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Top Cake Decorating Tips for Amateurs

Seven simple steps for making a beautiful cake.

Published on: July 20, 2014

From "cake? no!" to cake pro

Cake decorating doesn't have to be intidimating. With a few simple tools and some patience, anyone can make beautiful birthday or holiday treat that is a delicious feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Follow these expert tips to learn 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 settle the score.

  •  Slice the cake round for evenness. Allow the cake to cool completely; place in refrigerator for 30-60 minutes to reduce a cloud cover of crumbs. Using a long serrated blade (think: bread knife), slowly and evenly slice back/forth across the top of the cake. The dome can be used to help keep the ankle biters busy with their own cake/whoopee pie and out of the project cake.
  • Immediately upon taking the cake from the oven, place a damp tea towel or paper towel directly on the cake and ever so gently press the dome down. Don’t press exactly in the center, but around the center. The downside to this procedure … no taste testing. The upside to this procedure … no taste testing. Remove from pan after a 10-minute cooling period. Caution: Wear oven mitts since the steam released is alarmingly hot.


Use an ice-cream scoop for even buttercream layers

For consistency, uniform buttercream or filling between the layers of cake has never been easier. Simply 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. 

Buttercream basics

  • When using store-bought tub of frosting: Scoop it into a bowl and whip in, with an electric hand mixer, one to two cups of powdered sugar. The frosting will become stiff enough to pipe. This is extremely helpful when considering dairy allergies.

  • Use a stiff buttercream between layers since it will be supporting cake, filling, etc.

  • Thin the buttercream with milk or cream when crumb-coating the outside of cake. (Crumb-coat is a thin layer of frosting that seals in stray crumbs before the second frosting is added.) This step is worth the effort especially when covering a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting since the purpose of a crumb coat is to prevent little bits of cake peeking through to the finished design. Like painting a dark piece of furniture with a light color, a crumb coat is a primer…a very, very delicious primer. After completing the crumb coat, refrigerate at least 30 minutes (but not more than 24 hours since cake tends to dry out the longer it sits in the fridge).
  • Give it a spin. Cakes are exponentially easier to decorate if using a turntable. No fancy cake decorating spinner? How about a Lazy Susan? Maybe a baking sheet or pizza pan sitting on an upturned round cake pan? Be creative – the point is to move the cake and not the baker.


Use an off-set spatula to achieve smoothness

I love the look of a very smooth buttercream and almost exclusively use my off-set spatula for frosting the outside of the cake over the crumb-coat. Once the cake is initially covered, let the knife sit under hot running water for a moment and quickly wipe away the water from contact edge (you don’t want to add water to the frosting). The heated blade will help provide smoothness to the buttercream. Don’t be afraid to return the off-set spatula to the hot water. Bring the heat!

How to achieve a rustic look

If rustic is the look for this cake, feel free to use a standard table knife/butter knife from the cutlery drawer. This look is really hot right now. Be prepared with a bit more buttercream since there will be rough edges.

Lettering and logos

  • Once the top of the cake is smooth and to your liking, pop it into the fridge for a few minutes, maybe 10? Using a toothpick or something toothpick-like, write out the message on top of the cake. This technique can greatly reduce the anxiety associated with spacing the letters, numbers, or message. If a mistake is made, it’s no big deal. Simply use a warm off-set spatula to "erase" the error and begin again. When happy with outline, pipe over it with the frosting.

  • If wanting to decorate the top of your cake with a logo, print it out to the appropriate size and cut away everything not critical to the design. Lay the stencil onto the cake and outline with a toothpick and fill in with dots, stars, lines, etc.

Swirls and fancy stuff

  • Investing in a large Open Star piping tip (approx. $3) will eliminate many headaches or the potential for headaches. Large is the keyword; my go-to piping tip is Wilton’s 1M. This tip is quite forgiving in the finished swirl; a smaller Open Star tip is quick to highlight flaws.

  • Detail work can be done with a small snip in the corner of a freezer bag. Be kind to yourself and use a sturdy bag and not a standard sandwich baggie – unless, of course, you want to wear that caramel sauce on your T-shirt. 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 on top of the cake, treat the top of the cake like a clock face. Make a swirl at 12, 6, 3 and 9. Then go back and fill in between the landmarks.

    Two must-have tools

    Cake decorating at home should be as fun and creative as the situation allows. Fancy buttercream roses aren’t necessary; use fun-sized candy bars, animal crackers, lollipops, fresh fruit, nuts, caramel sauce, etc. 

If I had to choose the cake decorating musts, I would select my 10-inch off-set spatula and a large Open Star tip.


More culinary and birthday inspiration

Frozen-themed birthday ideas

Creative birthday cakes and treats for kids

Glow-in-the-dark and neon birthday ideas

Awesome birthday activities for kids

Should your child open presents at his party? 

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