been some huge innovations with making meringue out of (if you can believe it) the liquid drained from a can of beans.

    This means that vegan Italian Meringue Buttercream is possible -- I was able to make some with drained chickpea liquid and 100% palm oil shortening. I tried another batch with Earth Balance Buttery Sticks and it wasn't as successful. A chef friend says she's made egg-based IMBC with Fleishmann's Unsalted margarine (the only dairy-free one in their line), so I think that's promising, too. I haven't tried it.

    I'm sure you could also make dairy-free IMBC with eggs and palm shortening, or an egg-free one with bean liquid and butter, but I haven't tried those combinations yet.

    Here's the recipe that I got to work: