Cake Decorating Basics

Turn your cake into a showstopping centerpiece with our simple tips and creative ideas.

Step 1: Choose a frosting

Think of frosting as your canvas. To make your own, try one of our delicious frosting recipes (below). If you're tight on time, use canned frosting. Creamy varieties work best for piping, while whipped varieties spread and swirl smoothly and evenly.

Butter Frosting: Made from a simple mixture of butter, powdered sugar, and milk, this no-cook frosting is simple to make and easy to pipe or spread.


Buttercream Frosting: This classic frosting has a silky- smooth texture that pipes and spreads with ease. Made from sugar, butter, and eggs or egg yolks, this frosting is cooked and cooled before using.


Cream Cheese Frosting: Cream cheese frosting has a slight tanginess that complements many cake flavors. Thick and rich, this creamy frosting spreads and swirls easily. Be sure to refrigerate cakes topped with this frosting.


Creamy White Frosting: Made with shortening, powdered sugar, and milk, this frosting is fluffy and spreads easily. Because it is prepared using shortening instead of butter, creamy white frosting is ultra white and tints well.


Fudge Frosting: This rich and decadent cooked frosting is made with evaporated milk, sugar, butter, and chocolate pieces. A last-minute addition of corn syrup gives it a smoothness and slight elasticity that makes it easy to work with.


Ganache: This super simple cooked frosting contains only whipping cream and chocolate. Its thin consistency makes it best for drizzling and spreading.


Meringue Frosting: This light and airy frosting is made from egg whites, water, and sugar that are whipped until they form soft peaks in a double-boiler. Be sure to refrigerate cakes topped with this frosting.


Step 2: Tint and/or flavor the frosting

Butter frostings, white frostings, and cream cheese frostings can be tinted and flavored to match the cake's flavor.

How to Color Frosting

There are two ways to add color to frosting:

Paste or gel food coloring: These highly concentrated food colorings are available in a wide array of color choices. Look for them at hobby stores and specialty cooking stores. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way when using these types of food coloring. To use, twirl a toothpick into the coloring and then into the frosting and mix well. If desired, add more color a little at a time.

Liquid food coloring: Readily available in most grocery stores, liquid food colorings generally come in four color options including red, yellow, green, and blue. To use, stir drops of food coloring into the frosting until you achieve the desired hue.

How to Flavor Frosting

There are three basic categories of flavorings:

Flavorings and extracts: In addition to vanilla, look for almond, peppermint, rum, cinnamon, maple, lemon, cherry, raspberry, and more.

Liqueurs: Raspberry, hazelnut, coffee, and cherry liqueurs are just a few of the flavor options you'll find in the liquor aisle.

Citrus zest: Finely shredded orange, lime, and lemon peels make great additions to frosting for white, yellow, and citrus-flavor cakes.

Step 3: Frost the cake

To keep crumbs from mixing with the frosting, use a pastry brush to brush away any loose crumbs.

Tip: To keep your serving plate clean, tuck strips of waxed paper underneath the edges of the cake before frosting it. Remove the waxed paper when you're done.

How to Frost a Layer Cake

Frosting layer cake

  • Place the first cake layer, bottom side up, on your cake-serving plate.
  • Using a flat-blade spatula, spread about 1/2 cup of frosting on top of the first layer. If making a three-layer cake, add the second cake layer, bottom side down, and spread with an additional 1/2 cup frosting.
  • Add the final layer, bottom side up. Apply a thin layer of frosting to the entire cake to seal in crumbs and prevent them from mixing with the frosting.
  • Beginning with the sides and finishing with the top, evenly spread frosting over the cake, swirling and sculpting as you go.

How to Frost a Single-Layer Cake

Place a mound of frosting in the center of the cake. Using a flat-blade spatula, evenly spread the frosting over the cake, swirling and sculpting to create texture.


Step 4: Decorate the cake

Star tip with sample frostingLeaf tip with sample frosting

Here are some options for adding pizzazz to your cake.

Add piping

To pipe frosting, you need pastry bags and pastry tips. Here are some basic tips for beginners:

Round tips:

Used to make lines, dots, and writing.

Star tips: Used to create stars, shells, flowers, decorative borders, and rosettes.

Leaf tips: Used to make leaf shapes.

Basket-weave tips: Used to make lattices and ribbonlike lines and borders.

How to Pipe Frosting

Piping a border

  • Fill a pastry bag about two-thirds full of frosting.
  • Fold the corners over and roll the bag down to the frosting.
  • With one hand, grip the bag near the roll above the frosting.
  • Apply pressure with the palm of your hand, forcing frosting towards the tip.
  • Use your other hand to guide the tip of the bag.

Add fresh fruit, purchased cookies, and/or nuts

Here are some creative cake-topping ideas:

Berries & Cookies Cake Topper

  • Whole small berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries
  • Sliced fruit, such as strawberries, kiwifruits, or starfruits (carambola)
  • Pecan, cashew, or walnut halves
  • Whole toasted or blanched almonds
  • Sliced or slivered almonds
  • Chopped hazelnuts, pistachios, or peanuts
  • Toasted or raw flaked or shredded coconut
  • Vanilla or chocolate wafers
  • Gingersnaps
  • Cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookies
  • Ladyfingers
  • Amaretti cookies

Note: Be sure to serve cakes embellished with cookies or fresh fruit within 2 hours.


Add baking decorations

Sprinkles in bowls

Check out your supermarket's baking aisle, crafts stores, or specialty food stores for some of these edible garnishes.

Nonpareils: Available in mixed or single colors, these tiny opaque balls add a touch of color and texture to your cake.

Colored decorating sugars: Choose from a wide variety of colors of coarse sugars, such as sparkle sugars, or finer-grain sanding sugars to add sparkle to your cake.

Pearl sugar: These small, opaque white balls of sugar add a unique texture to cakes.

Edible glitter: This flaked colored sugar adds a glistening look to cakes.

Jimmies: Also called sprinkles, these tiny cylindrical decorations are available in single or mixed colors.

Confetti: These colorful, flat cake decorations come in all shapes for just about every occasion and holiday.

Tip: Use stencils to create shapes, such as hearts, with edible glitter, decorating sugars, or nonpareils.

Add candy or fruit snacks

Here are some fun candy decorations that can be arranged to make decorative patterns and borders:

Flower Power Cake

  • Miniature candy-coated chocolate pieces
  • Chocolate-covered peanuts or raisins
  • Jelly beans
  • Gum drops
  • Licorice strips
  • Fruit rolls or leather
  • Peppermint sticks
  • Whole or crushed malted milk balls
  • Sour fruit-flavor straws