Tips for Decorating Buttercream Cakes: Tools and Techniques for Perfect Buttercream Frosting

Cake design can be an entertaining and satisfying job if you are interested in pursuing an alternative culinary career in the pastry arts. However, decorating perfectly smooth cakes is an art that takes plenty of practice to master. The following are some tools, gadgets and tips for decorating buttercream cakes:

Stand Mixer

A high-speed stand mixer will be one of the hardest-working tools in your kitchen since it takes so much effort to beat buttercream frosting with a wooden spoon. Likewise, a hand mixer can make small batches of buttercream, but you'll likely burn out its motor if you decorate cakes often.

Cake Leveler

Does the thought of making multilayered cakes scare you? Calm your fears by using a cake leveler to slice off domes and torte thick cakes. Torted cake layers will then be ready to fill and decorate. A cake leveler's main purpose is to easily slice through a thick cake to create two to four layers, thereby avoiding baking separate layers with lopsided results.

Revolving Cake Decorating Stand

It's hard to hold a heavy, three-tier cake in one hand while you decorate it with the other, or to turn and decorate a large cake on a bench. A revolving cake stand makes cake decorating much easier and faster since the stainless-steel ball bearings make it easy to turn the cake around.

Pastry Bags and Decorating Tips

If you're like most bakers, you'll probably accumulate a sizable assortment of tips for decorating buttercream cakes. Hundreds of decorating tips in all shapes and sizes do different jobs. Pastry bags can be canvas, plastic, transparent and disposable and range from small to extra-large sizes.

Bench Scraper

A metal bench scraper will quickly remove excess frosting from your cakes while assuring sharp edges. Get one that is at least 6 inches long and has a flat base that will create sides at a 90-degree angle to the cake board.

Icing Spatulas

An offset metal spatula offers easy access to tight spaces that straight spatulas can't reach. Meanwhile, long, straight spatulas are also handy when icing large and/or tall cakes. Both types of spatulas in assorted lengths serve many purposes.

Hot Knife or Paper Towel?

A popular technique used to achieve perfectly smooth buttercream is the hot knife method used during the final stage of decorating. A hot spatula makes it easier to smooth and scrape off excess frosting. Another popular, yet unconventional method is to use a Viva paper towel to finish smoothing your cake. Viva is one of the only brands with completely smooth sides without any texture. These smoothing techniques work best when used with a crusting buttercream recipe.

Using Buttercream Frosting

Use your favorite crusting buttercream frosting recipe for these smoothing techniques. An all-butter, traditional American buttercream is firmer when chilled, but it doesn't do well in hot, humid weather. Fluffy buttercream icing made with a 1:3 ratio of butter to high-ratio shortening is perfect for a crusting buttercream that holds up under higher temperatures.

After leveling, torting and filling your cake layers, it's time to crumb-coat the cake. A thin coat of frosting is necessary in order to achieve a smooth, crumb-free cake. Place your cake in your refrigerator or freezer for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the frosting is firm to the touch. You can then apply your final coat of icing and begin smoothing.

The key to keeping your buttercream crumb-free is ensuring your spatula never touches the cake. Spread the frosting to the edges and let a little hang over the top. Ice the sides of the cake with a thick layer of frosting, and dip the bench scraper in hot water. Hold the scraper at a 90-degree angle with the side of the cake while resting flat on the cake board. Using light pressure, slowly turn the cake stand while removing excess frosting, smoothing and straightening the sides and edges as you go. Dip the scraper into the hot water and repeat until your sides are straight and smooth. At this point, you can either use the hot spatula or the Viva paper towel to give your cake a perfect finish.

Photo credit: Donna Diegel