Some desserts demand cream cheese buttercream – like carrot cake, spice cake, or red velvet. The flavor is unmistakable and deeply missed if it’s absent, but getting a dairy-free version that tastes great, has a good texture, and pipes well can be a struggle. Even more difficult is trying to find a vegan cream cheese that’s affordable and free from nuts, soy, or coconut (for those who avoid those) – or finding one at all depending on where you live.
So I made it my mission when I ran my bakery to get the same traditional taste of cream cheese frosting locked down, without the need for nuts or coconuts, as well as not needing commercially available vegan cream cheese since I was a Texas home baker and needed a shelf-stable option.
This is what was born out of that mission.
This is my “easiest” cream cheese buttercream – so what that means is that it comes together easily in just a minutes with no weird ingredients. It’s very similar to my Easiest Vegan Buttercream Ever, but with flavor adjustments to trick the brain into thinking you’re eating a real deal cream cheese icing.
This frosting is thick, stable, and quite sweet. It’s perfect for layering cakes, frosting cakes, piping into cupcakes, or sandwiching cookies. It’s also great used as a dessert dip!
I do have another cream cheese buttercream recipe that isn’t as “easiest” as this one, but comes out lighter and less sweet with even more authentic dairy taste to it (think of this as cream cheese buttercream 101 and the other is 201 – and I’ve even got a 301 I’ll share later!) – and I’ll publish that soon. But in the mean time, I promise this one is delicious! I’ve had folks drive hundreds of miles to have some carrot cake frosted with it, and always sell out of my red velvet macarons which are sandwiched with it.
The products you choose here will depend on what ingredients you need to avoid – but whichever you choose, you’ll still get delicious “cream cheese” buttercream!
Choose your fats!
I recommend using a mix of veggie shortening and vegan butter here. Traditional cream cheese frosting is made with a mix of cream cheese and butter – so rather than go full butter and overwhelm the senses with the ‘buttery’ flavor, I like to cut it with more neutral shortening.
You can use all shortening if you’d like to avoid butter, or all butter if you’d like to avoid shortening – but the best flavor comes when you do a mix of the two. Please note that if you opt to use all shortening though, you’ll want to add a half a teaspoon of salt.
Get your tang!
Dairy cream cheese is what gives the traditional cream cheese frosting it’s distinctive tang. It’s because in order to become cream cheese, the milk is infused with bacteria that produces something called lactic acid as it eats the lactose (sugar) in the dairy. Now, lactic acid in and of itself isn’t dairy or a dairy product (the bacteria in lots of different non-dairy products produce it, too) – but it is what gives dairy products its notable tanginess.
Since we aren’t inoculating anything with bacteria here, or letting it ferment to get full of lactic acid goodness, we are going to fake it till we make it! And we are going to fake it with two other acids: citric acid and acetic acid. Sound scary and sciencey?? Well, sciencey yes – but not scary at all! Citric acid is in citrus fruits – and we are getting it from straight lemon juice. And acetic acid? That’s just vinegar. 🙂
Using the mix of these two acid sources will give your tongue the tang it craves without one flavor being strong enough to be really detectable. So we aren’t getting vinegar-tasting frosting, and we aren’t making lemon frosting, either. Instead, we are making perfectly tangy buttercream the brain will just relate to cream cheese.
Gimme some sugar – or erythritol
Some of the most common questions I get regarding my buttercream recipes is whether any sugar substitutes can be used. Yes, you can use confectioner’s erythritol (Swerve) in my buttercream recipes and it works great! You might need to adjust the amount to get the right consistency, though – so add a little at a time until you get it as thick as you’d like.
Confectioner’s monkfruit (another sugar substitute which is popular among the keto, paleo, and vegan crowds) is also a thing, but I haven’t had the chance to play with it as of yet. Once I do, or if you do and let me know how it works, I will update here! Please note that advertises that it’s twice as sweet as sugar, though – so it may take some adjusting.
And regarding confectioner’s vs powdered vs icing vs pure vs starch added sugar: all of the above work! I use 10x powdered sugar with corn or tapioca starch added (depending on if I’m using organic or not), but plenty of folks use pure powdered sugar – even homemade – with great results.
It is dessert after all!
Vanilla is a mystical creature in the culinary world that pairs wonderfully with literally every other flavor that exists. And we’ve gotten to where if it’s missing from dessert, well, it just doesn’t taste like dessert anymore. And if you skip out on vanilla here, people will notice and they’ll say something is weird – and they’ll blame it on the frosting being dairy-free. But it’ll be because it’s flower-free!
So whether you decide to use pure vanilla, imitation vanilla, a baker’s blend, Mexican or bourbon vanilla, or even homemade – it doesn’t matter – just make sure you use it! As long as it’s not made from beaver butts, you’re good to go.
An Extra Boost
Depending on what ingredients you’re avoiding, you can skip over this entirely – but it helps a lot if you’re trying to sway extra anti-vegan judgmental minds: Commercial cream cheese frosting from a tub.
I KNOW, OK. DONT @ ME. JUST TRUST ME.
Both Pillsbury Creamy Supreme* and Duncan Hines Creamy Home-Style cream cheese frosting in the tubs are free from animal derived ingredients as far as we can tell. I like to add a few tablespoons into the mix at the end because.. why? Well, these frostings have actual lactic acid added (*UPDATE: PILLSBURY NO LONGER CONTAINS LACTIC ACID, BUT CITRIC ACID INSTEAD. IT STILL WORKS AND HELPS WITH TEXTURE, THOUGH). And with just a small addition, it really boosts the cream cheese icing nostalgia feels when you eat it.
Feel free to skip this if you’re horrified at the idea, or if you’re avoiding soy – but I promise that if you don’t need to avoid it, it really does help!
Specific Products to Use
What to use in case you’re avoiding what
THIS IS JUST A TOOL TO HELP YOU – IT IS NOT DEFINITIVE AND WE REFUSE TO BE HELD LIABLE IF SOMETHING IS INCORRECT
I will try to keep this list updated, but please please please double check all ingredient lists before using if you have a medical condition that is your reason for avoiding these allergens. Companies change formulations all the time – even I check ingredient lists for products every time I buy them, no matter how many times I’ve bought them before or how recently. And please let me know if something here is incorrect and I’ll update it!
These are products I’ve worked with here in the United States, but I’ll also try to add more international products to the list as I get confirmation from reputable sources that they work well. For now, check out my Easiest Vegan Buttercream Ever post for info on how to choose your vegan butter.
Palm Oil Shortening
Country Crock Plant Butter Sticks – Except Almond
Earth Balance Baking Sticks
Palm Oil Shortening please note that many people who are allergic to coconut also have issues with palm fruit
Country Crock Plant Butter Sticks
Earth Balance Buttery Sticks
Avoiding Palm Oil:
- 1/2 cup vegan butter, room temperature* (one stick) (113g)
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening (113g)
- 4 cups powdered sugar (450g)
- 1.5 tbsp white vinegar (24ml)
- 1 tbsp lemon juice (15ml)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (5ml)
- OPTIONAL: 3 heaping spoons of Pillsbury or Duncan Hines cream cheese frosting - see recipe post for details (DO NOT USE IF AVOIDING SOY)
- Add butter and shortening to the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if using a hand mixer)
- Mix on low/stir until completely incorporated
- Add the powdered sugar one cup at a time, mixing on low between each addition until incorporated
- Add your vinegar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract
- Mix on low until completely incorporated
- Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of your bowl
- Turn the mixer to medium high and let it run for 15 minutes - or until you taste test and there’s no waxy mouthfeel from the shortening
- Add the tub frosting if using, and allow mixer to run on low for ten minutes
- Taste test! If it needs more tang, add more vinegar by the half tablespoon until your desired level of tanginess has been achieved.
- Adjust the consistency by adding water by the teaspoon to thin, or more powdered sugar by the quarter cup to stiffen until desired consistency is reached
*if you use all butter, you can skip the fifteen minutes of whipping
*feel free to sift your powdered sugar if it’s very lumpy
*this frosting can be kept covered at room temperature for up to a week, in the fridge for a month, or in the freezer for six months