Consider This Your Ultimate Guide to Frosting a Cake

From recommendations for decorating tools to tips on applying a crumb coat, here's what you need to know.

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Banana Cake
Photo: Bryan Gardner

A beautifully decorated cake with smooth buttercream and intricate decorations will always stop us in our tracks. If you've never frosted a cake before, the process may seem intimidating. But the sweet result is well worth the effort, which is why we're walking beginner bakers through the process of frosting a cake. Ahead, we explain what tools you need, how long to let a cake cool before decorating it, and the best way to apply the frosting and garnishes.

Essential Tools

Before you start whipping buttercream, there are a few essential tools that make frosting a cake so much easier. Our must-have products include a small offset spatula ($5.89, for frosting cupcakes or smoothing hard-to-reach areas and a large offset spatula ($9.99, for icing larger surface areas. Another handy tool for creating a super smooth layer of frosting is a bench scraper ($9.33,, which prevents streaking.

No matter what type of cake you're frosting, baking experts tout the benefits of using a rotating cake turntable ($16.99, Rather than trying to reach around the far side of a cake to frost it, the turntable allows you to quickly rotate the cake in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. However, you can always frost a cake directly on a decorative cake stand or tray.

Letting the Cake Cool

Before frosting or filling a cake, it's incredibly important to let it cool once it's fully baked. This is important because it will prevent the buttercream or icing from melting when applied to a warm cake. "The cake layers should be entirely cooled for several hours before filling and frosting—if not refrigerated until the next day if time allows. The layers are much easier to work with if properly cooled," says Betsy Thorleifson, owner and chef of Nine Cakes.

Applying the Crumb Coat

Think of a crumb coat as a primer—it's a thin layer of frosting that helps to seal the exterior layer of a cake and prevent any crumbs from getting mixed into a beautiful, decorative layer of buttercream or mousse. It also ensures a clean finish. To apply a crumb coat, simply smooth a thin layer of frosting over the entire top and sides of the cake and let it chill. "It is necessary, and worth the extra little bit of time it takes. This is important because you'll set yourself up for an easier time when you're frosting the final cake coating, and end up with a more professional result," says Thorleifson.

Decorating the Cake

When frosting a cake, should you frost it directly on a decorative cake stand for serving? Thorleifson says it depends on the size and décor on the cake. "If it's a larger cake, it's easiest to ice the cake, and then let the cake chill. Once chilled, it will be easier to transfer to the cake stand or serving plate. However, a smaller cake can be transferred more easily to the cake stand without chilling," she says. Either way, she recommends not adding any decorations such as edible flowers, gold leaf, or sprinkles until the cake has been transferred to the serving stand. Feel free to add strips of parchment paper around, and just under, the cake to protect the cake stand. Wipe any little bits of the cake stand with a damp, clean towel before serving.

Just like applying the crumb coat, you should use an offset spatula and a bench scraper to smooth buttercream over the top and sides of a cake for a polished finish. Add the decorations soon after you have frosted the cake; the buttercream should still be soft to the touch and act as a glue for holding decorations in place. You can also use a piping bag with a fitted tip to create more intricate designs such as a basketweave, scallops, or flowers on the cake.

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