The world of cake decorating is a place many people just don’t venture. It’s also one of those things that when you start, you can’t seem to ever stop!
Cake decorating can be extremely involved and is considered an art in many circles. From simple and classic, to over the top extravagant, cake decorating is a very different thing for me than it is to you, and your next door neighbor.
Cake decorating is essentially what it takes to take a cake from start to finish, and everything in between.
This can mean anything from simply smoothing some frosting atop a cake and calling it a day, to creating a masterpiece; the likes of which you’ve probably seen on cake decorating shows or competitions. Think towers of cake covered with intricate fondant decorations and over the top themes.
So what are the basics? Here are some common cake decorating tools and their basic uses to get you started.
Trays and Wheels
If you’re new to cake decorating, there are some simple things you need to know and it all starts with your desired outcome.
Chances are if you’re interested in decorating a cake, it’s for a reason (i.e. you’ll be sharing it with at least one other person and not devouring it by yourself) which means you’ll care about how it’s presented. By that I mean, what will you be putting your cake on?
This is where cake trays come in. They make a huge difference in the portability of the finished product, the finish, AND the ease with which you can decorate.
Cake trays vary from a flat and simple design for plating and something made more for presentation. The former looking something like Wilton cake circles, which are typically disposable.
These are often used in conjunction with a cake wheel which is similar to a pottery wheel in that once you have your cake secured to your disposable tray, (usually with a few swipes of frosting) you can then secure it to your cake wheel. The cake wheel’s purpose is to hold your cake steady while you spin it around and frost the cake evenly.
Make sure that you get an appropriate size that isn’t too clunky but large enough to accommodate all of your future projects.
Decorating cakes is of course, ultimately about how you frost them. Without frosting, your cake simply isn’t decorated. The next step is to realize how you want your cake to look.
What are your objectives? If you’re just starting out, it may be better to start simple and build your knowledge and skills gradually instead of jumping straight into, let’s say, decorating with fondant.
Back in the early 2000’s, it was completely kosher to show up with a single sheet cake that wasn’t divided and was simply frosted about all in one layer. These days, the norm is more of a tower cake made in circular pans which are most definitely either cut and divided or piled on top of one another.
If you’re simply topping each baked round on to the next and are not worried about what the inside of your cake looks like then don’t worry about this, but chances are you’re interested in getting smooth, clean, and symmetrical lines, in which case you’ll need to invest in a leveler.
Levelers are handy tools which are designed to cut through cooled cake seamlessly and evenly. They are placed against the counter (or whatever surface you’re working on) while the wire or thin cutter is pulled back and forth to cut through the cake at an angle perfectly perpendicular to that of the surface you’re working with. This is how professional cake bakers create those perfect even layers.
You can also use these to “trim” off the round hump you get in the middle of round cakes from where they’ve risen in the oven.
Spatulas and Smoothers
Now that you have your wheel and perfectly cut cake rounds, you’ll need tools to spread on that lovely frosting to secure your layers together. No baking cupboard (or drawer, or cabinet) is complete without an icing spatula.
This basic tool allows you to spread on frosting miles better than any knife or other utensil will – don’t even be tempted to use something else!
There really is no replacement for a good spatula and it’s worth investing in one or a few versatile sizes that can be used in multiple projects. Don’t ask me the science behind it but trust me, these were built to do what they do, and are worth it.
You can also use the frosting spatula to frost your finished cake (and should, especially if you’re doing an initial crumb coat which is always recommended), however you may want a smoother finish on your frosting and this is where things get fun!
With your cake still on the wheel, use a frosting smoother and spin your cake to glide your piled frosting into one smooth and uniform finish. These come in different textures that you can use to create patterns in your finished product as well. It’s nice to have a set of smoothers with multiple textures, as it allows you to experiment with your patterns.
Try gliding your textured frosting smoother up and down while spinning your cake to create pretty waves.
You may like the classic look and want to finish here, but chances are what interest most people are frosting tips. These are what come to mind when most people think about decorating cakes. They come in a plethora of sizes, shapes, and designs.
While not absolutely necessary, frosting tips are used to pipe frosting decorations onto your cake, however you like! You can use frosting tips to pipe siding, lettering, flowers, you name it.
To use frosting tips, you’ll also need frosting bags and plastic couplers (to secure your tip to your bag). It’s best to look into a starter kit that includes everything you need.
It can be overwhelming looking at the hundreds of varieties of tips; trying to decide what effect you want and how you can achieve it. This article on ninerbakes.com about piping tips gives a good basic intro to icing tips and the various styles created by them.
There really is no end to what you can create when you put your mind to it!
Now that you have a solid grasp on the basic decorating tools and their uses, check out these cake baking tips to take your baking to the next level. With a little patience and creativity, you’ll be making fun and professional looking cakes in no time!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.