{Tutorial} How to Frost a Cake

by Alice Currah on November 15, 2009. Updated April 10, 2011

Earlier this week I posted a tutorial on how to make Fall gum paste leaves.  I had used the Fall leaves for a cake I baked and decorated for the Daring Bakers Cake Challenge. I was 2nd runner up; I think the winning entry was spectacular! Congrats Katie!

Well today I would like to show you how to frost a 2 layer cake using my Fall cake as your guide.  I am going to share with you some simple and practical tips so your cakes will look as good as they are to eat!  I realize there are countless ways to frost and decorate cakes, I’m just sharing you mine.  Keep in mind this is not a “How to decorate a cake” tutorial -this is a frosting tutorial (but I will give instructions on how to re-create this Fall cake below).  So grab a mug of salted caramel hot chocolate and lets get this party started!

FrostedCake

What you will need:

2 – 8 or 9″ cakes

1  cup of filling (jam, whipped cream, butter cream, ganache)

4 cups  frosting (I do not recommend canned frosting)

offset spatula

pastry bag or ziplock bag

cake turntable or lazy susan *if you don’t have one, don’t worry.

cake board

Step 1:  In order for the top of your cake to be flat, you will want to trim off any “dome” type curvature to your cake.  The best way to do this is with a bread knife and carefully trim the top off.  Make sure when you cut the top off, you cut the top off level.  If your cake has the opposite problem and is slightly caved it, leave it and fill it with frosting.

frostingboard-

layer1

Step 2: Take a couple tablespoons of frosting and smear it on your plate or cake board.  The frosting will act as a glue for the cake to rest on top of.  Place one layer of the cake on top of the board making sure it is centered.  I typically will place the top side of the cake downward on top of the cake board -this way I have a flat surface for filling the cake.  Gently press the cake down.

frostingdam

ganache

Step 3: Set the cake on a turntable (if you don’t have one just set it on a table).  Fill a ziplock bag with the corner cut off or a pastry bag with frosting. You should use the same frosting you plan on using to ice the cake with.  Carefully squeeze out frosting around the perimeter of the cake.  You want to apply enough pressure so you get about 1/2″ pipe all around the cake.  This is  called a “dam”.  There are 2 reasons for creating a dam.  The first reason is to hold the filling inside the cake and to keep it from oozing out.  The second reason is this.  The dam will also help patch in any spots around the cake.

caramelfilling-

filledcake

Step 4:  Now that you have a dam around your cake, fill in the center of the cake with your choice of filling no higher than 1/4″.  You could fill it higher, but you will need to make your dam higher as well.  As you can see from my picture, I filled mine with caramel, leaving plenty of height in the dam so the caramel cannot ooze out.

smoothingdam

Step 5:  Carefully set the top layer of the cake over the bottom layer.  You will want the bottom side (how it was baked) facing up.  This will help you frost the cake with a smooth surface.  A great tip I learned many years ago is to use a flexible cutting board.  – I bought mine at IKEA.  From there you can slide the cake right on top of the other with much control.  Once your cake is sitting on top of each other, bend down to eye level with the cake.  Adjust the cake left or right to make sure it is as straight as it can be on all sides.  Once you’ve adjusted it to your satisfaction, gently press the top of the cake down making it as level as possible.  Using an offset spatula, drag the backside of it around the cake where the damn is.  This will smooth out the filling area as well as fill any gaps.

frostingcrumbcoat

Step 6: Crumb coat.  Some people like to brush any excess crumbs off with a pastry brush or by gently rubbing the palm of the hand around the cake.  I typically do neither because I find the crumb coat takes care of any fly away crumbs.  For the crumb coat, pour a cup of frosting on top of the cake.  Start spreading the frosting all over the cake starting with the top and working your way down around the sides.  What we want to do is trap any crumbs in the frosting so they will not show up when we do a final coat.  The crumb coat should be a thin coat used to fill any gaps of cake with frosting.  Using a clean offset spatula, smooth out (the best you can) the cake as pictured below. Stick your cake in the refrigerator to set up for 30 minutes to an hour.

crumbcake

Step 7:  Remove the cake from the refrigerator.  When you gently touch your cake, no frosting should pull up. This is what you’re looking for.  Next, place about 2 cups of frosting on top of the cake and start icing the cake from the top down adding more frosting as needed.  To make crisp edges on top, take the edge of your spatula and drag the excess frosting on the edge inward towards the cake.  Do this all around the cake.  To smooth out the top, use the backside of your spatula in one direction- sweeping across the cake edge to edge.  For smooth sides apply the backside of your spatula with gentle pressure and turn the turntable slowly.  As you do this, your frosting will smooth out. Voila, it’s done!  From there decorate your cake however you want.

FrostedCakeLeaves

How to re-create my Fall Cake:

Frost and fill a 2 layer chocolate cake (if you use this chocolate cake recipe, make sure you adjust your baking time to 40 minutes or until done).  I filled mine with homemade caramel sauce and used ganache as the frosting.  Cover the outside perimeter with chocolate fondant leaves (pictured above) and randomly cover the top with gum paste leaves.  You can find the tutorial I did for the gum-paste and fondant leaves here.  Just make the fondant leaves the same way, except prepare the fondant leaves right before you are ready to decorating.. otherwise they will dry out and leave a crackly leather type texture when they bend.

FallCake2

I would like to share some thoughts with you about equipment.  These are merely suggestions which will make your life easier.

EQUIPMENT:

CAKE PANS:

If I were to recommend a couple of cake pans to you, I would suggest a 6″ round and a 8″ or 9″ round.  Here is my logic.  6″ round cakes are the perfect size for a family birthday cake.  The more cake you make, the more there is too eat.  A 6″ cake can easily feed a group of up to 10.  As for whether to purchase a 8″ or 9″, it is a matter of preference.  Both sizes could feed a crowd of 12-18 people for a birthday party.  The type of pans you should look for have a 90 degree edge from the base to side.  Some cake pans you can purchase in the grocery stores have slightly slanted sides. I DO NOT recommend these types of pans as it will make frosting your cake very difficult because you will have to try and compensate straight sides with frosting.  Wilton cake pans can be easily found online or at craft stores like Michaels.

SPATULAS:

Offset spatulas are your best friend when it comes to icing a cake.  There are several types out there.  As to which one to pick is also preference.  The taller ones are really only used for tall cakes or for smoothing out tops of cakes in one swoop.  I personally find them slightly awkward to handle but if I’m baking a very tall cake, they are the most useful and helpful.  My personal favorite is the straight 4.5″ blade.  It is small and very easy to maneuver and for a few bucks, well worth its price.

CAKE TURNTABLE OR LAZY SUSAN:

I will not lie to you.  These can be expensive depending on the type you buy.  At the same time, I find  a cake turntable to be very helpful when icing the sides of cakes.  If you plan on baking cakes occasionally, I would recommend a lazy Susan which can be purchased very inexpensively.  If you plan on baking and decorating cakes often, buying a nicer one will help you achieve the results you are looking for more easily.  The reason is the “glide” factor.  The pedestal type just glide and maneuver better – not to mention they are propped up higher making it easier to smooth icing.  YOU DON’T need to buy any sort of turntable to decorate a cake.  However, when you’re icing sides smoothly, the momentum of a turning cake with a spatula smoothing the sides is what helps it look flawless and flat.

PASTRY BAGS:

I love pastry bags – can’t get enough of them!  However if you’re not going to be piping any decorations, a ziplock bag will do for getting a nice dam  around your cake.  However, disposable cake bags are cheap and handy to have when you want to decorate with multiple types of colored frosting.

OTHER THINGS:

Parchment paper – I only bake with parchment paper.  It is my sure fire guarantee my cake will release from the pan without sticking to it.

Cake tips: If you are going to pipe borders, roses, letter writing, and other detail work, cake tips are a must.  You can buy them individually or buy them part of a set.

Cake boards:  Most of the time when decorating and presenting a cake, you will want the board it sits on underneath to be slightly wider than the cake itself. You can buy cardboard cake boards for this purpose which are already foil- lined.  Or you can make your own buy cutting a piece of thick ( think card board box) card board the diameter slightly wider than your cake and cover it with tin foil taping the edges on the backside down.
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*If you have any questions, cake decorating tips, comments, or other suggestions for cake decorating tutorials you would like to see drop a comment.  I plan on doing more tutorials in the near future.

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{ 75 comments… read them below or add one }

Sal March 10, 2012 at 4:31 am

Hi Alice, thanks for the frosting tips. Very helpful. In your list of recommended items there is an Ateco Frosting Tip set. I wondered if this set contains the No:32 tip you used to do the lovely piping work photo for the Vanilla Buttercream Frosting? Thanks :-)

Reply

alice March 10, 2012 at 11:51 am

Hi Sal,
Any extra-large star-type tip will work for what you’re wanting. My cake stuff is packed away in a box somewhere, but I interchange the tips for very similar results! :)

Reply

Sal March 10, 2012 at 4:33 am

PS I meant to say in my last comment how great this tutorial is. My vote is definitely for more please!!

Reply

Rhonda March 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Maybe a silly question but what do you mean by an offset spatula? Also how do you line a round cake pan with parchment paper?
Thanks for the great tutorial!
Rhonda

Reply

Camille September 28, 2012 at 1:22 am

Offset means the metal is bent. Some spatulas are straight and some are angled. A quick Google Image search will help you visualize.

You can trace the bottom of the pan with a pencil and cut the circle of parchment paper. Or go the expensive route and buy parchment paper rounds that fit your pan.

Reply

Hollywood October 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

An offset spatula is pictured in this tutorial. It is straight, bends slight up and has a handle. Not to pricey. I just priced them yesterday at a Walmart, but have seen then in Michaels. Michaels prices were similar to Walmart pricing. Not a big difference at all. Hope this helps. I am learning how to bake so I have been doing a lot of studying and I loved this tutorial.

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Kimberly Morgan March 18, 2012 at 9:53 pm

You make it look so easy! And I’m glad that I’m not the only person to ask about the decorating tip you used for the vanilla buttercream picture. Awesome!! I only do cupcakes so far, but I really, really loved reading your instructions for this cake. When it’s time for me to go BIG and do some cakes, SavorySweetLife will be the first place I go for help. Thanks so much for being an inspiration and such a help to this noob.

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Krista June 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

What frosting did you use for this recipe? Your chocolate ganache or the chocolate american buttercream?

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DeAnn Lee July 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Your fall cake looks awesome !! I was looking for a buttercream recipie and came across your directions for frosting this cake!! I love making cakes and decorating them and your tips and ideas will be very helpful!! Thank u for posting your talents !

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nina July 15, 2012 at 6:39 am

real handy and expert tips…i opened ur site for the first time and guess will be now glued to it forever…

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Janelle July 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Dipping the spatula in warm water will also help give a nice smooth surface.

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Vonda August 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Your cake looks so amazing! Have you tried Demarle at Home products? People who appreciate professional results will love them. No need for parchment paper, grease or oil and everything comes out clean everytime. I purchased half of their catalog and then became a rep I loved the time it saved me in the kitchen so much! Just a tip to pass along to you for sharing your talent with us!
Thank you!

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Vicky October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am

You recommend using parchment paper, I’ve used it in the past and can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. If I put it down with it against the sides, the cake gets bumpy sides. If I put it only on the bottom, the batter slips under the paper.
Thanks!

Reply

Annette December 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

This is so helpful. I hope you will also post tips/tutorial about decorating cakes with fondant. Thank you!

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sheila fox January 29, 2013 at 5:21 am

Thank you for being up with me my son and this wife to be Holly want me to me there wedding cake, I am honor to do the wedding in April they wanted butter cream. I hab it just wanted to get it right and to be sure thank you.

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Amanda March 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I find it works goid to greasethree pan before placing the parchment paper Doreen then greasing parchment paper also

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Kristin March 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm

I enjoyed your frosting tips. This is my first time making butter cream and using it. This was just a trial cake for a larger cake I am making my son next week for his birthday. The advice was great. I will look into your tips on fondante next time.

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tutors melbourne March 26, 2013 at 12:50 am

This is the first time I’ve been to your site. Thnx for explaining more information.

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Modesto April 9, 2013 at 12:42 am

You have provided an awesome resource.

Reply

Liz May 30, 2013 at 8:22 am

Ahhh now i understand….thank you for showing pictures and explaining it properly.

Reply

monica August 17, 2013 at 11:03 am

Wonderful site and great tutorials and recipes! Thanks so much! I’m doing my fourth wedding cake (have five sons and it’s been amazing that I keep getting asked to make their cakes) and I have found your tips very helpful for this fourth cake, wish I knew some of these things earlier.

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helen September 5, 2013 at 11:08 am

Can you tell me what colors of luster dust you used or is it just the three you have pictured?

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virgie jaquess December 16, 2013 at 5:24 am

When I catered, I used pieces of plyboard for cake boards and then covered in heavy foil.
they are reunsable and therefore cheaper and sturdier to use.

Reply

Rick January 18, 2014 at 1:17 pm

I appreciate the instructions here. I have to admit I had a good laugh in Step 5, where in the next-to-last line, referred to the piped perimeter around the filling as a “damn” instead of “dam”!

Reply

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