Cake Decorating Instructions

Cake decorating instructions that with just a few inexpensive tools, you can decorate cakes like the professionals.

Fancy bakery cakes with elaborate trims and pretty lettering look impressive, and you may be intimidated by the idea of making them yourself. But as with many things in life, the secret to cake decorating like a professional is having the right equipment, and practice, practice, practice. The good news is, all the tools you need are readily available at your local crafts store, and many of the large discount stores carry basic cake decorating equipment in their craft aisles as well.

You will need, at the minimum:

* a decorating bag

These are cone-shaped bags with the point cut off, making a small opening at the narrow end. You fill them up with frosting, and get all those fancy shapes by squeezing the icing out through "tips" with different types of openings in them. You can purchase re-usable bags (about $4-5 for the most useful, 10-inch size; they come in different sizes and range in price accordingly) or disposable bags (around $4 for a package of 12). Disposables make a good choice for beginners; you can get enough experience with them to see if it's worth investing the money in two or three re-usable bags you would typically use in decorating a cake with two or three colors of icing.

* a decorating tip

These are small metal cones that you fit into the opening of the pastry bag before you fill it with icing. There are literally hundreds of tips in all shapes and sizes, some so specialized they are used only for making a particular type of petal for one kind of flower. Typically, though, the type a first-time decorator will be looking for run from about 79 cents to $1.50. If you only want to buy one to try decorating with a minimal investment, get a medium sized "star" tip, which can be used for borders (the edges of the cake), "drop" flowers, and lettering. If you're a little more adventurous, you can also invest in a small round tip, for making neater writing, and flower stems or vines.

For a bit more flexibililty, you may also wish to purchase:

* a coupler

The coupler is a two-piece plastic holder for a tip. You slip the inside of the coupler, which looks like a tip with threads on it, into the bag before filling it with frosting. Then place the tip over the coupler, and screw the coupler's collar on, which holds the tip in place. The coupler lets you change the tips on bags that already have icing in them, which is terrific if you are decorating using only one color, but want to change from flowers to lettering, for example. Couplers are inexpensive; you can usually get two for about a dollar.

Preparing to Practice

Once you have your basic equipment, it's time to practice. I do not recommend using commercial frostings for decorating. In general, these are wonderful for quickly covering a cake, but they are too soft for decorating. Here's a standard decorator's icing recipe:

Decorator's Icing

1 pound confectioner's sugar, sifted if lumpy

1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening (do not substitute butter)

pinch salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4-1/2 cup cold water

Food coloring, as desired

Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, shortening, salt, vanilla extract, and 1/4 cup water together until well blended. Gradually add more water until the icing reaches a consistency similar to mashed potatoes. You want the icing to be soft enough to easily press through the decorating bag, or else your hands will ache while you practice! If you add too much water and the icing becomes runny, you can resue it by beating in more sugar. This recipe will frost and decorate a two-layer 8- or 9-inch layer cake (one cake mix), depending on how elaborate your decorations are.

Another good candidate for practicing? Whipped cream, or even (defrosted) frozen whipped topping like Cool Whip. It will be soft enough to press through the bag, although your end results won't look as pretty as they would with icing, as whipped cream tends to melt as it warms up.

What should you practice on? Shortbread or other plain cookies are terrific; so are brownies. If you don't want to eat your practice sessions, you can also use wax paper, aluminum foil, or even a plate; that way you can scrape off your icing and re-use it for more practicing. And of course, you can always practice on a cake! Store-bought cheesecakes are ideal for personalizing with "Happy Birthday!" or other messages, because they don't require frosting, first.


Decide which tip you'd like to practice with first. Place your coupler in the bag (if you chose to buy one), otherwise, just drop the tip into the bag and push it down as far as it will go. Some of the tip (or the top of the coupler) should extend past the opening of the bag. If it doesn't, you will need to carefully trim the opening with scissors so that it does. If you are using a coupler, turn the bag with the smaller opening side up, and place the tip over the top of the coupler, then screw the collar into place to hold the tip down.

Next, fill the bag: turn it tip-side down and open it. Using a wide spatula, fill the bag approximately one-half to two-thirds full of icing. When you are just starting out, it is easier to handle a bag that has less icing in it, but you don't want to have to refill the bag every minute, either. Once you've loaded the bag, pick it up again, tip side down. Holding the top closed with one hand, use your thumb on one side of the bag, and your forefinger on the other side of the bag to push the icing down into the bottom. Keep smoothing the icing down until all air pockets are removed and icing starts to come out of the tip. Then, twist the bag a few times to keep the icing from coming out of the top of the bag when you start to squeeze it.

The basic technique involves squeezing the icing out of the bag while you guide the tip to make the design you want. Hold the bag in your dominant hand, with the twist resting just in the crook between your thumb and fingers. This puts the "bulge" of the icing into the palm of your hand, and lets you squeeze it easily to make the icing come out of the tip. You can use your other hand to guide the tip, or not, as seems comfortable to you. Practice holding the bag and squeezing to see how quickly the icing comes out, depending on the pressure you apply.

When you're comfortable holding the bag and want to practice some actual decorating, start by practicing short, straight lines. Hold the bag firmly and place the tip about 1/2 inch away from where you want to place the icing. Use a firm, even pressure, and squeeze out the icing. When you want to end a line of icing, push the tip into the line you have created, give a final little squeeze, and then lift directly up out of the frosting to make a clean break.

Once you've mastered straight lines, you can move on to border patterns. You can make very attractive borders using a medium to large size star tip, just by practicing penmanship. A "loop" border is nothing more than a series of lower case "e" shapes; you can vary the distance between the loops to change the look of the border. Think of the tip as a pen, and imagine you are writing with it. A beautiful scroll border is just a series of connected "S" shapes, lying sideways.

The star tip is an excellent tip for beginners because you can also use it to make drop flowers (also useful as candle holders on birthday cakes). To make a simple aster-type flower, hold the tip straight up from the surface, and squeeze out icing without moving the tip. To make the flower taller, lift the tip as you squeeze, so the icing piles up underneath. To make the flower wider, push the tip into the icing, so that as you continue to squeeze, the new icing coming out pushes out to the sides, making the flower larger. To finish the flower, push the tip down into the center, give a last final squeeze, and then pull directly up and out.

Letters, vines, and flower stems can all be created with a small round tip. Again, this is a matter of imagining that the tip is a pen and you are using it to write with, and practicing will increase your confidence in your abilities here. The round tip is also nice for filling in the centers of drop-flowers with a contrasting color; just make a small dot using the same technique as was used to create the drop flowers.

Working on cakes

You've practiced, and now you're ready to apply your new skills to an actual cake. There are a few things to watch out for that can make things tricky. First, you want to make sure you apply a good coat of frosting to the cake so that all the crumbs are sealed in. Second, you will probably want to "smooth" the surface of the cake so that it provides a nicer backdrop for the decorations. If you frosted using decorator icing, it is simple to do this with a little bit of water and metal spatula (or a butter knife will work too, just watch if the edge is serrated that it doesn't leave marks on the cake). Flick a little bit of water over the top of the cake, and smooth it over with the spatula, wiping any excess water or icing off the spatula as you come to the edge of the cake. This is a bit like plastering a wall, but you needn't be so precise. Once the decorations are applied, no one is going to pay any attention to the background.

The bottom border is easier to apply than the top border. Decide what pattern you will use, and go for it. The problem with the top border is, if you place it on or over the edge, sometimes it can slide off the cake! For this reason, it's a good idea to keep the top border mostly on the top of the cake itself.

Lettering, decorations, and candle-holder placement can be tough if you want to squeeze in a long message on a short cake. Practice writing small letters, and use a smaller round tip if necessary. It's a good idea when you are first starting out to trace the cake pan, and then use that template to map out where you want your various decorations to go. You can then use that as a guide when you are applying your decorations; this will help you avoid words that start out with two-inch letters and end with one-inch letters because you ran out of space!

If you make a mistake, don't panic! You can easily remove the icing from the cake using a spatula, butter knife, or even toothpicks (good for lettering). If you have marred the undercoat, touch it up with a little extra frosting, or simply sprinkle on a few drops of water and smooth it out again. Icing is a relatively forgiving medium, as long as you are not trying to apply a deeply dyed color to a white background.

Learning More

Craft stores carry entire aisles of fancy baking pans, decorating sets, and instructional pamphlets and videos to help you expand your cake decorating skills. The premiere cake decorating company is Wilton Industries. They publish catalogs, year books, pattern books, and books devoted entirely to topics such as wedding cakes or children's cakes. Check with your local craft stores, too, for hands-on workshops or demonstrations. It really doesn't take a big investment of either time or money to become adept at making simple and lovely cakes at home, and if you're the adventurous type, there's really no limit to what you can do.

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