The Complete Beginner’s Guide for How to Frost a Cake

A beautifully frosted cake is a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds! Whether you’re an experienced baker or a rookie cake maker, learning how to frost a cake and understand all the steps involved will help you finish your cake so it looks as scrumptious outside as it tastes inside.

How to frost a cake from start to finish

An impressive frosted layer cake isn’t just about the frosting — it’s all dependent on the foundation of the cake. That’s why for this cake frosting tutorial, we’re walking you through every step, starting with baking your cake layers.

How to Frost a Cake

All images via Erin Bakes.

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Baking the cake layers

Achieving a smooth cake finish is no easy task if your layers are uneven and wonky. Set yourself up for success by taking the time to bake your cake properly before frosting. 

Choosing & preparing your pans

Use the pans that your recipe calls for. Pans that are too small will overflow, or you’ll have leftover batter. Pans that are too large will yield layers that are too thin.

It’s also important to carefully prep your pans before filling to ensure your cakes come out smoothly and in one piece. Use one of these two fool-proof methods:

1. Grease & flour

How to Grease and Flour a Cake Pan

Coat the bottom and sides of your cake pan with pan spray, shortening or butter. Scoop a few tablespoons of all-purpose flour into the greased pan.

Holding the pan over the flour container or sink to catch spills, move the pan around to spread the flour along the bottom and sides of the pan. Flip the pan over and tap it against the sides of the container or skin to shake out any excess flour.

2. Parchment-lined pan

How to Line a Cake Pan With Parchment Paper

Trace the bottom of your pan onto a piece of parchment paper. Cut the circle out. Coat the bottom and sides of your cake pan with pan spray, shortening or butter. Then, place the parchment circle into the pan. Greasing the pan first helps keep the paper in place and prevents it from curling up into your batter. There’s no need to grease the paper after it’s been placed in the pan.

Baking a flat cake

This step is optional, but it’s good to know about if you plan on making layer cakes frequently.

You can wrap store-bought or homemade baking strips around the cake pans before baking to help the cakes bake with a flat top. This means you don’t have to trim too much away during the leveling process.

Other methods for baking a flat cake —  like the ones I tested in this blog post — can work as well, depending on how large your cake is and what you have on hand. 

Filling the pans & baking the cake

Fill pans no more than 3/4 of the way full to prevent them from overflowing.

Distribute Cake Batter Evenly Among Two Pans

Use an ice cream scoop, disher (pictured) or measuring cup to divide your batter evenly between pans.

Bake all of the pans on the same rack in the oven. Rotate the pans halfway through baking to ensure they bake evenly.

Leave the cakes to cool in the pan until they are cool enough to handle. Turn the cakes out onto a flat surface (clean counter, plate or platter) to continue cooling. Avoid placing your warm cakes directly onto a cooling rack — the grates or metal grid can leave marks on your cake’s beautiful, flat bottoms.  

Allow the cakes to cool completely before moving on to leveling or filling. Trying to add buttercream to a warm cake will end in a melty cake disaster! 

Choosing a cake filling and finish

There are countless options for frosting and filling your cake — and the one you choose can make a big difference! Read on for a few of my favorites and what you need to know about each.

Slice of Layer Cake

Buttercream

This triple-threat can be used as a filling, finish and to create cake decorations. There are so many types of buttercream, and each can be used differently. Below you’ll find some quick info on the most popular kinds — click here for even more detail.

1. Meringue-based buttercream

Meringue buttercreams are made by whipping egg whites and sugar, then adding softened butter to the resulting meringue. It has a smooth, creamy mouth-feel, though it’s not as sweet as American buttercream.

Swiss (SMBC) and Italian (IMBC) are the most common varieties:

  1. In SMBC, the sugar is cooked with the egg whites before they are whipped.
  2. In IMBC a cooked sugar mixture is poured into egg whites as they’re whipping.

Free Recipes: Swiss Meringue Buttercream, Italian Meringue Buttercream 

2. American buttercream

American buttercream is made by creaming fat (butter, shortening or both) with powdered sugar and flavoring. It’s the quickest and easiest buttercream to make. Since it’s very sweet, it’s popular with kids but can have a greasy mouth-feel and subtly gritty texture. It also develops a thin crust when left out at room temperature.

Free Recipe: American Buttercream

3. Ermine buttercream

Ermine buttercream (sometimes called flour buttercream) is made by whipping softened butter into a cooked custard base. It’s easier to make than meringue-based buttercreams can can perform the same tasks. However, it doesn’t crust like American buttercream and isn’t as sweet.

Free Recipe: Ermine Buttercream

Ganache

This simple combination of cream and chocolate can be used as a cake filling, finish or glaze, depending on its temperature.

  • Warm, freshly made ganache can be poured over a chilled, crumb-coated cake to create a drippy effect or as an all-over glaze.
  • Ganache left to cool at room temperature for several hours can be spread onto a cake just like buttercream.

Free Recipe: Chocolate Ganache

Cream Cheese Frosting

This popular frosting is made by beating butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and flavoring together.

Cream cheese frosting works well as a cake filling and as a simple cake finish. Most recipes are too soft for piping elaborate cake decorations, but they work well with rustic finishes.

Free Recipe: Cream Cheese Frosting

Whipped frosting

This frosting is made by adding a stabilizing element (like gelatin, marshmallow cream or pudding) to whipped cream. It’s the softest, lightest, and airiest of frostings. Whipped frosting needs to be used immediately. Unlike the other frostings mentioned, it cannot be made ahead of time and re-whipped. Like cream cheese frosting, a piped dam of buttercream would be necessary to prevent a whipped frosting filling from bulging out between cake layers if you were going to be finishing the cake with buttercream.

Free Recipe: Whipped Frosting

Tools you need to ice a cake

You don’t need many tools to make a beautiful cake, but investing in a few key tools will make the job much easier. Below you’ll find a list of the must-have tools.

Tools For Frosting a Cake

If you’re eager to get started, go for a beginner’s cake decorating bundle like this one, which includes many of the items listed above, as well as some bonus items you might use as you practice more decorating techniques.

Assembling a layer cake

Before you can frost your cake, you’ll need to build it! And assembling it well makes icing so much easier.

Leveling the cake

Place the cake on a turntable or, if you don’t have one, onto a level, solid surface. Place your non-dominant hand on top of the cake to stabilize it.

Leveling a Cake on a Turntable

Hold a serrated knife so that the blade is parallel to the bottom edge of the cake. Slice the domed portion of the cake off with a steady, sawing motion. Use the hand on top of the cake to slowly spin the cake as you slice to ensure the cut is level all the way around.

Leveled Cake Layers

Discard the top (munch on it or save it to make cake pops). Use the layer as-is, or read on for information on splitting it into more layers.

Splitting or torting the layers

Use a ruler (or eyeball it) to find the center of your cake layer. Make a small mark with the knife. Place your non-dominant hand back on top of the leveled cake. Hold the serrated knife so that the blade is horizontal to the cake and over the center mark.

Splitting the Cake Layers

Cut into the cake with a smooth and steady sawing motion. Use the hand on top of the cake to slowly spin the cake as you slice, just like you did when leveling the cake. Cut until you make it all the way through. Repeat with the other cake.

Stack the layers 

Step 1:

Prepping the Cake Board

Smear a bit of buttercream onto the cake board, platter or cake stand that you’ll be building your cake on. This acts as glue for the cake.

Step 2:

Center the bottom layer of cake over the buttercream smear and press it down to adhere it to the cake board.

Step 3:

Add your buttercream filling (if you plan to use another type of filling, jump ahead to the next section). How much filling you add is up to you, but it’s good to aim for layers of filling that are half as high as the layers of cake.

The best way to add an even layer of filling is to use a piping bag. Cut a quarter-sized opening for the bag or fit it with a large round piping tip. Fill the bag with buttercream.

Piping a Buttercream FillingPiped Layer of Buttercream Filling

Starting in the center of the layer, pipe concentric circles of buttercream until the entire surface of the cake is covered.Filling a Cake

Use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the frosting over.

Step 4:

Center the next layer of cake over the filling and press it down starting in the middle, working out toward the edges of the cake.

Step 5:

Repeat Steps 3 & 4 with more layers.

Adding a soft filling (like jam, ganache, cream cheese frosting or whipped frosting)

If you want to add extra filling or flavoring between layers, you’ll need to adjust the technique described above just a bit. Here’s how.

Step 1:

Spreading a Thin Layer of Buttercream

Spread a thin layer of buttercream over the entire cake layer. This prevents the soft filing from soaking through the cake layer beneath it.

Step 2:

Piping a Buttercream DamButtercream Dam

Pipe a ring of buttercream around the edges of the layer.

Step 3:

Adding a Soft Filling to Cake Layers

Spread the soft filling within the ring of buttercream using an offset spatula.

Step 4:

Filled Cake

Add the next layer of cake, pressing down from the middle towards the outer edges of the cake. Repeat with more layers.

Crumb coating the cake

Before we get into the details of how to frost a cake, we’ve got to talk about crumb coating.

What is crumb coating?

Crumb coating a cake means adding a thin layer of frosting to the exterior of the cake before adding a thicker, final coat of frosting.

This thin layer of frosting traps stray cake crumbs and prevents them from popping up in your finished cake. Adding a crumb coat also helps to fill in any gaps between your cake layers to give you a solid surface to add a smooth final coat.

Quick tips for crumb coating a cake

  • Work from a smaller separate bowl of buttercream when crumb coating your cake to prevent any stray cake bits from showing up in your finishing layer. 
  • If it’s warm where you are, chill your filled cake until firm before adding the crumb coat so that the layers don’t wobble around while you’re frosting the cake. 
  • Don’t worry if the crumb coat isn’t entirely smooth, but do make sure to fill all gaps before moving onto the final coat. 

2 methods for crumb coating a cake

1. The simple method

Crumb Coating the Top of the CakeCrumb Coating the Sides of the Cake

The simplest way to crumb coat a cake is to use your offset spatula to lift frosting from the bowl and spread it over the entire surface of the cake.

2. The quickest method

Piping a Crumb Coat

The quickest way to crumb coat a cake is with a buttercream-filled piping bag fitted with a cake icer tip. Hold the flat opening of the tip against the cake and pipe frosting onto the top and sides of the cake. 

Smoothing the crumb coat

No matter how you apply your crumb coat, you’ll need to smooth it out before you actually frost the cake.

Smoothing the Crumb Coat

First, use a bench scraper or the flat edge of an spatula to smooth over the top of the cake, pushing the excess frosting over the top edge.

Then, smooth the sides by holding the long edge of the bench scraper or straight icing spatula vertically against the side of the cake. Hold the scraper still while you spin the turn table, smoothing over the sides of the cake.

Buttercream Sticking Up Over the Top EdgeCleaning Up the Top Edge

Finally, clean up the top edge by using an offset spatula to smooth over any frosting that may be sticking up. Move the spatula in a swiping motion, pulling the buttercream from the outer edge towards the center of the cake. 

Crumb Coated Cake

Setting the crumb coat

No matter which kind of buttercream you use, the crumb coat must be allowed to set before moving onto the final coat. Pop the cake in the fridge for 15-20 minutes, or until the cake is firm to the touch.

If you’re working with American buttercream, the cake can be left at room temperature until the buttercream has formed a crust, about 20 minutes. 

How to frost a cake: 2 easy methods

While you learn many methods for icing a cake, I’ll cover two main methods here: the easier option for how to frost a cake with a loose, rustic finish; and how to frost a cake with smooth, impressive finish.

The easiest way to frost a cake: Rustic frosting

Step 1:

Frosting the Top of the Cake

Scoop a mound of frosting (a little over cup for a 6″ round cake, about 2 cups for an 8″ round cake, and so on) on top of the cake. Use an offset spatula to spread the frosting out, pushing it over the top edge of the cake. Move the spatula through the frosting to create fluffy peaks and valleys.

Step 2:

Frosting the Sides of the Cake

Spread a thick layer of buttercream onto the sides of the cake. Use the offset spatula to pull the frosting hanging over the edges of the cake down onto the sides. Create fluffy peaks and valleys all over the sides, just like you did with the top. 

Step 3:

Smoothing the Top of a Cake

To clean up the the top edge, knock down any buttercream that might have poked up over the top edges while you were frosting the sides. Use the spatula to spread the frosting out, not smooth it flat. 

The best way to ice a cake smoothly

Step 1:

Mound of Buttercream | Erin Gardner | Bluprint

Scoop (or pipe) a mound of frosting on top of the cake.

Buttercream Hanging Over the Top Edge of a Layer Cake

Use an offset spatula to spread the frosting out, pushing it over the the top edge of the cake.

Smoothing the Top of the Cake

Once the top of the cake is covered, hold the blade of the spatula against the top of the cake. Keep the spatula steady while you use your other hand to spin the turn table. Spread and spin until the top of your cake is level and as smooth as you’d like it to be.

Step 2:

Spread (or pipe) a thick layer of frosting onto the sides of the cake.

Frosting the Sides of the Cake

Hold the long edge of a bench scraper or straight icing spatula vertically along the cake. Steady the spatula and use your other hand to spin the turn table.

Stop every few spins or so to scrape excess buttercream back into the bowl. Dip the spatula in warm water and wipe it down with a paper towel to clean the blade. Slightly warming the spatula helps the buttercream become even smoother.

Step 3:

Filling in Holes

Fill in holes that appear as needed and res-smooth the buttercream.

Smoothing the Sides with a Bench Scraper

Repeat the spinning and scraping process until the sides of the cake are as smooth as you’d like them to be.

Smoothed Sides>

Step 4:

Cleaning Up the Top Edge of a Frosted Cake

After the sides of the cake are smoothed there will be excess buttercream peeking up over the top edge of the cake. Clean up the edge the same way you did in the crumb coat: Use the flat edge of an offset spatula to swipe the excess buttercream in toward the center of the cake. 

Smooth Buttercream Cake

Serving and storing your frosted cake

Slice of Layer Cake

When cutting a layer cake, dip your knife in warm water between cuts to keep the frosting and fillings from smearing.

Storing tips:

  • Cakes finished in AMBC or ganache can be stored at room temperature for up to two days.
  • Cakes finished with a meringue-based buttercream can be stored in the fridge for up to two days. 
  • Keep cakes fresh by storing them under a cake dome, in a plastic cake-saver or lightly wrapped in plastic wrap. To keep the plastic wrap from touching the frosting, insert toothpicks or pieces of uncooked spaghetti into the cake for the plastic wrap to drape over. 
  • When storing a cake that’s had slices already cut from it, press plastic wrap firmly against the exposed sides of the cake to keep the cake from drying out. 
Yummy Layer Cake Slice
Startup Library: Cake Decorating

Brand new to cake decorating? Start here!

In this comprehensive beginner’s class, you’ll learn how to bake and construct a variety of one-tiered frosted cakes with professional-quality results.Learn More

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From stacking your layers to slathering on the final coat, here's our complete guide to frosting a cake confidently
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