How to Frost a Cake: Tips for Professional Results
Words Heather Ramsdell
Pro tips to help make frosting pretty cakes simpler.
It is so satisfying to cook a dish you have learned by heart. A little know-how saves time, reduces stress, and frees you to be more creative. Whether you love to cook or just need to solve the dinner problem, this repertoire of how-tos gives you confidence to add personal style and hopefully makes life more tasty.
There are so many ways to prepare the same dish. These are recipes for dishes and drinks you’ll make again and again, pared down to the essential ingredients and steps. They include tips to take out guesswork, choose the best tools, answer the most common questions we hear, and amp up the qualities that make us love each food in this series: to make crispier, faster chicken; creamier, tastier beans; fearless squash, more pro-looking layer cake; cocktails you can memorize; and eggs, precisely how you like them, every time.
Let’s get cooking.
You might not need to frost a nice layer cake, yet. But, it’s a skill that, like riding a bike, may someday come in handy. The best time to get good at it is today. Now is better than the day before a party where you are the one bringing cake because no one’s first cake is perfectly straight and smooth.
It might not even be that smooth the second time, but the good news is, this basic two-bowl recipe for Easy Deeply Chocolate Cake and Fluffy American Buttercream is bound to be delicious. And, making big sweeps with the offset spatula, watching the frosting mound up on the blade as you press and spin the cake will be fun. When you’re done, eat all of the evidence with friends and neighbors.
Smoothing a cake is a physical skill, once you get a feel for the texture of frosting, the spring of the spatula and the right amount of pressure to apply, a pretty cake gets easier to make.
Here are a few rules of thumb and pro tips to help make frosting pretty cakes simpler. Are you already good at frosting? Please share your own tips.
Tips for how to frost smoother cakes
Cool cakes completely
Warm cakes melt buttercream and then slide around on it. Cool cakes are firmer, and make a better frosting surface. They’re also easier to level (trim off the dome) and the temperature helps to set the buttercream as you spread it.
Clear a refrigerator shelf
Many a cake was dinged by crowded bottles and containers in stuffed refrigerator, but not yours.
Level and center
Starting with a straight base makes for a straight final product. Make cakes level by trimming off the domes (eat the scraps) and getting the rounds centered on the boards and with each other, helps when adding a final frosting coat.
Make extra frosting
Extra frosting makes it more relaxing to frost. You can use what’s left over for the next round, or make cake pops with it.
Have essential tools
Two 8-inch or 9-inch cake pans with straight sides. An electric mixer for the frosting. A long offset spatula to smooth the frosting on the cake. Cardboard cake rounds available at craft or baking supply stores stabilize the cake and allow you to move it. A pastry bag or decorating bottle kit.
Have these tools, too, if you want
A cake turntable is nice to have. One or more cake smoothers with different textures for striping your cake sides. Various other pastry tips are good for variety.
Take off the pressure and make a swirly finish instead of a smooth one. Start with a thin crumb-coat and chill it for a bit to make the final swoopy, curvy frosting layer crumb-free.
One 8-Inch Layer Cake45 minutes:
2 (8-inch) cake layers, cooled
5 cups soft American buttercream frosting, at room temperature
Food coloring, optional
Extras: sprinkles, nuts or coconut for decoration
- Create enough room for the cake in the refrigerator or freezer. Level cake layers with the serrated knife by slicing off the domes. Reserve these for another use, such as cake pops or an ice cream mix-in.
- Tint frosting with food coloring, if using.
- Stick the cake board to a cake turntable, if you have one, using a dab of frosting as glue. Stick first cake layer to the board using frosting, taking care to center both cake and round. Tuck strips of parchment in a circle around the base to keep the board and turntable clean. Spread about one-fifth of the frosting on the cake layer and use the offset spatula to spread to an even thickness, letting frosting go a bit past the cake’s edge.
- Set second layer of cake, bottom-side up, on the first. Press down gently to level the layers. Using the offset spatula, spread another one-fifth of the frosting evenly on top of cake.
- Coat the sides of cake completely with a thin layer of frosting. Hold the spatula vertically against cake while rotating the turntable and spread until it is relatively smooth, wiping frosting off of the spatula occasionally. It’s fine for the cake to show through: This coat of frosting traps the crumbs and helps get a neat final coat. Neaten the top edge of cake by catching the jagged peaks with the flat of the offset spatula and gently draw them across the top of cake.
- Chill until the crumb coat is firm to the touch, about 20 minutes in the refrigerator or 5 minutes in the freezer.
- Fill a decorating tool or piping bag fitted with a tip with 1/3 cup of the frosting and set aside.
- If making a swirled cake, apply the rest of the frosting all over the top and sides of the cake in an even layer. Texture it casually with swoops and curves. If making a smooth cake, spread 1 cup of the frosting on top of cake with the offset spatula, spinning the turntable and flattening frosting with the edge of the spatula to level it. Spread a generous amount of frosting on all sides of cake and even it out with the edge of the spatula pressing gently toward the cake as you spin the turntable. This is the finish coat, so work as neatly as possible and keep the spatula clean.
- Neaten the top edge of cake by catching any frosting peaks with the flat of the offset spatula, spreading them gently onto the cake surface. You may need to chill and do one final coating to get a completely smooth surface. Remove the parchment and finish the border around the bottom with the reserved icing. Slice and serve.
Easy Deeply-Chocolate Cake50 minutes: Makes 2 (8-inch) round cakes
Nonstick cooking spray
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup hot coffee, divided
American Buttercream Frosting (see recipe below)
- Heat the oven to 350ºF.
- Spray 2 (8-inch-round) cake pans with nonstick spray, line the bottoms with parchment and spray again. Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Put the sugars, eggs, yogurt, butter and vanilla in a bowl, add a little bit of the coffee to loosen the mixture and whisk it to liquify. Add flour mixture and gently stir with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides as needed, until just combined, about 15 stirs. Add the rest of the hot coffee and, being careful not to burn yourself, stir until fully incorporated.
- This is a thin batter. Pour half of it into each of the 2 pans. Bake, rotating halfway through cooking, until set and a toothpick comes out clean, about 35 minutes.
- Cool on a rack 15 minutes and turn out to cool the rest of the way. Frost and serve as desired.
American Buttercream FrostingMakes about 5 cups, enough to frost 2 layers of an 8-inch cake:
3 sticks butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or bourbon
6 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- Use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, if you have one, to lighten butter until it is fluffy, soft, almost white in color and has noticeably increased in volume. Add 2 tablespoons of the milk, vanilla and salt.
- Add half of the sugar and mix, going slowly at first so it does not fly everywhere until fully incorporated. Add the other half of the sugar and mix until combined. Add more of the milk as needed by half-teaspoons to soften frosting and make it smooth and spreadable. Keep at room temperature until ready to frost or, if you refrigerate the frosting, beat it again to soften.