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Looking down on a round cake frosted with vanilla buttercream.

How to Frost a Cake

  • Author: Christina
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes (2 hours inactive)
  • Total Time: About 2½ hours
  • Yield: 1 Beautiful Frosted Cake! 1x
  • Category: How To
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American

Description

In a few simple steps, any home baker can frost a cake like a professional. And without fancy tools or expensive equipment. For easy decorating ideas, scroll up!


Ingredients

Scale
  • Two (or three) 6", 8" or 9" cake layers, baked and cooled (circle or square)
  • 5-6 cups buttercream, cooked meringue frosting, or chocolate ganache

Simple Syrup

  • ½ cup of granulated sugar
  • ½ cup of water or fruit juice

Equipment

  • Cake board, cake plate, or the bottom of a springform or tart pan the same size as your cake
  • Parchment paper, cut into strips
  • Small and/or large flexible offset spatula
  • Flexible or stainless steel bench scraper, optional
  • Cake decorating turntable, optional

Instructions

The first step in frosting a cake is to gather your ingredients, equipment, and tools. We classically-trained chefs call this mise en place. In English, it means everything in place. Having all your equipment and ingredients at arm's reach makes any kitchen venture smoother.

Make Simple Syrup

  1. To make simple syrup, bring the sugar and water just to a boil, stir briefly, then cool. You can add flavor by replacing the water with pure fruit juice like lime or pineapple. Or steep (soak) fresh herbs like mint or citrus peel in the warm syrup as it cools.
  2. Store chilled for up to a month.

Prep Your Surface

  1. If you plan to decorate your cake on a plate or stand, use parchment paper strips to keep it tidy.
  2. Cut a few long strips of parchment or even wax paper. P
  3. lace them on the cake stand or plate before setting down your first layer.

Level & Halve Cake Layers

  1. Trim any domed tops off the cooled cake layers with a long serrated knife. Doing this makes cake layers nice and flat, and prevents lopsided or sliding cakes.
  2. Slice cake layers in half horizontally, or "torte" the layers (this is optional). Holding your long serrated knife perfectly horizontal, make cuts all the way around the cake at the same height. Only cut in a few inches in each place. Then once you have made cuts all around the cake, take the knife all the way through from one side of the cake to the other. Keep the knife as level as possible, stabilizing the cake with your other hand. If you are willing to splurge on one, a cake leveler tool is designed for this specific task.

Apply Crumb Coat

  1. First, dollop about a tablespoon of buttercream or frosting in the center of your cake plate or a cake board. Then place the first cake layer on top of it. This will keep that bottom layer from sliding around on you as you build upwards.
  2. Brush the layer with simple syrup, then add about a cup of frosting in the center. Spread the frosting evenly and to the edges.
  3. Repeat with the remaining layers. Stack the last layer on top upside down and brush it with simple syrup.
  4. Then spread a thin layer of frosting all over the cake, starting on the top and working down and around the sides. Perfection is not the goal here. You just need the buttercream to trap cake crumbs. Make this coating of frosting as thin as possible by gently scraping away any excess.

Chill

  1. Chill the cake in the refrigerator or freezer, wherever it fits.
  2. I find a couple of hours to be plenty of time, and even faster if it fits in the freezer.
  3. You can apply a crumb coat a day or two ahead of when you plan to finish decorating and store the cake chilled.

Top Coat

  1. Scoop a couple of cups of buttercream on the top of your cake. Then smooth it evenly across the top, and down and around the sides.
  2. Add more as necessary to completely cover the crumb coat and fill in any gaps or thinner areas. This step in particular is where a cake turntable can be incredibly helpful.
  3. To smooth the frosting you can simply position your spatula or bench scraper at a slight angle gently against the buttercream, and spin away. In the absence of a spinning pedestal, hold your offset spatula at a shallow angle and gently run it across the top of the cake in sections to create a sleek, smooth surface. Then hold the spatula vertical at a similarly shallow angle to smooth the sides. For ultra-smooth layers, use a flexible or stainless steel bench scraper to smooth the frosting on the top and sides of the cake. If you have a pedastal turntable, hold the spatula or bench scraper in one place against the cake, and spin to smooth the frosting.


Notes

On ingredient temperature... Whether you choose to whip up your own frosting or prefer store-bought, bring it to room temperature. If you whipped buttercream ahead of time and chilled it, beating it again briefly can work air back into the butter and revive it. The same goes for chocolate ganache and cream cheese frosting, which need to be kept cold before serving. 

Cold or better yet rock-solid cake layers give off significantly fewer crumbs during frosting. If you chill or freeze cake layers ahead, trim any domed tops off with a serrated knife first. Then wrap or seal cake layers tightly before freezing. 

On cake boards... If your cake doesn't need to travel, you don't really need a cake board. You can place your showstopper on a flat plate or cake stand with strips of parchment paper underneath to keep it clean while you decorate. The removable bottom from a tart or springform pan works as a great replacement for cardboard cake circles.

On Nutrition

The nutrition information for cakes varies wildly, depending on the size of the cake and the specific recipe. The information below is based on two 9-inch chocolate cake layers brushed with a few tablespoons of simple syrup, and frosted with about 5 cups of American buttercream.

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