How to Frost Cupcakes Like a Pro

Decorate and frost cupcakes so they look bakery-level fancy with these tips.

There's something special about homemade cupcakes. They're baked with love and relatively easy to make—and once you know how to frost cupcakes and have a few decorating tricks in your back pocket, you can make your confections look pro-worthy. For homemade cupcakes that are out of this world, don't forget to check out our Test Kitchen tips on how to make cupcakes that taste so good, that everyone will have a tough time stopping at one.

decorated cupcakes on white cake stands
Blaine Moats

How to Pick a Frosting for Cupcake Decorating

The first step of decorating a cupcake is deciding which type of frosting to use. To get started, here's a list of popular cupcake decorating frosting options, plus recipes and tips for using each.

  • Butter Frosting: For a quick and easy cupcake frosting, choose butter frosting. The simple mixture of butter, powdered sugar, and milk tastes terrific and is easy to pipe on cupcakes and cakes.
  • Buttercream Frosting: Buttercream is a classic cupcake and cake frosting made with sugar, butter, and eggs (or egg whites). Less sweet than a butter frosting, buttercream has a silky-smooth texture that spreads easily and pipes beautifully.
  • Ganache: Ganache is a mixture of whipping cream and melted chocolate. You can dip cupcakes in a warm ganache for a silky-smooth thin glaze, or cool the ganache to spreading consistency and use it as frosting.
  • Creamy White Frosting: This is another popular option for cupcake decorating. 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. The addition of shortening makes the frosting fluffy and easy to both spread and pipe. Tip: Replace the milk in your white frosting recipe with almond milk or soy milk for an easy vegan frosting recipe.
  • Powdered Sugar Icing: This icing is a thin mixture of powdered sugar and milk (or another 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 thicker frosting and more milk (or nondairy milk alternative) for a thinner frosting.
  • Cream Cheese Frosting: Best known as the topping for carrot cake and red velvet cake, cream cheese frosting can also be used for frosting spice cakes, apple cakes, and chocolate cakes. The tangy, creamy frosting spreads easily and can be swirled into peaks. (Note: Be sure to store cupcakes or cakes topped with this frosting in the refrigerator.)
  • Canned Frosting: Short on time? Store-bought frosting is an easy alternative to homemade frosting and is available in many different flavors and textures.
Cherry-Almond Vanilla Cupcakes
Blaine Moats

How to Add Color or Flavor to Cupcake Frosting

Before we dive into how to frost cupcakes with canned frosting or homemade frosting, you may first be wondering how to customize the flavor of your frosting. Butter and white frostings can both be flavored to complement the cupcakes and tinted in color to match your party theme. Follow these tips for flavoring and coloring your cupcake frosting.

  • How to add color to cupcake frosting: Before adding color to your frosting, consider dividing 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, specialty baking stores, or online—we love Watkins Food Coloring Kit ($7, Target). 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 cupcake decorating, tint the entire batch.
  • How to use food coloring: Paste and gel food colorings are very concentrated, so start by using a small amount and adding gradually as needed. Twirl a toothpick in the coloring and then in the frosting and mix well, adding more food coloring, until you obtain the desired color. Liquid food colorings are more diluted than paste, so the frosting will be less vivid. If using a liquid dye, simply stir in drops of coloring until you achieve the desired hue.
  • How to add flavoring to cupcake frosting: The baking aisle of your grocery store (or online bakery retailer) 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. For citrus frostings, add finely shredded lemon, lime, or orange zest, and replace the milk with lemon, lime, or orange juice. You can even add a splash of liqueur to the frosting!
  • How to create natural food coloring: If you want to avoid artificial dyes, you can 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.
cupcake with chocolate frosting and decorator bag
Blaine Moats

How to Frost Cupcakes with Canned or Homemade Frosting

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

  • Piped cupcake frosting: If you want to learn how to frost cupcakes and pipe designs on cupcakes with a piping bag, you'll need a pastry bag and pastry tips ($15, Bed Bath & Beyond). If you're just starting out and are wondering which tips to buy, the following collection makes a good starter set: round tips of different sizes 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 ribbon-like lines and borders; and grass tips for grass, fur, and other textured looks.
  • Piped frosting hack: If you don't have a pastry bag (or prefer not to buy one), 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. The results of piping store-bought frosting or homemade frosting in this way will look very similar to the round tip in a pastry tip set.
  • Simple cupcake frosting style: Unless directed otherwise, frost the cupcakes as soon as you have mixed the frosting, assuming they're completely cooled from the oven. Frosting will set if allowed to stand, making it more difficult to spread. If you're struggling with how to make canned frosting pipeable, check the temp: 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 with the spatula. Use the tip of the spatula to create a swirl in the frosting or flip the tip of the spatula to make a peak.
  • Dipped cupcake frosting: For a different look, dip the tops of your cupcakes in powdered sugar icing, ganache, or warmed frosting. Hold the cupcake by the paper bottom and submerge the top in the frosting, which should set into a shiny coating.
  • Swirled cupcake frosting: To create the professional-looking swirl you see at many 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 a spiral, one layer on top of the other, to obtain the desired height. Finish with a peak, releasing pressure on the frosting, and pulling up the tip of the bag.

How to Decorate Cupcakes

After frosting your cupcakes, you can take your decor efforts one step further by adding sprinkles, candy, fresh fruit, or other garnishes. Here are some fun decorating ideas to try.

  • Nonpareils: Tiny crunchy balls made from sugar, nonpareils are available in mixed or single colors. Use them as simple toppers or to create elaborate designs.
  • Decorating sugars: Sometimes called sanding sugars, decorating sugar has a coarser grain than granulated sugar and is available in many colors. In a pinch, you can color plain granulated or coarse sugar with liquid food coloring.
  • Edible glitter and edible food-color spray: A canned aerosol edible spray that can add shimmer or color to frosted cupcakes.
  • Jimmies: Tiny cylindrical decorations available in single or mixed colors.
  • Confetti: Flat decorations made from sugar. Confetti is available in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes.
  • Tiny candies: Arrange tiny candies such as miniature chocolate pieces or small jelly beans in decorative patterns or to make borders. (If this sounds like an appetizing cupcake decorating idea, you'll probably adore alternate desserts with candy.)
  • Fruit rolls: Cut fruit rolls or fruit leathers with scissors or small hors d'oeuvre cutters into all kinds of shapes.
  • Large candies: Peppermint sticks and other flavored stick candies or lollipops can add height to cupcakes, serve as accent pieces, or hold up tiny messages, signs, or other decorative elements.

Now that you know how to frost cupcakes and how to decorate cupcakes like a pro baker, you can customize each batch for yourself or someone special.

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