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Runny frosting! What am I doing wrong?

My frosting always ends up runny, no matter what I do. End result, my cakes always look like the leaning tower of Pisa. Tastes good, yes, but looks nasty. Especially if it's chocolate frosting. Eew.

Anyway, this happens with just about any kind of frosting I attempt to make that involves butter or cream cheese. I have made successful whipped cream and ganache frostings. At first I thought it was just because my apartment is really hot, but I tried it this morning when it was perfectly cool and what the heck??? Just can't seem to get it right. My coworker's birthday cake looks like a chocolate peanut butter pile of mush. Really really yummy mush that I was licking off the spatulas and bowls this morning, but STILL. What have I been doing wrong? And what can I do to reverse the damage?

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  1. It might be helpful if you tell us what it is that you ARE doing, so that we can give you advice on what you may be doing wrong. A few starter questions: what consistency is your fat? (softened butter, melted, cold, etc.) What kind of sugar are you using? (Granulated vs. powdered). What proportion of liquid to dry ingredients are you using? An example of one of your frosting recipes would probably also be helpful.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Aloo0628

      I have been using frosting recipes from either the Cake Mix Doctor or Rosie's Bakery books. Okay okay, so this morning I didn't measure anything. And I don't have them with me.
      Generally it's a block of cream cheese or butter, 2 Tbsps of milk, then a bunch of the dry ingredients, usually powdered sugar. This morning I added cocoa also, adding up to at least 4 cups of dry ingredients.

      Should I wait to add the milk at the end once everything else is mixed? I admit that sometimes I panic that it looks too dry and I add a *little* extra liquid. But I usually don't do that.

      1. re: CookieEater

        i find that most recipes calls for way too much milk. i think holding back on adding any liquid until you see the consistency first is a good idea.

        1. re: trolley

          Argh, I thought it might be the milk. But it seems like such a tiny amount! It would help if I found a recipe that was much more descriptive about what the mixture should look like after each ingredient is added.

          1. re: CookieEater

            the magnolia bakery traditional buttercream calls for 1/2 cup of milk. that's what i did and ended up with soup. 2 tablespoons shouldn't make it soup like mine so now i'm curious. also measuring is the key when it comes to baking even it's frosting. cooking well... that's another thing...not measuring might be the problem...

          2. re: trolley

            I tend to hold off on any milk in recipes where there is lot of cream cheese is used, but even different butters have varying liquid content. All powdered sugars will react differently, especially if they have been opened long or you live in a humid or dry environment.

            If in doubt, don't be afraid to beat in more powdered sugar to stiffen it back up. The recipe is only a guide, and technique and experience are always more important.

      2. what recipe do you use? maybe it's your recipe and not you. keep in mind some recipes are written wrong. the same thing used to happen to me everytime i followed the buttercream recipe from magnolia bakery book. i ended up putting in about 5 extra cups of powdered sugar to save it. try an italian buttercream recipe next time. it's a bit more process b/c you have to make egg whites then pour hot sugar syrup into it whip whipping but the results are always worth it if you follow the instructions.

        1. Add milk only at the end to get the desired consistency or eliminate it altogether if you don't need it. And plan for some chilling time before you frost with it.

          3 Replies
          1. re: AlaskaChick

            If you chill it, won't it go back to the original consistency once it's been on the cake for a while?

            Trolley - Seriously a 1/2 cup of milk for buttercream? That's insane.

            1. re: CookieEater

              i know 1/2 a cup! and it calls for only 2 sticks of butter. i double checked the recipe today in the book to make sure. it has to be a typo b/c i seriously ended up with soup and the only thing that fixed it was dumping more powdered sugar. way more than the 8 cups it called for. and top of all this i was doing this right before work! poor planning on my part.

              1. re: trolley

                It's similar to the Restaurant Eve recipe I use for buttercream and I really like it:

                http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...

                The butter should be room temperature but not runny--leave about half an hour at room temperature. Longer, it can get mushy. If the frosting is runny, you can put it back in the refrigerator and the butter should harden up and give you a thicker frosting.

          2. When making frosting, my philosophy has always been to beat the fat (butter, shortening, cream cheese, whatever), sugar, and flavoring if you're using it (vanilla extract, cocoa powder, etc.) together first, then add liquids at the very end. You generally need a lot more powdered sugar than you'd think to make a good frosting.

            Also, don't dump everything into a bowl and start beating. Cream the fat first until it's a good creamy, soft consistency. Then add the dry ingredients slowly - a little bit, beat til combined, a bit more, repeat. Each time, the amount of dry you add can increase a bit. If you dump it all in at once you're more likely to get lumps and it'll be a bit more difficult to get the consistency you're looking for. Also, if you dump it all in at once, then it will look really dry, lumpy, and gross for awhile when you beat it. Then it will magically pull together into frosting, so don't panic and add liquid until after that has happened. :-)

            Add the milk, coffee, or whatever thinning liquid you're going to use at the very end and in very small amounts. With frosting, a little goes a surprisingly long way when it comes to liquids.

            Good luck!

            6 Replies
            1. re: Aloo0628

              That's exactly what happens. Dry, lumpy, and I panic!

              1. re: CookieEater

                So have you had any luck with your frosting since this conversation? I hope our tips helped!

                1. re: Aloo0628

                  SUCCESS!

                  I had been avoiding cakes so I had not attempted anything until just this past week. I made a chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, and it was great! If anything, I maybe kept the frosting a little too thick just to be on the safe side. But it worked out great. I added the milk at the last minute. No sliding around, the cake stayed together. YAY

                  1. re: CookieEater

                    That's wonderful, congrats! Here's to many more yummy - and well-adorned - cakes in your future :-)

                    1. re: Aloo0628

                      I was going to take a picture for proof, but my camera died over the holidays.

              2. re: Aloo0628

                You are BRILLIANT! This reminds me of what Julia Child thought of cooking: it's chemistry! Thank you. I wished I had read this before I made chocolate soup to frost my beautiful cake! My friends will eat anything, thank God!! Next time...

              3. This is what works for me every time. Two sticks of unsalted softened butter that I cream in a bowl for about 15 seconds. Add one cup of sifted powdered sugar and mix on low until blended with the butter. Add another cup of powdered sugar, same mixing process. Add one more cup of powdered sugar, blend, scrape down bowl, then add a TINY pinch of salt, one half teaspoon vanilla extract, one half teaspoon almond extract then beat at high speed for about a min. Scrape down bowl and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of milk, beat again, and use. Good Luck!