How to Frost and Decorate Cupcakes

Whether you're a seasoned cupcake-decorating pro or a complete rookie when it comes to frosting cupcakes, we've got decorating tips to help you make beautiful treats. Follow our simple step-by-step guide for how to decorate cupcakes, how to frost cupcakes, and even how to use natural food coloring to make your cupcakes pop. Make your favorite cupcake recipe and use our tips to take them to the next level, or check out one of our cupcake recipes if you want to try something new!

Step 1: Cupcake Frosting Guide

The first step of decorating a cupcake is deciding which frosting to use. To get started, check out our list of popular cupcake frostings, plus get recipes and tips for using each one.

  • Butter Frosting: For a quick and easy cupcake frosting, choose butter frosting. The simple mixture of butter, powdered sugar, and milk is great piped on cupcakes and cakes.

See Butter Frosting recipe

  • Ganache: An equally easy cupcake frosting, ganache is a mixture of whipping cream and melted chocolate. Dip cupcakes in warm ganache for a silky-smooth glaze, or cool the ganache to a spreading consistency and use it as frosting.

See Ganache recipe

  • Buttercream Frosting: Buttercream is a classic cupcake frosting made with sugar, butter, and eggs or egg whites. Less sweet than a butter frosting, buttercream has a silky-smooth texture. It spreads easily and pipes beautifully.

See Buttercream Frosting recipe

  • Creamy White Frosting: Creamy white frosting is another popular option. Similar to a butter frosting but made with vegetable shortening instead of butter, this ultra-white frosting is easily tinted to take on brilliant hues. Shortening makes the frosting fluffy and easy to spread and pipe. Replace the milk in your white frosting recipe with almond milk or soy milk for an easy vegan frosting recipe.

See Creamy White Frosting recipe

  • Powdered Sugar Icing: Powdered sugar icing is a thin mixture of powdered sugar and milk or other liquid. Cupcakes can be dipped in the icing, or you can use it as a drizzle. Alter the consistency of this simple glaze by adding more powdered sugar for a thick frosting and more milk for a thin frosting.

See Powdered Sugar Icing recipe

  • Cream Cheese Frosting: Cream cheese frosting is best known as the topping for carrot cake and red velvet cake, but it can also be used for frosting spice, apple, and chocolate cakes. The tangy, creamy frosting spreads easily and can be swirled into peaks. (Note: Be sure to store cupcakes topped with this frosting in the refrigerator.)

See Cream Cheese Frosting recipe

  • Canned Purchased Frosting: Short on time? Canned frostings are an easy alternative to homemade frostings, and they're available in creamy and whipped varieties and many flavors. Whipped frosting is fluffy and easy to spread and swirl. Creamy-style frosting can be warmed and used as a glaze or coating. Both kinds of frosting can be tinted and piped.

Get tips on how to make cupcakes from scratch

Step 2: Tips for Adding Color and/or Flavor to Cupcake Frosting

Butter and white frostings can be flavored to complement the cupcakes and tinted to match your party theme. Follow these tips for flavoring and coloring cupcake frosting.

  • Add Color to Cupcake Frosting Before adding color to your frosting, you may want to divide the frosting into two or more portions so you can leave one portion untinted and tint the remaining portions with paste, gel, or liquid food coloring, all of which you can find in grocery stores or specialty baking stores. If you have two different colors of frosting, you can swirl them together on top of your cupcakes, frost with one color and use the other for writing, or make different-colored stripes or dots. If you only want one color for all of your cupcakes, feel free to tint the entire batch.

Try our Neapolitan Cupcakes recipe to swirl two frosting colors together!

  • How to Use Food Coloring Paste and gel food colorings are very concentrated, so use a small amount. Twirl a toothpick in the coloring and then in the frosting and mix well, adding more food coloring, a little at a time, until you obtain the desired color. Liquid food colorings are more diluted than paste, so the frosting will be less vivid. Simply stir in drops of coloring until you achieve the desired hue.
  • Add Flavor to Cupcake Frosting The baking aisle of your grocery store offers an assortment of extracts to enhance your cupcake frosting flavor. In addition to vanilla and almond, look for other frosting flavors such as peppermint, rum, raspberry, banana, and cherry. Or add a splash of liqueur to the frosting. For citrus frostings, add finely shredded lemon, lime, or orange peel, and replace the milk with lemon, lime, or orange juice.

Get the recipe for Cherry-Almond Vanilla Cupcakes

How to Use Natural Food Coloring for Frosting

If you want to avoid artificial dyes, make your own natural food coloring for frosting instead! Blend together fruits and vegetables (yes, vegetables!), then mix the juice with buttercream frosting to create pretty colors for decorating. Use strawberries to make pink, blackberries and blueberries for purple, mango and carrot juice for yellow, and peach slices and spinach to make green. You can also use freeze-dried berries for even more vibrant colors.

Get our full instructions for how to make frosting with natural food coloring

Learn how to naturally color frosting using freeze-dried berries

Step 3: Cupcake Frosting Techniques

There are several options for frosting cupcakes, depending on the look you'd like.

Piped Cupcake Frosting: If you want to learn how to frost cupcakes and pipe designs on cupcakes with a piping bag, you need a pastry bag and pastry tips. If you're just beginning and wondering which tips to buy, the following make a good starter set: round tips for lines, dots, writing, filling, and frosting cupcakes; open-star tips for star-shape decorations; closed-star tips for rosettes; basket-weave tips for lattices and ribbonlike lines and borders; and grass tips for grass, fur, and other textured looks.

Piped Frosting Hack: If you don't have a pastry bag, you can create simple piping designs by scooping your frosting into a resealable plastic bag and cutting off one corner. Then, frost as you would with any pastry bag. This effect will look very similar to the round tip in a pastry frosting set.

Check out more of our tips for decorating cupcakes with frosting

Simple Cupcake Frosting

Unless directed otherwise, frost the cupcakes as soon as you have mixed the frosting. Frosting will set up if allowed to stand, making it difficult to spread. Canned frosting should be at room temperature and stirred before using. To frost, scoop a large dollop of the frosting and place it on top of a cupcake. With an offset metal spatula, spread the frosting in a thick layer in one direction, smoothing it with the spatula. Use the tip of the spatula to create a swirl in the frosting, and flip the tip of the spatula to make a peak.

Get the recipe for Choco-Zucchini Cupcakes

Dipped Cupcake Frosting

For a different look, dip the tops of cupcakes in powdered sugar icing, ganache, or warmed frosting. Hold the cupcake by the paper bottom, and dip the top in the frosting. The frosting sets up into a shiny coating, and it can be tinted any color you wish.

Get the recipe for our Black-and-White Irish Cream Cupcakes

Swirled Cupcake Frosting

To create the professional-looking swirl you see at bakeshops, use a plastic bag with the corner snipped off or a pastry bag fitted with a large star or round tip. Push the frosting toward the hole in the bag, squeezing out any air pockets. Pipe the frosting on the cupcake in concentric circles, one on top of the other, to obtain the desired height. To finish with a peak, release pressure on the frosting and pull up the tip of the bag.

Get the recipe for our Hidden Clover Cupcakes

Step 4: Ideas for Decorating Frosted Cupcakes

After frosting the cupcakes, add sprinkles, candy, fresh fruit, or other garnishes. Here are some cupcake-decorating ides to try:

  • Nonpareils, or tiny crunchy balls made from sugar, are available in mixed or single colors. Use them as simple toppers or to create elaborate designs.
  • Decorating sugars, sometimes called sanding sugars, have a coarser grain than granulated sugar and are available in many colors. Sparkling sugar has an elongated grain and has been treated to give extra shimmer. In a pinch, you can color plain granulated or coarse sugar with liquid food coloring.
  • Edible glitter and edible food-color spray add shimmer or color to frosted cupcakes.
  • Jimmies are tiny cylindrical decorations. Look for them in single or mixed colors.
  • Confetti refers to the flat decorations made from sugar. They are available in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes.
  • Arrange tiny candies, such as miniature candy-coated chocolate pieces, chocolate-covered raisins, and small jelly beans, in decorative patterns or to make borders.
  • Cut fruit rolls and fruit leathers with scissors or small hors d'oeuvre cutters into all kinds of shapes. You can also cut them into thin strips to tie into knots or bows or twist into shapes.
  • Use thin strips of licorice as borders or outlines, or braid or knot them.
  • Gumdrops and jellied candies come in beautiful jewel-like colors. Use them as simple toppers, or roll them flat and cut into desired shapes.
  • Taffy-type candies can also be rolled flat, but they're easier to work with if softened for 1 to 3 seconds in the microwave.
  • Large candies, such as peppermint sticks and other flavored stick candies or lollipops, add height to cupcakes, serve as accent pieces, or hold up tiny messages, signs, or other decorative elements.

Check crafts supply stores, specialty food stores, and mail-order sources for other cupcake sprinkles such as tiny candy-coated chocolate spheres or glistening jewel-like confections.

Get the recipe for our Hummingbird Cupcakes

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