Cake decorating doesn’t have to be intimidating. With a few simple tools, some patience and some practice, anyone can make a beautiful birthday treat that is a delicious feast for the eyes and the taste buds. The following expert tips can help you nail the basics.
How to make cake layers even
Most cake rounds finish baking with a domed center. There are two very simple at-home techniques to use that will even the playing field.
- After allowing the cake rounds to cool completely (place them in the refrigerator for 30–60 minutes), use a long, serrated blade — think bread knife — to slowly and evenly slice back and forth across the top of the cake. Toss the dome to the ankle biters to keep them at bay while you continue on to decorating.
- Immediately upon taking the cake from the oven, place a damp tea towel or paper towel directly on the cake top and ever so gently press the dome down. Don’t press exactly in the center, but around the center. Remove the cake rounds from their pans after a 10-minute cooling period. Caution: Wear oven mitts for this method, since the steam released is alarmingly hot.
Get to know your buttercream basics
- To create uniform buttercream or other kinds of filling between the layers of cake, use an ice cream scoop to portion out the frosting. It doesn’t matter how much the scoop holds, just use the same number of scoops between the layers.
- Kick up store-bought frosting a notch by scooping it into a bowl and using an electric hand mixer to whip it together with 1–2 cups of powdered sugar. This will make the frosting stiff enough to pipe. Stiff buttercream between layers better supports the cake structure, filling and decorations.
- Thin the buttercream with milk or cream when crumb-coating the outside of the cake. A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting — think of it as a delicious primer — that seals in stray crumbs before the second layer of frosting is added. This step is worth the effort, as it prevents little bits of cake from showing through. After completing the crumb coat, refrigerate the cake for at least 30 minutes before continuing with the second layer of frosting.
Flaunt your frosting finesse
- Cakes are exponentially easier to decorate if you use a turntable. Don’t have a fancy cake-decorating spinner? A lazy Susan also does the trick, or maybe try placing a baking sheet or pizza pan on an overturned round cake pan. Get creative — the point is to move the cake and not the baker.
- Time for some smooth moves. I love the look of a very smooth buttercream and to achieve it, I use my offset spatula almost exclusively to frost the outside of the cake over the crumb coat. Once the cake has its initial coat, let the spatula sit under hot running water for a moment, quickly wipe away the water from the contact edge (you don’t want to add water to the buttercream) and then get to work. The heated blade helps impart smoothness to the buttercream.
How to decorate like a boss
- Once the top of the cake is smooth, pop it into the fridge for about 10 minutes. Using a toothpick or something similar, write out your birthday message on top of the cake. If a mistake is made, it’s no big deal. Simply use a warm offset spatula to “erase” the error and begin again. When you’re happy with the outline, pipe over it with the frosting.
- Invest in a large open star piping tip to eliminate many headaches. “Large” is the keyword; my go-to piping tip is Wilton’s 1M. This tip is quite forgiving; a smaller open star tip is quick to highlight flaws.
- Detailed decoration work can be accomplished by putting the frosting in a freezer bag and making a small snip in the corner of the bag. Or, invest in a small round tip, about the size of an ink-pen opening, and a supply of disposable piping bags.
- When making swirls, treat the top of the cake like a clockface. Make a swirl at 12, 3, 6 and 9. Then go back and fill in between the marks.
- Fancy buttercream roses aren’t necessary. Cake decorating at home should be as creative as the situation allows, so use fun-size candy bars, animal crackers, lollipops, fresh fruit, nuts, caramel sauce, etc.
Find more tips for throwing an epic birthday bash here.
Editor's note: This article was published a number of years ago and has been updated for 2023.