Whether you're a seasoned cupcake-decorating pro or a complete rookie, we've got decorating ideas and tips to help you make beautiful treats. Follow our simple step-by-step guide for how to decorate cupcakes and how to frost cupcakes with canned frosting so yours look bakery-level fancy. We'll also teach you how to use natural food coloring to make your cupcakes pop.

By BH&G Food Editors
Updated July 28, 2020
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There’s something special about homemade cupcakes. They're made with love and once you know how to frost cupcakes, as well as a few cupcake decorating ideas, you can make your confections look bakery-fancy. You can dress up the frosting and toppings to match the decor, season, or theme of your party or get together. For homemade cupcakes that are out of this world, don't forget to check out our Test Kitchen tips for how to make cupcakes that taste so good, everyone will have a tough time stopping at one.

How to Pick a Frosting for Cupcake Decorating

The first step of decorating a cupcake is deciding which frosting to use. To get started, check out our list of popular cupcake decorating frosting options, 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 tastes terrific and is easy to pipe on cupcakes and cakes.
  • 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’s actually quite simple to learn how to decorate cupcakes with buttercream icing since it spreads easily and pipes beautifully.
  • 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.
  • Creamy White Frosting: Creamy white frosting 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. 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.
  • Powdered Sugar Icing: This 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 (or nondairy milk alternative) for a thin 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, 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.)
  • 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.

How to Add Color and/or Flavor to Cupcake Frosting

Before we dive into how to frost cupcakes with canned frosting or homemade frosting, you may want to consider customizing your icing option for the season or the individual you’re celebrating. Butter and white frostings can be flavored to complement the cupcakes and tinted in color to match your party theme. Follow these tips for flavoring and coloring cupcake frosting.

  • How to Add Color to Cupcake Frosting: Before adding color to your frosting for any cupcake decorating idea, 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, specialty baking stores, or online. We love this 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 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.
  • How to add Flavor 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. 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.
  • 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. 

How to Frost Cupcakes with Canned Frosting or Your Homemade Frosting Recipe

There are several options for how to frost 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 need a pastry bag and pastry tips ($15, Bed Bath & Beyond). 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. (P.S. This works for how to make store bought frosting pipeable, too!) 
  • 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 frosting set.
  • Simple Cupcake Frosting Style: 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. 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 it with the spatula. Use the tip of the spatula to create a swirl in the frosting, and/or flip the tip of the spatula to make a peak.
  • Dipped Cupcake Frosting: For a different cupcake decorating 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, which can be tinted any color you wish. The frosting sets up into a shiny coating.
  • 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.

How to Decorate Cupcakes

After frosting the cupcakes, add sprinkles, candy, fresh fruit, or other garnishes. Here are some cupcake-decorating ideas to try. If you’re unsure of how to decorate cupcakes, you can’t go wrong with one of these options.

  • Nonpareils, or tiny crunchy balls made from sugar such as these Wilton nonpariels ($3, Target), 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. Try something like these Wilton pink hearts ($8, Michaels).
  • 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. (If this sounds like an appetizing cupcake decorating idea, you’ll probably adore these alternate desserts with candy.)
  • 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 as a cupcake decorating medium 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.

Now that you know how to frost cupcakes and how to decorate cupcakes like a pro baker, you can customize each batch for the special someone you’re celebrating (even, in fact, especially, if that’s just you).

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