Cake Decorating 101

Decorating a cake can be an easy and satisfying project even for the least creative baker.  With time and practice, a beginning baker will soon move beyond Cake Decorating 101 to tackling more adventurous cake decorating projects.

Starting at the beginning, however, the first step to dressing up a cake is to ice it.  Cookbooks, online baking websites and friends will all offer what they consider the best recipe.  Here’s a simple recipe that works well when decorating: 

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting (from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)


1/3 cup softened butter or stick margarine

3 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon milk

food coloring (optional)


1. Beat butter or margarine with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth and creamy.  

2. Still at medium speed, mix in the powdered sugar, one cup at a time.

3. Add vanilla and milk.  Mix until smooth and creamy.  If you choose to use food coloring, now is the time to add it, mixing in one drop at a time until it reaches the correct color.

4. Spread the frosting on a completely cooled cake.  If it does not spread well, add a half-teaspoon of milk and mix again.

Special tips for the beginner

Draw a cake-size circle on a piece of wax paper and plans decorations and writing.  Experiment to find the right look for the occasion.

A cake need to be thoroughly cooled before it is frosted.  After it cools on a baking rack, place it in the refrigerator for one hour or the freezer for twenty to thirty minutes.

Frosting made to ice cakes is of a thin consistency.  Frosting for decorating bags and tips is of medium consistency.  Experiment to find which thickness works best.

The first of two coats on a cake is called a “crumb coat”, or as Cake Boss Buddy Valastro calls it, “dirty icing”. That is a thin coat that picks up loose crumbs.  After fifteen minutes the first coat will be set.  Now carefully apply a second coat to the entire cake.  Smooth the top with a large angled spatula, moving from the outer edge to the center with each stroke.  Smooth the sides with the same large spatula held straight up and down while turning the cake.  Allow the final coat to set prior to decorating.

Purchase tubes of frosting in the desired colors for decorating.  Buy a set of 3-4 decorating tips, including at least one for making stars and one for writing.  Attach a tip to one tube and practice on the wax paper to get a feel for the icing and the tips.  Now decorate the cake.

A quick, unfrosted cake for the beginner

Cakes can be decorative without frosting.  Place a large paper doily or any other paper cutout on top of a chocolate layer cake.  Sift confectionery sugar over the entire top.  Carefully remove the doily and enjoy the beautiful design.  Those who prefer a white or yellow cake can sift cocoa powder over the top in the same manner.

Cake decorating is a very forgiving endeavor.  Imperfections can be easily disguised with more frosting.  For those willing to experiment and have fun with cake decorating, it is a rewarding experience and for those who eat the cake, it’s an appealing, mouthwatering adventure.

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