How-To: Frost a Cake

March 19, 2021
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At the heart of every celebration there’s usually a cake! (at least in my house there is) Cake is one of my favorite desserts and I think learning how to properly frost one is someone every home cook should feel confident doing.

Frosting a Cake 101

Here are the basics you need to know when it comes to frosting a cake for any celebration – everything you need to know, and nothing you don’t. We’ll run through the essentials, a few tricks, and the basic technique that will help you gain confidence in this essential skill that will sure impress you and your party guests!

Essentials Tools for Frosting a Cake

The tools I’ve listed are what I consider essential for ease of execution and optimal result. So you certainly can frost a cake without these items, it just might be slightly harder and not look as nice. But I also think it’s important to give yourself grace, while this skill isn’t super technical, it certainly takes practice, se items are as negotiable as you’d like.  

  Cake Layers + Frosting: Kelsey’s Yellow Birthday Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting or you can use a simple boxed cake mix as well. If using my recipe, as written it will yield (2) 9-inch layers. If you want a 3rd layer 1 1/2X the recipe. For box mixes, you’ll need 2 boxes for 3 substantial cake layers.

•  Off-Set Spatulas (small and large) for spreading frosting easily.

•  Bench Scraper for smoothing the sides and top of the cake. 

• Sprinkles for FUN!

Extra Credit

 Cake Turntable : Makes getting that smooth finish substantially easier by rotating while frosting. easily and smoothly rotating the cake as we frost it. 

•  Disposable Piping Bags and a Tip Decorating Kit for decorating and spreading frosting.

Critical Tips before you Begin

If you learn anything from this post…learn this! Your cake layers must be completely cool (or even frozen) before frosting.  This is non-negotiable and if you ignore this rule your cakes may slip, tear, or crack, and your frosting may literally melt off the sides. While your cakes should be COLD, your frosting should be room temperature so that it spreads easily.  

While this isn’t necessary, it will make things easier…consider investing in some cake rounds. Cake By Courtney taught me to have two sizes on hand – one should be the size of the cake your baking and the other one should be slightly larger.

Begin Frosting

Using an off-set spatula, use a dab of frosting on the bottom of the cake to secure it to the cake board or the cake plate. Evenly spread the frosting on top of the first layer allowing some of the frosting to gently fall over the sides.

Next place the second layer, top side down, on top of the first frosted layer. Repeat the same process of evenly spreading the frosting on top of the second layer, allowing some of the frosting the fall over the sides again.  Each layer will use about 1/2 cup of frosting.

Add the third layer, top side down, on top of the second frosted layer.  This should give you a flat cake top. Press the top of the cake down gently to make sure the layers feel aligned and even.

Use your off-set spatula once again to add a thick layer of frosting to the top of the cake. Be a bit more generous with this layer as the frosting you place on top will also be spread down the sides of the cake for a thin crumb coat.  

Rinse the knife in warm water and shake off any excess then work the frosting into a smooth and even layer across the top of the cake. Any excess frosting can be gently pushed over the edge.  

Holding your large off-set spatula vertically, and spread the frosting across the sides use a sweeping motion. You may need to add a bit extra, but remember that this is a crumb coat and it can be a thin layer. It will seal in any lingering crumbs.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes – 1 hour so that the crumb coat chills and sets before you put on the final coat of frosting.  This may seem like a labor intensive step, but trust me…it’s worth it. Take this time to do a quick clean up and prep anything else needed to finish the cake. You can also do this the night before.

After the crumb coat is set, remove it from the fridge and top the cake with a generous amount of frosting keeping in mind that you never want your off-set spatula to come in contact with the actual cake, only touching the frosting.

Add frosting to the sides of the cake as well knowing that you’ll have some cascading over from the top.

Use the off-set spatula to evenly spread frosting across the top of the cake, turning the cake turntable (if using) to get an even swirl on top.

Holding the off-set vertically, spread the frosting along the sides of the cake until smooth.  What you’re going for is even thickness of frosting and so that no naked cake layers are showing through.  Final smoothing is just around the corner.

Remember to use a cup of warm water to frequently rinse the knife followed by shaking off the excess as you frost. A clean, slightly warm knife makes smoothing the frosting much easier.

Smooth Finish

For that bakery worth smooth finish, use a bench scraper.  Vertically hold it against the cake while applying slightly firm and even pressure. It’s easiest if you’re using a turntable and can spin the cake stand, while holding the bench scraper in place.  This will create a smooth finish along the side of the cake. 

If you don’t have a bench scraper, simply use your off-set spatula to do this same process. Remember to rinse and shake any time the frosting feels like it’s fighting back.

Once the sides are smooth, gently push the frosting towards the center of the cake while starting at the edges.

Finish by holding the off-set spatula at a 45 degree angle and creating a wavy swoop pattern on top or even a spiral staring in the center and working outwards while spinning the cake. And don’t worry, if you don’t like how it looks, you can always clean the knife, smooth the top of the cake, and try again.  

Finish it off!

Finish by decorating with sprinkles in any way that suits you. If you’re looking for extra credit consider a simple border around the base of the cake.

Refrigerate for at least one hour to set frosting before serving.

YOU DID IT! Time to give yourself a high five.