Cake Decorating Basics: How to Achieve the Perfect Buttercream Finish
For Those Who Don't Like Fondant
I have a lot of clients who refuse to have fondant on their cake, regardless of how much prettier it will turn out. So, I had to learn to do, at the very least, presentable buttercream finishes. My first several cakes with buttercream finish were not all that great. They were splotchy, had air bubbles and crumbs showing, and spatula marks all over. Luckily for us, most of those were practice cakes so the boys could eat them. They really didn't care how they looked.
It takes serious practice to be able to get a smooth buttercream finish, but there are some techniques that you can use to help you get a much cleaner, presentable buttercream finish. You're going to need some seriously high tech tools too, like a paper towel, or a piece of copy paper. The only thing I can think of that you need, that you may not have on hand (if you aren't a hobby or professional baker), is a fondant smoother. And if you don't have that, that's fine. You can make do with your hands when we get to that part.
You'll need to start out with your cake already crumb coated and dry. If you aren't sure what a crumb coated cake is, go back and read my article on how to crumb coat before you try to do this. You don't want a bunch of crumbs in your perfect buttercream finish!
Step 1) Checklist
You're going to need a few things to get that clean finish like the pros do. I've given some options as well, because not all of us have the same tools professionals use. Just because you don't have these things in particular does not mean you can't still get a beautiful finish on your cakes!
- Crumb coated cake
- Offset spatula or a butter knife
- Turntable or lazy susan, or any means you have to to spin the cake around
- Bench Scraper or a butter knife can be used carefully, You can also use a flat piece of clean cardboard. Just cut a cardboard round in a straight line and you have your own disposable bench scraper!
- Non-printed paper towel, or a piece of copy paper
- Fondant smoother, or you can use your hands if you don't have one
Not a Great Pic of Items Needed
Step 2) Add a Thick Coat of Buttercream to the Top and Sides
Unlike crumb coating, you want to put a lot of frosting on this time. Remember this as a rule of thumb—It is a million times easier to take excess buttercream away than it is to keep adding it. So, you'll want to put more on the cake than you think you're going to need.
A Big Dollop
Step 3) Use the Bench Scraper
The next step is grabbing the clean bench scraper and smoothing the sides. The key to doing it this time is to not pull away too much frosting. Note the way I'm holding the bench scraper against the cake in the pictures, as this is how you want to position your hand and angle the bench scraper. All you're doing is smoothing, not removing.
Place the bench scraper against the icing at the angle shown in the picture and turn the turntable against the scraper. The very first go around the cake you're going to need to clean off the bench scraper occasionally from frosting build up. The goal is to smooth the frosting enough that you can do a full turn with the turntable and pull off almost no frosting at all. You're just smoothing, not removing. I can't stress that enough.
Step 4) Spackle!
Once you've gone around your cake with your bench scraper and you get everything completely even, you may notice some cake showing through. I always end up having a place or two that needs some extra frosting. Spots will either show up from air bubbles popping while smoothing or accidentally scraping back too much frosting in a spot or two. All you need to do is add a little more buttercream and smooth it again with the bench scraper.
Do this all over where you may have pock marks or cake showing through so that you have a perfectly even layer of frosting all around the cake and it is smooth as you can get it. Your goal is about an inch thick of frosting all around the entire cake and on the top.
Now you may think that we're finished, but we're not. There is another step we can take to make sure that your frosting will be almost as perfectly smooth as fondant. You can skip this last step if you want to and just go with the bench scraper smooth surface, but completing the last step will absolutely give you that extra perfect finish!
Step 5) Chill, Baby, Chill
I want you to take 15 minutes to yourself. And while you take these 15 minutes to watch Youtube or kick your feet up and pride yourself on a job well done, I want you to put your smoothed cake into the refrigerator. Let it chill so the outside of the frosting sets. You want it to be dry to the touch exactly like the crumb coat was before you started.
If it's an extra hot day, it may take a little longer than 15 minutes. You definitely want to make sure that the frosting is dry to the touch before you start with the next and final step.
Step 6) Epic Smoothing
Once your cake is completely dry to the touch, you'll be able to smooth it to the point of being almost as smooth as fondant. Now I say almost as smooth as fondant for a reason. I don't care what any other cake artist tells you, you're never going to have a perfectly smooth buttercream that lasts. It may be perfect for ten minutes, but as soon as you start moving it from one place to another, you're going to get flaws. And that's fine! It's almost impossible to cut into a completely flawless cake anyway.
Grab a Viva paper towel, or any other paper towel that doesn't have a print on it. By print, I mean indentations. Any indentation on the paper towel will absolutely transfer to your buttercream. The only one I've found in my area without a print that doesn't completely fall apart is the Viva brand. You can also use copy paper instead of a paper towel. As long as your icing is dry, it will not stick and will serve the same smoothing purpose.
Lay the paper towel on the frosting, starting on the sides. Use a fondant smoother and gently press against the paper towel in a sort of swiping motion or a round and round motion. You'll be able to feel the frosting smoothing underneath the paper. Make your way around the cake, smoothing any flaws along the way.
Finally, make your way to the top and smooth it down. You may create a lip from the sides if you push too hard on them, so make sure you're using minimal pressure to smooth. Continue smoothing the sides and the top until you have a perfect looking finish. And that's it! Now you have a blank canvas that you can do anything with.
Why Go Through All that Trouble?
Smoothing the finish this completely will bring your cake decorating to the next level. When you start out with a perfect canvas, you can create amazing designs beyond anyone's belief.
If you throw this perfectly smooth cake in the freezer and let it firm up for a couple of hours, you can even hand paint the buttercream with food coloring! There is literally no limit to the things you can do. If you have an imagination, you can make it happen.
If you're over it by this point, you can simply leave the cake as is and show off your flawless buttercream finish before your family devours your art! It's totally up to you!
Happy baking, and rock on!