Here’s Your New Hobby: Cake Decorating!

I taught myself how to decorate cakes with YouTube videos during a year in which I had a job so boring and soul-draining that, had I not started decorating cakes, I surely would have gone insane. The following year, I got a job decorating cakes, and stuck with it for three years. My training was finished on the job, and with practice I got, well, really, really good.

The point is, decorating a cake like a boss is not that hard. You can do it at home, and you only need a few supplies, time to practice and some patience. I’m going to give you a selection of YouTube videos about the various basic steps of assembling and decorating a cake whose advice I can endorse.

Here’s what you’ll need in terms of cake decorating supplies:

  • Piping bags, preferably 16” or larger (you’ll get fed up with tiny piping bags, plus you’ll get frosting all over your hands)

  • A 12-inch offset spatula (must be offset — it keeps your hand away from the cake while you’re frosting it)

  • A 9-inch offset spatula (for lifting things up, mostly)

  • Piping tips:

    • #3 (for inscriptions) —  get 2 or 3

    • #104 (for roses)

    • #16 (for rosettes)

    • #352 (for leaves)

    • A large star tip (for icing — don’t buy an icing tip, you’ll put too much frosting on the cake, and yes, “too much frosting” does exist)

  • Collars

  • Cake boards

  • A turntable

  • A rose nail

  • A serrated knife

  • Scissors

  • A tall tumbler of water

Now for the videos, with a few notes of advice:

  • How To Level and Split A Cake: You do need to level a cake for it to look good, and as long as you’re just starting, take your time with it. Splitting (or “torting”) a cake isn’t really necessary if you’ve made two layers, but it’s how bakeries tend to assemble cakes. If it’s not absolutely perfect, don’t worry about it (that’s a piece of advice I’ll be repeating a few times here) — you can kind of-sort of make up for unevenness with decorations like roses so that, to the casual observer, it doesn’t look off-kilter.

  • How To Fill A Cake: My only additions to this video are that, first, if you’re going to be filling it with the same buttercream with which you’re frosting the cake, you don’t need to worry about making that “dam” of icing — that’s just to keep the filling from leaking out into your outer layer of frosting. Second, if you’re filling with fruit, make sure to put several dots of frosting on top of the fruit so that the top layer has something to adhere to other in addition to the dam.

  • How To Hold A Piping Bag: Remember to only fill your piping bag about halfway (that’s why I advocate for 16” or larger bags) and twist it right above the frosting. An alternative method is to twist the bag and then position your hand so that you’re putting pressure on it with your ring and pinky fingers — I find this useful for when you’re doing detailed work that doesn’t require a lot of frosting because it gives me more detailed control over the flow of the icing. Try it both ways and see what you like.

  • How To Frost A Cake Without A Piping Bag: I skipped this video ahead to 6:14 for the link because that’s when the host starts talking about frosting the cake. The bagless method is the method most videos teach, and I will get to the bag method in a moment. The only addition I have to this is that if you’re using American buttercream, you can dip your 12-inch offset spatula in water to finish the top and sides — the water helps the spatula glide over the frosting and get rid of lines.

  • How To Frost A Cake With A Piping Bag: Unfortunately there are no videos for this. I had this derided during a stage as “The Whole Foods Method,” but at Whole Foods I decorated 80-150 cakes a day and didn’t have time to do a crumb coat. Use a piping bag fitted with a large star tip to apply your frosting in an even layer to the top and sides of the cake: Pipe a spiral onto the top of the cake and just zigzag up and down on the sides of the cake. Then proceed as above, smoothing the sides first, then the top. This way, you apply frosting to the cake without moving cake crumbs around, and you do it in a matter of seconds. It’s kind of like this video (ignore the end of it), except I found the star tip more useful because it turned out with less excess frosting and you could go on to create a shell border with the bag you’ve already fitted with the star tip.

  • How To Pipe A Shell Border: Practice, practice, practice! Do it on wax paper first, then try doing it on cakes. Challenge yourself to go faster than you want to once you’re comfortable. This is also approximately the same way you pipe leaves.

  • How To Pipe A Rosette: This video is for cupcakes because most bakeries frost cupcakes using a rosette (it’s fast). It applies equally to piping rosettes on cakes — you can finish a whole cake by covering it in rosettes, you can pipe a rosette border, or you can add rosettes to a spray of flowers as accents.

  • How To Pipe A Rose: I swear, this is the only video I could find easily that didn’t needlessly add tips and steps to the process. Piping roses looks hard, but it’s SO not. The only thing she doesn’t explain is how to transfer the rose to the cake: Take a thin-bladed pair of scissors, very carefully pick up the rose with them, and place the rose on the cake by scooting the rose off of the scissors with your 9” offset spatula (or fingers).

  • How To Pipe An Inscription: To be clear, you will suck at this for a while. Your inscriptions will look like a two-year-old wrote them. It’s okay! Eventually you’ll get the hang of it and figure out your own style of pipemanship. Practice “happy” a LOT and learn how to spell “congratulations” (a very real problem in the cake decorating industry).

A final piece of advice: If you fuck up, don’t worry! You can scrape the mistake off and re-smooth your icing, cover it with sprinkles, cover it with a rose — the possibilities are endless. Voilà, you have a new hobby!

Why yes, that is one of my cakes. Give me a holler on Twitter.