The cake looked perfect when it came out of the oven. But then it came time to apply the frosting — and suddenly you’ve got a Pinterest fail on your hands. It might be time to learn how to frost a cake properly.
While Pinterest fails and DIY disasters make for hilarious social media content, no one really wants to be the one to show up to a party with an atrocious-looking cake. Luckily, there are some simple, professional-quality tips you can learn to help you get the frosting right every time.
Ready to learn how to wow people with your cake frosting skills? Read on for our top tips on how to frost a cake like a pro!
How to Frost a Cake: The Basics
First, let’s get the basic frosting essentials out of the way. Even if you don’t add anything fancy to your cake, these steps will leave you with a simple yet beautifully finished dessert.
What you’ll need
Before you get started, you’ll need a few basic tools. Make sure you have:
- An offset spatula
- Wax or parchment paper
- Cake carrier
Offset spatulas are those long, flat metal spatulas with blunt ends. They’re specifically used for frosting cakes, although they can also help you even out the layer of batter in a cake pan.
Choose the spatula size depending on the size of the cakes you’ll be frosting. For example, large ones work for normal cakes, but you can also find small ones for cupcakes.
The wax or parchment paper will help keep the icing from getting anywhere it doesn’t belong. And the cake carrier, while not essential if you’re baking cakes to eat at home, will ensure your hard work doesn’t get messed up in transit.
If you bake large cakes often, consider investing in a rotating cake stand, as well. This makes it super-easy to give your frosting a smooth, even finish.
The prep work
Now, it’s time to make sure everything is prepared right to give you the best results.
First, never frost a cake that’s still warm. It will fall apart, resulting in those crumbling messes most of us are familiar with. Make sure to bake the cake early enough that it has at least a couple of hours to cool before you get started.
You can also bake the cake the night before and chill it in the fridge overnight. However, you’ll want the frosting to be room temperature, not chilled, when you get to work. Take it out of the fridge early enough so it can warm up.
Now, place your chilled cake on a base.
You can use a cake stand, a cardboard round, a cake pan turned upside down, a serving plate, or any flat dish that will give you a sturdy surface. Putting the cake up higher, so it’s close to eye level, will make frosting it easier.
Put some icing in the center of the base to keep the cake from sliding around, then place the cake on top. If you’re frosting the cake on the dish you plan to serve it on, put parchment or wax paper under the cake’s edges, so the frosting doesn’t get on the base.
Is it a layer cake? Then make sure to even out the tops of the layers with a serrated knife before getting started. Brush extra crumbs off the cake’s surface with a pastry brush.
Frosting the cake
Now, you’re ready to learn how to frost a cake.
If it’s a layer cake, start by placing the first layer on the cake stand, then adding frosting (or filling) to just the top. Spread the frosting so it covers the top of that layer and goes just over the edges. This part doesn’t have to look perfect, since it will be on the inside of the finished cake.
Repeat this step for as many layers as you need, making sure each layer is centered over the last one. Use large amounts of frosting for each layer. If you don’t use enough, you’ll get cake crumbs in the frosting when you try to spread it.
Once you have each layer in place:
go over the cake again with a pastry brush to get crumbs out of the way. Then, cover the whole cake in a thin layer of frosting, called a “crumb coat.” This will keep loose crumbs in place so they don’t show through the last layer of frosting.
For the crumb coat, you might want to add a small amount of water or milk to the frosting. The goal is for it to spread easily so you can cover the whole cake.
Once the crumb coat is on, chill it for 15 to 30 minutes. If you see crumbs showing through, add another crumb coat.
After each crumb coat has been chilled and set, you can add the final layer of frosting. Use a large amount of regular, undiluted frosting. Frost the top first, and then the sides.
It’s typically easiest to frost a quarter of the cake at a time, and turn it as needed to reach the next quarter. A rotating cake stand lets you turn the cake steadily so the frosting looks completely even.
After you’ve applied this thick layer of frosting, you can smooth out any rough parts. For a simple decorative twist, add swirls to the frosting using the back of a spoon.
How to Frost a Cake: Getting Fancy
A simple, yet impeccably frosted cake is enough to impress most people. But if you want to learn how to frost and decorate a cake in a fancier way, try one of these fun tricks.
The great thing about frosting is that you can stick just about anything you like to it as a topping.
This makes for an easy but unique and creative-looking cake. It also gives you the option of adding an accent flavor to your cake, depending on which toppings you choose.
For example, you can add fresh sliced fruit or whole berries to make your cake a bit more interesting. Now, instead of a chocolate cake, you have a chocolate-strawberry cake!
Halved, slivered, or sliced nuts also work nicely, either with fruit or alone. Try shredded or flaked coconut, too. For a decadent twist, you can top your cake frosting with small cookies. Or, use pieces of your favorite candy to create pretty patterns.
Just press whichever toppings you like best into the frosting’s surface. Sprinkles, decorating sugar, and even edible glitter can also spruce up your cake. Make sure to add the toppings within two hours of when you plan to serve the cake, so they stay fresh.
As a bonus, using these toppings will help you hide mistakes if you haven’t yet mastered how to frost a cake. Or, if just part of the frosting looks imperfect, you can creatively arrange toppings over that area to hide it.
Use piped frosting
For a slightly more challenging decorative look, you can add piped frosting to your cake instead.
Piping also gives you a wide range of decorating options. However, it looks best on a perfectly smooth layer of frosting, so make sure you have the hang of how to frost a cake first.
If you want to use piped frosting, you’ll also need a pastry bag, and the pastry bag tips to give you the look you want.
Star tips are popular for making rosettes, flowers, and decorative patterns. A leaf tip can accent flowers and rosettes. Basket-weave tips make a cool lattice pattern, while a round tip is essential for fine lines and writing.
You can use piped frosting in the same color as the cake’s base, or add contrast with a different color.
Start by filling the bag two-thirds of the way with frosting. Roll the excess bag down till it meets the frosting. Hold the bag at the top, and squeeze it so the frosting comes out. Guide the tip with your other hand.
Keep it simple with a border or a few rosettes on one side of the cake, or cover the entire thing in an elaborate pattern — it’s up to you!
How to Make Frosting
Now that you know how to frost a cake, it’s time to learn how to make your own frosting. While storebought works fine, there’s nothing quite like being able to say “Yes, I made this from scratch.”
While there are countless different kinds of frosting you can make, this easy vanilla buttercream recipe will work for a wide range of occasions.
- 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
- ½ cup unsalted, softened butter
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
If you want to color your frosting, you can add a few drops of food coloring to the mix.
Use a mixer to cream the butter, or do it by hand with a wooden spoon. Creaming butter just means mixing it until it reaches a creamy, smooth, even texture.
Next, mix in the sugar until it’s blended completely. Beat in the vanilla, and then the milk. After adding every ingredient, keep beating the mixture for a few more minutes. Add food coloring last, if desired.
This recipe gives you spreadable, room temperature frosting that’s ready to use right away.
Choosing the Right Frosting
Whether storebought or made from scratch, you can’t know how to frost a cake without the right frosting on hand. While buttercream frosting is a classic choice, there are lots of other options out there.
Let’s weigh your options so you can decide what will work best. There are more frosting types than these, but these are some of the most common and easiest to work with.
First, the classic choice: buttercream frosting.
As you can see from the recipe above, this type of frosting typically involves a mix of butter and sugar. It can also be flavored and colored in just about any way you’d like.
If you want to decorate your cake with piped frosting, you’ll probably need decorator’s buttercream instead of the classic variety.
These recipes use vegetable shortening, not butter, so the decorations won’t melt as easily. Decorator’s buttercream also gets whipped less before using, for a thicker consistency.
Some varieties of buttercream also use other ingredients, like egg, to change up the consistency.
Whipped cream frosting
Whipped cream frosting uses whipped cream and powdered sugar for a lighter consistency. Like buttercream, it can also be easily colored or flavored.
For a simple, drizzled look, you can use glaze.
Different ingredients can be used to make glaze, as long as they’ll set into a hard, shiny finish. Melted chocolate is a common choice, as is powdered sugar combined with a liquid like milk.
Ganache and glaze can’t be manipulated into creative patterns as easily as other frosting types can. However, ganache does make a rich, chocolatey, shiny coating for a simple finish on your desserts.
This frosting simply mixes melted chocolate with heavy cream. You can chill and beat it to make it easier to work with before frosting a cake.
Do All Cakes Need Frosting?
Now that you know how to frost a cake in several different ways, you might be wondering: do cakes always need frosting?
As it turns out, frosting does more than just make your cake look prettier. In addition to adding another dimension of flavor and texture, it also helps keep the cake fresh by sealing in moisture. Without frosting, your cake will quickly become dry and stale.
While you can find cake recipes that don’t require frosting, frosting a cake is a great way to make it both look and taste better. Will you use these tips for how to frost a cake at an upcoming party? Let us know what you think in the comments!