Baking School Day 20: Cake Decorating

updated May 1, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn’s Baking School Day 20: All about cake decorating.
Join The Kitchn’s Baking School: Sign up and see all The Kitchn’s Baking School assignments

Dream of sky-high bakery-style cakes, cupcakes, and other decorative treats? You know, cakes with super-smooth buttercream, cupcakes with intricate frosting, and cookies with delicately piped details and sugar garnishes? Or even those treats with a rustic, “homemade” finish and handfuls of colorful sprinkles? Learning to decorate cakes does not have to be as daunting as it may seem.

Hopefully by the end of today’s lesson, gorgeous layer cakes and swirly cupcakes will be flying out of your kitchens left and right. What better way to celebrate the last days of Baking School?

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Set the Stage: Prepare Your Cakes (and Cupcakes)

A great layer cake starts from the bottom up — each layer stacked on top of each other as neatly as possible. As we discussed yesterday, it is important to trim and torte (or split) your cake layers, when needed. The layers of cake should be level and trimmed to the same height before getting started.

Tip for Success: Remember that a chilled cake is easier to cut and handle!

Unfortunately, not all cake layers are created equal. When removing the cakes from their pans or when torting layers, some cakes may tear and crack. Use the sturdiest cake layer as your bottom layer and any less-fortunate layers in the middle.

If frosting cupcakes, the same principles apply. It’s easier to work with cupcakes that have a flat top, and that are chilled beforehand.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Step 1: Stack and Fill Your Cake

While you can fill your cake with a variety of fillings, this method for stacking should work in most situations.

  • Place the cake on a cake board or turntable: Place the bottom layer of cake on a cake board or serving dish on top of a cake turntable. (Note: The following instructions will use a turntable, but one is not completely necessary for frosting a beautiful cake. If you do not have one, try inverting a large mixing bowl and placing the cake board on top.)
  • Fill a pastry bag with frosting: Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a plain round piping tip with the frosting of your choice.
  • Create a frosting “dam”: Pipe a ring of frosting around the top edge of your cake layer. This will act as a frosting “dam” to keep your filling from seeping out from between the layers. This is especially helpful for softer fillings, like pastry cream and fruit preserves.
  • Add your filling and repeat: Fill the ring with your choice of filling and smooth out with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Place the next layer of cake on top of the filling and repeat.
  • Continue to stack and double-check the level: As you continue to stack, fill, and build your layer cake, try to keep the layers as even as possible. Take a step back and get eye-level with the cake. Is it leaning to the side slightly? Now is the time to fix it. Don’t be afraid to get in there and gently maneuver the layers with your hands until the cake it standing up nice and straight.
  • Place the top layer upside-down: Place the top layer of cake upside-down so the bottom — the cut-free side — is facing up. Not only does the bottom of the cake tend to be much flatter, but it will also help keep out the crumbs when it comes time to frost the cake.
Spreading a thin layer of frosting to trap the crumbs. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Step 2: Create the Crumb Coat (and Chill)

The crumb coat is the first layer of frosting that, as the name indicates, traps in all the crumbs so they don’t show on your final beautiful product. This is especially important if you think about frosting a chocolate cake with vanilla icing.

Tip for Success: Make sure your frosting is soft and spreadable so it does not pull on the cake, which causes it to crack or crumble.

  • Smooth out any frosting peeking out between the layers: Start by smoothing out any of the frosting between the layers from your frosting dam, filling in any gaps as needed.
  • Use an offset spatula to spread a thin coat of frosting over the cake: Using only a little bit of frosting at a time for more control, apply a thin coat of frosting on both the sides and top of the cake with a metal spatula. This layer does not need to be perfect, but should be even and cover the cake in its entirety. Be sure not to mix any of the frosting that contains crumbs with the frosting that you will be using for the final coat.
  • Chill the cake for 10 to 15 minutes: Chill the cake in the refrigerator for about 10 to 15 minutes to set the crumb coat before frosting the cake.

Depending on your frosting, you might not want to chill the cake for too long, or the crumb coat and the frosting for the final coat with be two different temperatures and may cause issues later on.

Slapping more frosting over the smooth, chilled protective layer of the crumb coat. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Step 3: How to Frost a Cake

Even for rustic, fluffy finishes, it is best to practice good frosting habits so the layer cake remains sturdy and the icing goes on easily.

  • Place the cake on a turntable, if possible: To smoothly frost a cake, remove the cake from the fridge after the crumb coat has set and place it back on your turntable.
  • Start with a large dollop of frosting: Place a large dollop of frosting on the top of the cake and begin smoothing it out with an offset spatula. Keep the spatula flat on the top of the cake and spin the turntable as you go until the frosting on the top of the cake is even.
  • Apply frosting to the sides of the cake: Working with only a little bit at time for more control, begin applying frosting to the sides of the cake. Use an offset or straight metal spatula and make sure the frosting attaches to the sides of the cake and does not pull too many crumbs off. Try to focus on working the frosting with the center of the spatula, as opposed to the tip. Continue around until there is an even layer of frosting on all sides of the cake. It does not have to be smooth or perfect yet — just as even as possible.
  • Gently smooth the frosting with the side of your spatula: Once the frosting is on the cake, hold your spatula perpendicular to the turntable and gently press it against the side of the cake. Spin the turntable and let the spatula begin smoothing out the sides.
  • Do a final smoothing step: After the frosting begins to smooth out, it’s time for the big guns. If you have one, take an icing smoother or metal bench scraper and place one edge directly on top of the turntable and one edge gently pressed against the side of the cake. Keeping the icing smoother in place, rotate the cake around. The smoother will pick up excess frosting and fill in any small holes. The key is to keep the edge of the icing smoother completely parallel to the sides of the cake so it comes out nice and straight. Alternative method: Dip the spatula in a cup of hot water and run the hot, wet spatula over the cake, smoothing the icing as you go. Scrape any excess icing off into a bowl, and keep dipping the spatula in the hot water.
  • Spread out the “lip” of frosting towards the center of the cake: As you smooth the sides, a bit of frosting will be pushed up towards the top of the cake. Carefully use the edge of an offset spatula to pull that “lip” of frosting towards the center of the top of the cake. Continue around the top edge of the cake. Take the long, flat side of your icing smoother and gently place it on top of the cake.
  • Flatten the top and touch up as needed: Give the cake one final spin to smooth and flatten out the top once again. Go back and touch up the top and sides as needed.
Smoothing the sides of a frosted cake with a hot, wet spatula. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

For an extra-smooth finish, pop the cake in the fridge for about 10 to 15 minutes. After the cake has chilled, run your metal spatula under hot water, dry it, then use the heat of the metal to slightly melt the frosting and smooth it out again.

From there, you are free to add any extra embellishments, pipe intricate borders, or cover the entire thing in sprinkles! If you’d like a more rustic finish, swirl the frosting around with your spatula or the back of a spoon instead of completely smoothing it out.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Frost & Decorate a Layer Cake

Practicing piping on waxed paper. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Step 4: Pipe Borders and Decorations

Equipped with a piping bag and a few various tips, you can create endless designs and decorations. Use these techniques to make borders on cakes and cookies, decorate the top and sides of cakes, and pipe different patterns and textures on top of cupcakes.

Tip for Success: Fill a piping bag with frosting and practice holding it properly. Then spend some time piping out patterns on a piece of waxed paper. This way you don’t waste frosting (or your precious cupcakes). When you want to start over, just use a spatula to scoop up the frosting and scrape it back in your bag.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Use a Piping Bag

Scraping up frosting after practice. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Piping Patterns to Practice

  • Dots and stars: Using either a plain round or star tip, hold the piping bag perpendicular to the surface of your cake or cupcakes. Gently pipe out frosting to create a dot or a star, releasing the pressure on the piping bag before lifting it away. Use dots to create designs anywhere or go crazy and cover an entire cake in interlocking stars!
  • Lines and writing: Using a plain round tip, hold the piping bag at a slight angle in the direction you want your line or writing to go. Hover the tip slightly above the surface of the cake and keep even pressure on the piping bag as you make your lines or write your message. Try practicing writing on a piece of parchment paper first to make sure you have room to fit all of the letters on your cake.
  • Pearl and shell borders: Use a plain round or star tip to create pearl and shell borders. Holding the bag at a 45-degree angle, build pressure with the frosting, gently taper off the pressure, and move the piping bag away to create a tail. Begin the next pearl or shell on top of the tail to make a continuous chain of pearls/shells. Angle two pearls (tails toward the center) to create a heart! Use these techniques to create borders around the base or top of a cake, or around the edges of a sugar cookie.
  • Rosettes: Using a star tip (big or small), hold the piping bag perpendicular to the cake surface and pipe a tight spiral. As you finish, gently release the pressure and taper off the frosting. Pipe small rosettes around the top edge of your cake and place cherries, berries, or candies on top of each. Alternatively, pipe large rosettes in staggered rows around the sides and top until the cake is completely covered! For cupcakes, swirl one large rosette that covers the entire top of the cupcake. Keep going, letting the frosting coil onto itself to make a tall spiral!
  • Ruffles: Using a petal tip, always keep the large end toward the cake and the smaller end facing out. The pressure from the piping bag will create the a frilling, curved edge. Trying piping zig-zag ruffles in vertical rows up the sides of a cake or scalloped ruffles to create a frou-frou border.

Beyond Frosting: Edible Garnishes

Some of the simplest ways to dress up a layer cake are with edible garnishes. We are talking sprinkles, chocolate curls, candied nuts, and more! Use your imagination and get creative.

Try picking out flavors from within the cake — like candied lemon slices for a citrus-filled cake, or fluffy coconut flakes for a coconut-filled cake — and using them to decorate. Fresh fruit always looks pretty, especially when dipped in chocolate. Intricate chocolate work and spun sugar will take any cake up a notch, but chopped-up candy bars and colorful sanding sugar make equally delicious and playful garnishes.

Remember our dessert sauces? Try pouring cooled ganache, sugar glaze, or caramel over the top of a cake and let the drips run freely down the sides. Yum!

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Make Sprinkles for Cupcakes, Cookies & Cakes!

How to Work with Fondant

While some don’t care for the taste of fondant and others may be intimidated by it, a chic, clean fondant-covered cake sure makes a statement. Here are some tips and tricks if you want to tackle a fondant-covered cake.

  1. Always start with a smoothly frosted, sturdy cake. The frosting does not need to be a thick layer, but should be as smooth as possible. Try using Italian meringue buttercream or ganache.
  2. Allow the frosted cake to set and chill before trying to cover with fondant. You will want to use a bit of muscle to really smooth out the fondant, as you don’t want the frosting underneath to squish.
  3. If your fondant appears dry, knead in a bit of shortening. If it is too sticky, add a bit of cornstarch.
  4. Lightly dust a clean, large work surface with cornstarch before rolling.
  5. Slightly knead the fondant into a smooth ball before rolling it out.
  6. Measure the height (times two) and diameter of your cake so you know how big of a piece of fondant you will need — then add on a couple inches. So if you have an 8-inch (in diameter) round cake that is 4 inches tall, you will want to roll your fondant out to about an 18-inch circle.
  7. Once the fondant has been rolled out, run a fondant smoother over the top. Pop any tiny air bubbles that might have formed with the tip of a thin paring knife or clean pin.
  8. You must work rather quickly and efficiently so the fondant does not dry out and/or crack, and the weight of the fondant does not pull down and tear on the top edge of the cake.
  9. Use fondant smoothers rather than your hands. Your hands may add unnecessary heat to the fondant.
  10. Trim the edge of the fondant with a pizza or rolling pastry cutter so the fondant cuts and does not snag.
  11. If you must refrigerate, try to keep the cake covered in a cake box.
  12. If the cake begins to sweat, do not touch or smear it. It will most likely dry out on its own.

To finish, cut strips of fondant to create stripes, borders, or bows. Cut out polka dots with different sizes and ends of round piping tips! Use a tiny bit of water to stick on decorations. Water will melt the sugar in the fondant, so use only enough to make the decorations stick.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Pin a photo of an elaborately decorated cake or cupcakes to your inspiration board. Share a link here in the comments!

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)


filling a piping bag

, then practice piping different tips and designs on wax paper. Scoop the frosting back into your back and pipe a little more on a leftover cookie. (Then eat it!)

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Assemble and frost your cake from yesterday with buttercream. (But don’t eat it yet!)

Join The Kitchn’s Baking School!



  • Follow and show your progress on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter! Make sure to use the #kitchnbakingschool hashtag.