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I've recently been taking a Wilton cake decorating class. Part of the curriculum includes making our own buttercream icing. Many of Wilton's recipes for buttercream and like icings call for the addition of meringue powder. Other icing recipes that I've found online seem to be split as to the use of meringue powder. I've made many buttercreams in the past and have never used it before, and haven't been aware of any specific shortcomings.

What is it that meringue powder does to the icing? I've heard that it will cause the icing to "crust". How is this advantageous, and what am I missing by not using it?

Also, given that meringue powder is essentially egg whites, will using it in shortening-based buttercreams that otherwise would not require refrigeration make my icing require refrigeration?

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There are several different types or styles of butter creams. The only one I know of off hand that uses a meringue is Italian butter cream, which is essentially an Italian meringue (whipped egg whites, then further beaten with hot syrup at the soft ball stage) with butter beaten in. You might want to post one of the recipes you are talking about so folks can offer you a more informed opinion; frankly, however, I would be suspicious of a recipe for butter cream that required meringue powder, unless it was just used in lieu of fresh egg whites. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 18 '13 at 11:58
    
I infer from your comments that you have seen this thread at the Wilton site: wilton.com/forums/messageview.cfm?catid=7&threadid=119753 I also googled their recipes; most seem to not contain meringue powder. The one that did was "Class Butter Cream". All were variants on the nameless shortening and powdered sugar type of butter cream. I don't see a role for meringue powder in this type at all; they even say you can omit it. Depending on your goals, there may be more delicious butter cream recipes available. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 18 '13 at 12:06

4 Answers 4

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The crusting is important so that any flowers or other intricate decorations will fix their shape and not slump when left out in warmer temperatures. (you don't want to refrigerate iced cakes, as when you remove them from the fridge, you'll get condensation). An icing that crusts quickly means that you can use an icing that's not quite as stiff for your decorations, and after a few hours of decorating, you'll come to appreciate that minor difference.

The crust is also a benefit when trying to get a perfectly smooth cake.

Some other recipes will crust over time, and the recipe that I got from one of my instructors uses more powdered sugar and cream of tartar, but no merangue powder. I suspect it's the starch in the powdered sugar that ensures that it still crusts up.

As for shelf life ... I'm not 100% sure. I believe that the eggwhites have been pasteurized, and I've made flowers, let them dry out, then kept them stored for months at a time ... but I can't remember if those were made with merengue powder or not. I suspect that some batches were.

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This explanation makes sense; it sounds like it is trying to be a somewhat better (less nasty?) tasting Royal Icing. Still, for flowers or other fine work, Royal Icing is kind of the Plaster of Paris of the cake decorating world.... :-) –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 18 '13 at 15:36
    
Wilton's own commercial decorating icings, which do crust, do not contain any egg products, so I don't believe that it is actually necessary for crusting. As you hint at in your post, I think it's the starch that does that, not the protein in meringue; the Wilton icings use a small amount of wheat starch. –  Aaronut Feb 18 '13 at 16:39
    
@SAJ14SAJ : it's not royal icing, as there's fat in it (and quite a bit). Royal won't hold its shape nearly as well as whipped fat, and it doesn't quite firm up the same way ... if it crusts while the center's still squishy, you can do the trick to smooth the icing. If the center firms up close to the same time as the outside, or it's too fluid in the middle, the trick won't work. –  Joe Feb 18 '13 at 16:54

According to the packaging from the Wilton brand royal and meringue frostings, the shelf life can be for up to three months if kept in a cool dry place in a sealed/air tight container. The egg products are labeled as pasturized. (I think the FDA requires whole protein products to be pasturized to be sold to the public, but I cant swear to it).

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just to confirm -- the 3 months is for it after used, not the product still in the can, right? (3 months seems rather short lifetime for a powder) –  Joe Jan 7 at 4:31

I've used the wilton merengue powder in my icing for years. It doesn't alter the taste. Definitely great for making flowers and icing your cakes. It does dry and form a crust sealing in the moisture of your cake. Makes smoothing much easier. I also use the royal icing recipe with the merengue powder. Gets harder than a rock. The only thing I'm not sure of is the shelf life of the frostings.

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I use merengue powder in my buttercream frosting during the summer. It's good for high humidity. Your frosting doesn't melt as fast and it's light.

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