How to Decorate a Cake: The Basics

Learn how to give your homemade cakes that bakery look with the same basic cake decorating techniques that even the fanciest pro bakers use. Once you master the basics, you can move on to more advanced cake decorating.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | One Bowl Chocolate Cake III

Photo by Dianne

Recipe shown: One Bowl Chocolate Cake III

How to Prep a Cake for Frosting and Decorating

Nothing says special occasion like a layer cake. Layers can be created by simply sandwiching two cake rounds together with frosting, or the cake rounds can be sliced — or “torted” — into multiple layers for dramatic and delicious effect.

You’ll need:

  • A long serrated knife
  • Parchment paper
  • Plastic wrap

Trimming the Rounds

Trimming the tops and bottoms off of your cake rounds lets you moisten the cake layers with a simple sugar syrup. This adds sweetness and flavor, and keeps the cake from drying out. (Most cakes benefit from a simple syrup soaking, but it’s a must for sponge cakes.) Besides that, if your cake bakes with a domed top, trimming it off is the best way to create flat layers for stacking.

To trim the cake, you must first let it cool completely so it doesn’t tear when you cut it. Place it on a flat cutting board, on a sheet of parchment paper. (If you have a cake turntable, use it.) Keep the palm of your non-working hand resting on the domed top of the cake. With your knife hand, lightly score the edge of the cake where you’ll be making your cut. Rotate the cake so you can score it around the entire diameter. Now, begin to cut:

  • Keep your knife level
  • Use a gently back-and-forth sawing motion
  • Once you’ve made one back-and-forth cut, rotate the cake about 45 degrees, and repeat
  • Cut and rotate until you’ve worked your way around the entire cake. You should be able to cut through the whole layer with another steady back-and-forth cut

Remove the cake scraps (they’re great for snacking) and repeat with the bottom side of the cake. Because it’s flat, you probably won’t need to make as deep of a cut–you just want to slice off the top layer of “skin.”

Slicing Rounds Into Layers

Depending upon your recipe, the size of the pan, and how full the pans were, you need to decide whether you can realistically split your cake into two or three layers. Remember: It’s better to have a couple of thick layers than many thin, broken layers.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | Slicing a Cake Into Layers

Photo by Meredith

Set the trimmed cake on a cake circle, if you have one. (If your recipe is really rich and dense, it helps to sprinkle granulated sugar on the cardboard before setting the cake on it; this will help keep your cake from sticking to the cake circle.) Keeping your knife level, score the cake’s edge. Continue with the back-and-forth sawing as you rotate the cake, until your knife cuts clear through the layer. Slip your hand under the cut layer, and gently transfer the cake to a sheet of plastic wrap. Cover both layers until you’re ready to frost the cake. Repeat with remaining cake round.


Frosting the Cake

The Crumb Coat

Applying a “crumb coat” is the best way to achieve professional-looking results, especially if you want a smooth-sided cake. A crumb coat is essentially a thin layer of frosting that will help seal in the crumbs so that your final coat of frosting will be crumb-free and easy to apply.

You’ll need:

  • Cardboard cake circles (available at baking supply stores and craft stores, or you can make your own: cut a circle slightly smaller than the diameter of your cake pan)
  • Simple syrup & pastry brush
  • Frosting
  • Offset spatula or wide, flat knife
  • Damp sponge or cloth for wiping away stray crumbs

1. Set your least-perfect cake layer on a cake circle or parchment, and apply simple syrup with a pastry brush.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | Brushing Simple Syrup on Cake Laye

Photo by Meredith

2. Using an offset spatula or knife, plop a healthy dollop of frosting on the top of the cake layer, and spread it across the surface, almost to the edge — the weight of additional layers will spread it out further. Top with another layer of cake. Tip: If you have a cracked or broken layer, sandwich it in here. As you add layers, bend down so you can see the cake right at eye level and make sure the layers are stacked flush. Apply simple syrup and frosting at each step. When you reach your final layer, apply syrup and frosting, spreading the frosting right to the edge of the cake. Add a dollop of frosting to the side of the cake, and spread it thinly to cover as much territory as you can.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | Frosting Cake Layers

Photo by Meredith

3. When the sides of the cake are completely masked, use your spatula or knife to make a final, steady pass around the sides of the cake. The frosting will have pushed up to form a rim above the top layer of the cake. Holding your spatula away from you at the far edge of the cake, pull it towards yourself; you want the flat blade to skim the edge of the cake so excess frosting is smoothed onto the top surface, toward the center. Rotate the cake, continuing the swooping and gliding motion until the sides and top of the cake are smooth. Don’t worry if there’s cake showing through the frosting; you’ll cover that on the second go-round. Chill the cake in your fridge or freezer until firm.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | Finished Crumb Coat

Photo by Meredith

The Final Frosting

Apply the final coat of frosting following the same steps as above, but be a little more generous in the application. Once you’ve covered the tops and sides of the cake, you can either keep it smooth and modern-looking, or make it fluffy and home-style. Use the back of a spoon or the tip of your spatula to make swirls and peaks, adding a little more frosting if necessary.

Decorating Cakes: The Basics | Spreading Frosting Over the Crumb Coat

Photo by Meredith

Finish your cake with candles, sprinkles, flowers, chocolate shavings, or any other decorations you wish.


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