As a former professional baker, I used to create hundreds of baked goods every day — but I have a confession to make: the beguilingly beautiful cakes on Instagram intimidate me. While I can easily whip up a perfect batch of scones, turn out loaf after loaf of perfectly shaped bread and even twist braids into a clever lattice pie crust, I’m terrible at cake decorating.
But there’s hope for those of us who are woefully inept at working with frosting. You don’t have to be a trained pastry chef to make drool-worthy cakes that let your creativity shine. Below, baking experts share their tried-and-true methods that even beginners will be able to follow.
Basic can be beautiful.
Start with something simple. Since making sugar flowers requires advanced techniques, BCakeNY owner Miriam Milord suggests using fresh flowers instead.
“The trend of naked cakes that don’t require perfect frosting are a very good option for someone just starting out to create something beautiful that doesn’t make them [want to] pull their hair out,” said Milord, who has designed masterpieces for the likes of Rihanna, Michael B. Jordan, Cardi B, Mariah Carey and Jay-Z.
Buttercream frosting works best for newbies.
Buttercream made with milk, confectioners’ sugar and butter is foolproof compared to, for example, fondant or a more delicate meringue-based frosting, said Maggie Austin, a world-renowned designer of intricate wedding cakes and the author of “Maggie Austin Cake: Artistry and Technique.”
“It’s a safer bet and more forgiving,” Austin said.
If you’re working with something highly perishable, like whipped cream, she warned that “you’re embarking on something that can be pretty stressful, because you have a very narrow window [of time].”
Timing is everything.
“There’s no point in rushing, so make sure to set aside enough time to decorate,” baking guru Thida Bevington said. It can take up to three or four hours to do an initial crumb coat of frosting on a cake, chill it, slather on a second crumb-free layer, painstakingly even it out with a scraper, chill it again and then pipe some simple designs on top to finish it off.
But remember that you don’t have all day. In terms of food safety, most frostings need to be refrigerated or eaten within a few hours. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends leaving a frosted cake out for no longer than two hours at a time.
After baking, it takes at least an hour — sometimes two — for an average cake to reach room temperature. Once cool, wrap each layer in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge (you can even leave them in overnight). In addition to letting your cakes cool completely once they’re out of the oven, Bevington recommends putting them in the fridge both before and after decorating. Otherwise, you may end up with a cake that falls apart or a melting mess of frosting.
Practice on a sheet pan before you try it on a cake.
New to piping? Don’t let your first time be on the cake you’re about to serve. Set out a large baking sheet, cover it with parchment paper and test out your skills.
A thick piping bag is less likely to burst than a thin one, but preferences vary depending on hand strength and level of control, Bevington said. There is also a wide variety of piping tips to choose from, but don’t feel overwhelmed. Just pick a few to experiment with and figure out how to achieve the design you want.
“It’s helpful to break decorating out into components,” said Amanda Faber, co-host of the popular baking podcast “Flour Hour” and season 2 winner of ABC’s “The Great American Baking Show.” “Make frosting, play with piping it out on a sheet pan, keep building your skills, practice and play with it.”
Once you have a design ready, you can pipe it directly onto the cake. Or, if you’re creating individual pieces, like buttercream flowers, you can pipe them onto a square of parchment on top of a piping nail, move them to a flat plate or baking sheet and pop them in the freezer, where they’ll keep for days.
Repurpose household items as decorating tools.
“Anything that’s not from the cake world directly is fair game for cake decoration,” Austin said. “Just make sure they are food-safe and cleaned properly.”
You don’t need to buy anything fancy. For example, “math tools are really practical for baking,” Milord said. She recommends using a ruler to mark a cake halfway up its sides with a knife ― toothpicks also work well ― so you can cut it evenly across.
Bevington is also a fan of using things you might find in your child’s pencil case to decorate cakes. She prefers using a ruler or triangular set square instead of a scraper or spatula for evening out the final layer of frosting, she said. Another handy trick is to turn a wine glass upside down, put a square of parchment on the underside of the base (which is now on top) and use it instead of a flower nail to create buttercream blooms, twirling the stem as you go.
Of course, there are some practical kitchen tools that some bakers can’t do without. “My offset spatula is like my hand,” Faber said. She prefers the small version, no more than 5 inches long, which can help you make those luscious swirls and keep your frosting movements nimble. And if you’re planning to make cakes regularly, it may be worth investing in a turntable, she said.
As you develop your own style of cake decorating, be forgiving and keep trying new things. While many people may look at Instagram and think they can’t compete, “just have a go with it!” Bevington said.
Similarly, “people spend a lot of time making things look perfect, and like it was easy,” Milord said. “Don’t buy that. Someone who can do that has probably done it for 10 years.”