Decorating Cakes: The Basics Article -
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Decorating Cakes: The Basics

Make a plain cake look like a bakery gâteau with these techniques.

Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like a layer cake. These can be two cakes simply sandwiched together with frosting, or they can be "torted" into multiple layers for dramatic and delicious effect.

Layer Cakes

To create multiple layers, you will need:

  • A long serrated knife
  • Plastic wrap
  • Simple syrup--plain or flavored
  • Pastry brush
  • Cardboard cake circles (available at baking supply stores and craft stores, or you can make your own: cut a circle slightly smaller than the diameter of your cake pan)

Trimming the tops and bottoms off of your cake rounds lets you moisten the cake layers with a sugar syrup. This adds sweetness and flavor, and keeps the cake from drying out. (Most cakes benefit from a simple syrup soaking, but it's a must for sponge cakes.)


To trim the cake, place it on a flat cutting board. (If you have a cake turntable, use it.) Keep the palm of your non-working hand resting on the domed top of the cake. With your knife hand, lightly score the edge of the cake where you'll be making your cut. Rotate the cake so you can score it around the entire diameter. Now, begin to cut:

  • Keep your knife level
  • Use a gently back-and-forth sawing motion
  • Once you've made one back-and-forth cut, rotate the cake about 45 degrees, and repeat
  • Cut and rotate until you've worked your way around the entire cake. You should be able to cut through the whole layer with another steady back-and-forth cut

Remove the cake scraps (they're great for snacking) and repeat with the bottom side of the cake. Because it's flat, you probably won't need to make as deep of a cut--you just want to slice off the top layer of "skin."


Depending upon your recipe, the size of the pan, and how full the pans were, you need to decide whether you can realistically split your cake into two or three levels. Err on the side of caution--it's better to have a few thick layers than to try to patch together broken halves of cake.

Set the trimmed cake on a cake circle. (If your recipe is really rich and dense, it helps to sprinkle granulated sugar on the cardboard before setting the cake on it; this will help keep your cake from sticking to the cake circle.) Keeping your knife level, score the cake's edge, like above. Continue with the back-and-forth sawing as you rotate the cake, until your knife cuts clear through the layer. Slip your hand under the cut layer, and gently transfer the cake to a sheet of plastic wrap. Cover both layers until you're ready to frost the cake. Repeat with remaining cake round.

The Crumb Coat

Applying a "crumb coat" is the best way to achieve professional-looking results, especially if you want a smooth-sided cake. This is essentially a thin layer of frosting that will help seal in the crumbs so that your final coat of frosting will be easy to apply and crumb-free.

Have handy your cake circles, simple syrup, frosting, and a damp sponge or cloth for wiping away stray crumbs.

Set your least-perfect cake layer on a cake circle, and apply simple syrup with a pastry brush. Add a healthy dollop of frosting, and spread it across the surface, almost to the edge--the weight of additional layers will spread it out further. Top with another layer of cake; if you have a cracked or broken layer, sandwich it in here. As you add layers, bend down so the cake's at eye level: make sure the layers are stacked flush. Apply simple syrup and frosting at each step. When you reach your final layer, apply syrup and frosting, spreading it to the edge of the cake. Add a dollop of frosting to the side of the cake, and spread it thinly to cover as much territory as you can.

    Sharp Edges

    When the sides of the cake are completely masked, use your spatula or knife to make a final, steady pass around the sides of the cake. The frosting will have pushed up to form a rim above the top layer of the cake. Holding your spatula away from you at the far edge of the cake, pull it towards yourself; you want the flat blade to skim the edge of the cake so excess frosting is smoothed onto the top surface, toward the center. Rotate the cake, continuing the swooping and gliding motion until the sides and top of the cake are smooth. Don't worry if there's cake showing through the frosting; you'll cover that on the second go-round.

    Chill the cake in your fridge or freezer until firm.

    Swoops and Swirls

    Apply the final coat of frosting following the same steps as above, but be a little more generous in the application. Once you've covered the tops and sides of the cake, you can either keep it smooth and modern-looking, or make it fluffy and home-style. Use the back of a spoon or the tip of your spatula to make swirls and peaks, adding a little more frosting if necessary.

    Finish your cake with candles, sprinkles, flowers, chocolate shavings, or any other decorations you wish.

    Find all your favorite cake recipes.

      Jul. 1, 2009 10:32 am
      Thank you for this article! I had never done anything like this before, and it went perfectly, tasted great, and was all kinds of impressive looking!
      Aug. 26, 2009 8:49 am
      freezing the individual layers before frosting also helps cut down on crumbs and leaves a smoother finished product
      Jan. 29, 2010 2:22 pm
      Freezing also makes the cake moister .. I think
      Mar. 13, 2010 8:21 pm
      i am going to try this..sounds great cant wait to try.
      May 2, 2010 1:19 pm
      The easiest way i have found to slicing cakes in half to add a middle layer of your choice is to use dental floss. Waxed and non-flavored works best. Just make sure your watching as your pulling the floss thru so u get a even cut.
      May 23, 2010 2:11 pm
      this was extremly helpful i can now add the finishing touches to my cakes
      Jun. 5, 2010 10:23 pm
      Good info!! Mostly new for me. Thanks a bunch.
      Jun. 16, 2010 5:42 pm
      The dental floss idea is great!
      Jul. 13, 2010 12:27 am
      great advice but if u do freeze the cake layers make sure they are cooled before you wrap them in plastic wrap or else ice crystals will form in the cakes
      Aug. 13, 2010 1:42 pm
      I like your pointers for cake decorating .I am looking forward to getting more ideas for my cake decorating classes.
      Tina De Souza 
      Aug. 21, 2010 12:54 am
      hai, my girl b'day in another a week time and i've plan to bake for her a moist chocolate cake. Decoration the cake is my problem now cause i've no idea how to do it. Any advice....... tq
      Sep. 5, 2010 3:26 pm
      Thank you for the pointers
      Dec. 16, 2010 6:57 am
      Dec. 30, 2010 2:06 am
      Try using heavy dental floss to cut decorated sheet cakes iced on top and sides. (Use 2 hands, wrap ends around finger, be sure to allow enough length for cake+, and press/saw pushing down until getting to the bottom, release 1 end & pull floss out to one side.) No mess, no cake crumbs on top! Keep paper towel handy for disposal.
      Jan. 4, 2011 10:17 am
      Freezing causes ice crystals, which can weaken your frosting when it melts. Making it fall off.
      Jan. 19, 2011 9:48 am
      dip your knife in hot water before smoothing out the icing on the cake it makes it smooth and clean looking, like foundut. more professional look to the cake.
      Feb. 2, 2011 5:44 pm
      I kind of made cake evener... 2 sturdy things that dont fall over easily and move smoothly and tie it together with a thin wire (like a clay cutter). I can also use a potter's wheel to make it smooth.
      May 13, 2011 7:45 am
      two things I do: when I cut my cake to make 4 layers I use the tool by Wilton. I don't have to worry about getting an even cut, it measures perfectly. Also, after I frost my cake (with buttercream) I let it sit out for 30 minutes till it "crusts". You'll know if it's ready by touching the frosting with your fingers. If no buttercream gets on your fingers it's ready for the next step. You HAVE to us VIVA paper towels (it's the only one that works). Lay a piece of VIVA on top of the frosing and smooth your hand over it. Do sides also. This makes regular buttercream so smooth it looks like fondant.
      Jun. 12, 2011 3:38 pm
      wish I knew how to add this page to my recipe box
      Jul. 16, 2011 4:19 pm
      This is wonderful information. I am ready to make that beautiful cake. I have seen a Wilton tool at Walmart,a straight sturdy looking wire that is supposed to shave off the top and make it smooth. Does anyone have any comments on that tool?
      Jul. 16, 2011 4:20 pm
      Tanappy, I cut and paste articles like this and log into my folder labeled recipes. Works great.
      Aug. 20, 2011 1:46 am
      KaysCupcakes, there's a tool that's for leveling cakes & I've seen a big & small size. I bought the smaller one & its been helpful in leveling tops of my cakes. There's a way to adjust the height of the wire according to the thickness of your cake. I think you can even use this to cuta cake to a topsy turvy.
      Nov. 18, 2011 9:56 am
      Whenever I bake layers for a cake, it seems that I always get a 'mountain' in the center and have to remove almost a quarter of the cake. Any suggestions for getting a more even top?
      Jan. 3, 2012 9:02 am
      Seabeedw, I always bang my pans on the counter before putting the cakes in the oven, it gets the big air bubbles out and makes the batter more even. Also if u open the oven 15 minutes into baking the cake "falls" so you don't such a dome in the middle. Just be careful, if you open the oven too soon the cake could fall where you get a sunken middle
      Mar. 22, 2012 2:37 pm
      Excellent article and suggestions from reviewers! Great for novice baker like me.
      Rosa Minerva 
      Apr. 3, 2012 7:29 am
      Thanks for share all those advices
      Apr. 17, 2012 8:40 pm
      One thing that has helped me w/ my buttercream frosting is that after I crumb coat it, and frost it regularly I will allow the outer coat to "crust" a little bit and then I use a sponge roller to smooth out the frosting, my cakes look like they're made of fondant when I do this.
      Apr. 24, 2012 7:42 pm
      Sometimes, I have a problem with the icing between the layers 'oozing' out the sides of the cake. When I frost the cake, it looks great, but if I have to drive anywhere to deliver the cake, the oozing happens.....any thoughts about how to handle this? Thanks!
      May 6, 2012 8:29 am
      This is a fabulous article for a novice like myself. Thank you for the tips, especially with the crumb coat. Makes me want to bake a cake today, which I just might do!
      Jun. 15, 2012 8:28 am
      When baking cakes place your metal flower maker upside down in the middle of the pan. Pour your mix in and bake. It won't rise in the middle then. Also, use sewing thread to cut your cake. Just wrap it around the center of the cake evenly and cross over the strands then tighten it through the cake. Place a circle of butter cream icing around the rim of each layer before you add the filling. That way your filling wont spill out onto the outsides of your cake and blend in with your side icings. The thick ring of icing will also hold up the outside of your cake and it wont sag.
      Jul. 24, 2012 8:06 pm
      These are all great ideas. I have been making my own cakes (birthdays, etc.) for a couple of years, but still think I am a novice/intermediate at it. Someone had mentioned about the rising in the middle. I bought these straps that are cotton on one side and with a metallic coating on the other. The idea is to soak the straps in water and pin it to the outside of the pan. They bake evenly, and I never have any issues with uneven tops. When I do my birthday cakes, I usually need to make a 1/2 slab out of 2 1/4 slab pans. The cakes are always the same height after I cut them and put them together. You never see the separation when the cake is completed. Also for those that want to put a picture on the cake instead (I have 3 young boys, so they prefer to see their favorite character on the cakes), ice the cake as suggested above. Then I find a copy of the character that I want (make sure size is right for the size of the cake) and cut out the picture on wax paper. I then place
      Apr. 27, 2013 3:31 pm
      These are great tips. Regarding cakes that rise in the center, I simply make sure the cake batter is a little lower in the center before baking. And spreading a simple syrup on the cake layer helps calm down the crumbs as well as add a new moist sweet flavor layer.
      Dec. 7, 2014 11:40 pm
      This is marvelous article. I really liked it very much. The topics you cavered in this article are very helpful. Awesome: :) Thanks!! Kids birthday cakes in pune
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