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We’ve all seen those beautiful cakes.
You know the ones I’m talking about, the ones that are even and smooth and beautifully decorated. The ones with the straight edges, and the sprinkles put in just the right place and wonder how do they do it!?
BEEN THERE. Actually was there for a while, but I made it out alive and I’m here to give you my top 10 tips to make your cakes look more professional!
First, heres a little background:
I started out my cake adventure about 8 years ago.
After taking a 3 day pastry course at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC, I was hooked. I bought books on cookie and cake decorating, and watched countless youtube videos and tutorials. I was fascinated by how you could make such beautiful and fun creations out of cake. So I started making cakes for my family and friends and I loved it even though they took me hours and hours.
Heres a picture of one of the first cakes I ever made:
I remember being so proud of it, giving it away, and then coming home to the biggest mess ever that I left on my dining room table. YAY. But who cares, my beautiful cake was awesome! (At least I thought it was, and my Ziedy (grandfather) did too haha).
Anyways as time went on, the thought of pastry school and caking professionally was luring me. After a move to Florida and one little kid at home, I eventually enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu’s Baking and Pastry Arts Program.
It was 9 months of daily classes and then a 3 month externship at a restaurant that specialized in your field. After those 9 months of learning all about cookies, cakes, pies, breads, even sanitation rules -I landed a spot at a custom cake shop, as a cake decorating intern. I stayed for three months, then after being offered a $0 per hour job there- LOL- I decided to take all the tips and tricks that I had learned over those 2 years and start out on my own!
I ran a tiny little cake business from my house for the next 5 years. I catered small parties, worked with photographers on cake smashes, and made custom cakes and cupcakes.
Recently, if you’ve been following my Instagram or know me personally, you know Ive stopped taking cake orders and decided to take my business in a new direction with my blog and newfound love of food photography.
SO. Many people ask me “do you still bake?”
Of course I do- I still love it. I just love doing it on another platform, and not feeling stressed at 2am, after a full day of working on an order, that I have to finish a cake for a client thats due in 7 hours. And thats not because I procrastinated, its because thats how long some of the more advanced and intricate ones like these have taken:
So like I said before- Ive been there!
In the beginning I was wondering how to stack my layers, I was wondering how they always looked so even, I was wondering why the hell couldn’t my freaking cakes look the same-ughhhh!
But here I am now on the other side to tell you my tips and tricks on how you can start to make your cakes look better. Maybe you want to start your own cake business and know nothing, maybe you like to decorate cakes as a hobby, maybe you want to impress your inlaws, whatever the reason is, here are your basic starting points for making your cakes more professional.
Note- this is not a post on decorating- rather on the nitty gritty of cake prep before all that fun stuff happens.
Disclaimer: There are definitely ways (see below) to decorate beautiful cakes without special cake tools, but your cake life will be much easier if you have:
1. Bake your cake into 3 layers.
Usually when people make layer cakes they are always made in 2 cake pans which equals 2 cake layers duh.
When I first started out, I couldn’t understand why my cakes didn’t look like the ones in the magazines, and one of the main reasons was because my cakes weren’t tall enough!
Depending on what cake recipe you are using, this may mean that you have to double up the recipe, but a more professional looking cake = a tall cake, so double up!
I use a standard of 3 cake layers in my cakes, which combined with the buttercream end up being about a 5”-5.5” tall cake for one tier. Also lets be clear- a cake tier is combined of cake layers. No, layers and tiers are not the same thing.
2. Level off your cake tops.
A flat cake is a heck of a lot easier to stack than a cake that has a dome top, so you need to level it off.
You can either take a sharp, long, serrated knife and evenly, with the blade flat, start at the lowest part of the dome, and slice through in a push and pull motion (like slicing a bagel flat).
Make sure to keep the blade at the same level throughout the whole cut or it will end up lop-sided. Or a great trick is to leave the cake in the pan, and once its cooled, place the flat side of the blade of top of the pan and use it as a guide to hack off the top.
This method works well if the whole surface area of your cake baked higher than the pan. Optional: stuff your face with the cake tops or pawn them off on someone else.
3. Cake boards.
Not necessarily a must have but it makes your life easier if you are transporting the cake. You can for sure decorate a cake on the stand you are serving it on, but if you plan on moving the cake around a bit you need cake boards.
For one regular cake I use two cake boards. 1 that is the same size as the cake that goes directly on the bottom of the cake, and a second one that is at least 2 inches bigger so that I can decorate and then move the cake around if I need to without messing up the bottom.
4. Dab that frosting.
So now you have 3 flat cake layers.
To start, take a small amount, like a teaspoon size, of frosting and smear it in the middle of the bigger cake board. Place the smaller cake board centered on top of the bigger one. Place another small amount of frosting on the smaller cake board, but spread it around more evenly- the offset spatula works wonders for this.
Now, place your thickest (lets be honest here, the cakes might not be the exact same size even if we try our hardest) cake layer down on the cake board.
Tada! You just did magic- Now the cake won’t slide around while your stacking and icing it.
5. Filling and stacking.
Ok maybe this is two things but they go together so I’m keeping it that way.
Once you have your first cake layer secured onto your cake board its time for the frosting/buttercream/whateveryouwanttocallit.
Some people use a piping bag so they know they are 100% getting even amounts of frosting between the layers. I however, do not have the patience for using and cleaning another tool, and am lazy, so I just use my offset spatula.
Scoop up some of the frosting, starting with maybe like 1/3 cup- eyeball it- and plop it into the middle of the cake. Using the spatula, or a knife if you don’t have one, or even the back of a spoon, work from the middle of the cake to the outside, spreading it evenly all around, stopping about 1/2 inch from the edges.
This will be filled in later when you do the crumb coat.
Take your next cake layer- and this is crucial- turn it upside down, so that the bottom of the cake is now the top, and place it on top of the frosting. This helps to create a more even shape for the cake overall. Repeat these last two steps with the next layer.
P.S if you are using a cake turn table, I do all this on there, turning as I frost, but if you don’t have one, just do it on any cake stand that fits.
Now look at the stacked cake from eye level and see if theres any unevenness to it and if there is, you can press down on the opposite side of the cake to try to even it out, or carefully lift the edge of the cake where it is uneven and add more buttercream to level it out.
Now that you have a beautifully stacked cake, stick it in the freezer for 15 minutes.
This will help to minimize the amount of crumbs that come loose when you start icing it. If you’re using cake boards, this is where they help, otherwise move some things around so you can fit a massive cake construction into your freezer.
7. Do a Crumb Coat.
A crumb coat is essentially a light coat of frosting over the cake done before the actual real buttercream coating to catch all the crumbs so that the top buttercream layer will be crumb free and beautiful.
This part gets tricky if you don’t have a turn table which is why I recommend it but you can still make it work.
Using the back of your spatula, scoop up some frosting and smear it to the side of your cake, turning with the other hand as you go, (see, tricky) spread, and coat evenly from the bottom to the top of the cake.
Make sure you scrape off the back of the spatula on another bowl or at the top of the buttercream bowl, so that you don’t dip a crumb filled spatula into a crumb free bowl of buttercream when you need another scoop.
Then plop some icing on the top and use the spatula to even it out. Use your bench scraper to clean up the sides- just hold it vertically, standing on the cake board against the cake and spin your turntable to even it out.
It’s fine if you can still see the cake layers, really you just want to seal the crumbs. FYI these pictures you see here of this chocolate cake is my most crumbly cake, there are always crumbs everywhere after slicing!
Stick the cake back in the freezer for another 5 minutes.
8. Buttercream Top Coat
Funny story- before I started working for the custom cake shop, I remember telling my boss that I could never get the buttercream perfectly smooth, and she goes, oh after this you will.
I was skeptical, but SHE WAS RIGHT.
She taught me some tricks that blew my mind. But first, you gotta do your top coat.
This was and still is my most feared part of cake decorating. Mainly bc Im OCD and want it to come out perfectly smooth but also because its the hardest part to get right and the easiest to mess up. But the more practice means you get better and better every time.
So here we go.
You’re doing the same thing as the above crumb coat just with more frosting, and this time you want to completely cover up the cake layers.
I like to start on the sides from the bottom and work my way up with my spatula, going around and around, spinning and spreading as I frost. When the rest of the cake is covered and I get up to the top, I stop and switch from the spatula to the bench scraper to smooth out the sides even more (not working on the top just yet).
Making sure my wrist is straight, the scraper is leaning straight on the cake board and the long side is against the cake.
If you notice some places need more frosting, thats fine, just add in a little bit and continue spinning with the bench scraper up against the cake and it will even it out. Add frosting to the top and even out with the spatula leaving a small gap between the edges.
Now those edges might be giving you a problem because when you smooth the sides they stick up at the top, and then when you smooth the top, they do this weird thing over the sides.
Heres what you do- AIRPLANE.
Shall I explain?
Well of course.
Ok- So start where you have the sides sticking up over the edge of the cake. Hold your spatula with a hand on each end, then, and this is how they explained it in culinary school- legit- go from the top over the edge from the outside of the cake to the middle, glide your spatula over the edges as if a plane was coming in for landing.
I know, sounds weird, but this swooping action works. You are keeping the spatula flat and straight the whole time, you are just coming down onto the frosting on an angle and then landing and going straight onto the cake.
Stop when you get to the middle and repeat over all the edges. There. Airplane.
9. Smooth it out.
After you have smoothed down the edges, you might just need a littttttttle extra help to get those tricky edges and annoying spots.
Insert Spray bottle.
Fill a spray bottle (THAT YOU ONLY USE FOR FOOD) with clean water and spray. your. cake.
You heard me.
Spray that beautiful cake that you just obsessed over with water. Im not talking douse it. I mean spray lightly with water, then immediately take your spatula and smooth it over those hard spots.
Just a warning on this- you must use this trick at the last step before moving on to decorating, you can’t use it and then decide your cake needs more frosting and add frosting on top- it will not turn out well.
This trick should only be used at the very end to smooth out the cake.
When Im working, at the end, I will spray my cake lightly all around and then take my bench scraper and give it a good whirl to smooth it all out.
Another warning- spray very lightly on cakes that have food coloring in the buttercream because you don’t want the color to drip and bleed down the cake.
If you’re reading this and saying “but what if I dont have any of those tools you mentioned?” You can definitely add frosting onto a cake using a flat regular spatula, a knife, or even the back of the spoon.
Smoothing it out to be perfect might be very hard, so instead you can choose to use the back of a spoon and make swirls to smooth it out and have a pretty wave effect.
Omg whew we made it. Isn’t she pretty? Do you see how many basic steps go into making a cake?! Congrats for making it this far! As a bonus here is a link to my delicious one bowl chocolate cake!
At this point your decorating options are endless!
Here are some ideas that don’t require any additional professional tools:
- Throw some sprinkles on top and on the sides. Yes literally throw them, they are sprinkles, who cares where they end up, it’ll be pretty because hellloooo its sprinkles! Side note- this needs to be done right after icing while the buttercream is still sticky- if you wait for the buttercream to crust the sprinkles won’t stick.
- Get a cake topper like this
- Border the bottom part and/or sides of the cake with nuts, pretzels, candy,
- Top your cake with fresh flowers. Read my tutorial on how to do this safely here!
- Sprinkle with fancy salt if its a chocolate or caramel cake.
- Top your cake with cookies in a fun pattern.
- Drizzle store bought or homemade sauces over cake.
Well there you have it!
I so hope you got something out of this blog post.
There is definitely no right or wrong way to make and decorate cakes, this is just how I do it. I remember how hard it was for me in the beginning to figure this all out, because it is definitely WAY harder than it looks, so I just wanted to share all my tips and tricks that Ive learned in the past 5 years.
Also remember not to be too hard on yourself, usually the things we notice, noone ever else would, so take it easy.
If you have any other tips on how to make your cakes look more professional, then please leave them in the comments! Would love to hear from any other cakers out there.
HAPPY CAKING EVERYONE!!
Some cake recipes to can try out!
- Candy Cane Peppermint Cake
- Easy and Chocolatey Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- Apple Cider Cake with Dairy Free Caramel
- Strawberry Basil Cake with Strawberry Buttercream