How to Decorate a Birthday Cake Like a Professional
Decorating a cake at home can be easy and fun, provided you have the right tools and know some cake decorating basics. Whether it’s a cake for your kid’s birthday or dessert for a pot-luck dinner, having a few supplies and tricks up your sleeve is all you need to create a creative, beautiful, professional looking cake at home.
I’ve never considered myself particularly creative or artistic, but after just a little practice I have been able to make professional looking birthday cakes for my kids’ birthdays on a variety of themes. It is so rewarding when people ask where I purchased the cake. I’ve even been asked if I plan to open my own cake decorating business!
When I first ventured down cake decorating lane, I did take make it to 2 sessions of a 4-session class. While I don’t think a class is necessary, it is what prompted me to buy the supplies and jump on in. So, here is what you’ll need to make creative, professional looking cakes at home.
Having the right supplies is the first step to launching your cake decorating hobby. You can purchase all of these items online or at any major Arts and Crafts store, like Michaels and A.C. Moore. While there is a dizzying array of cake supplies, the ones listed below are the essentials to get you started.
- A straight spatula is a one of the golden tickets to creating a professional looking cake. This is the tool that will let you slather on gobs of frosting, but most importantly, will allow you to create a smooth finish on your cake.
- Featherweight decorating bags. Ziploc bags can be used to “pipe” out the frosting, but I prefer these featherweight bags. They are made for this purpose, so they are the right material and can stand up to the job. They can also be washed in the dishwasher and used repeatedly, so they are worth the investment.
- Couplers. These are the two part pieces of plastic that connect your decorating bag to your decorating tips. They allow you to change decorating tips without changing the bag. I would suggest having at least 2 of these so you can decorate with multiple colors at the same time.
- Decorating tips are what will allow you to make different shapes with your frosting, including pretty lettering, flowers, and trims, to name a few. Essential Wilton tips for basic decorating are: 3 (round), 16 (star), and 21 (star). Once you have those you can easily begin your cake decorating journey. What you buy beyond that will depend on what you want to decorate. For example, I needed some grass on one of my cakes, so I purchased Tip # 233, Multi-Opening Decorating Tip. For a complete list of tip types and style numbers, see Wilton's Decorating Tips and Tips Sets.
You may also consider purchasing a starter kit, like the Wilton Decorating Basics Student Kit. I like this one because it includes all the basics, as well as some practice boards and instructions so you can practice some techniques.
Other Materials You'll Need
In addition to the supplies listed above, you will need the following “ingredients” to successfully decorate your cake.
- Cake, of course! Whether you have a great recipe you make from scratch or rely on Betty Crocker, you will need a cake. I personally prefer homemade cakes - I like knowing that the ingredients are all natural. However, when I am spending gobs of time decorating, especially if it is for the under 10 crowd, I often rely on making the cake from a mix. (Shhh.... don’t tell anyone!) It saves some time, and consistent results are pretty much guaranteed.
- Frosting. This is the #1 key ingredient for cake decorating. Once again, I love making my own frosting, but often use store bought when working on masterpieces for my kids as it is always the perfect consistency.
- A cake design. Some of you may have the natural gift of artistic creativity and can design your own cake. The rest of us need to rely on a little help from the internet. There are tons of great cake ideas out there (some found right here on hubpages!). My favorite place for inspiration is Coolest-BirthdayCakes.com. This site has tons of pictures and descriptions of birthday cakes others have made. I usually browse this site and gather up the best ideas to make my own creation. I then draw a sketch of what I want so I can see it on paper.
- Other Props. Some cakes might be decorated solely with icing. Others need props, like people, trees, trucks, or animals. These can often be found at arts & crafts stores, Target, Dollar Stores, or online. Sometimes finding these props can be the most time-consuming - and fun - part!
Cake Decorating Tips
Now that you have your supplies, materials, and design, it's time to start frosting! While the exact steps you’ll need to go through differ for each cake, below are some universal tips.
- Freeze your cake. Frosting a frozen cake will make your life exponentially easier and cake quality will not degrade when frozen so there is absolutely no reason not to freeze it. Freezing your cake will make for a nice, smooth frosting finish. Depending on the size of your cake, freeze it for 4-6 hours, or up to 2 weeks.
- Prepare the frosting. Frosting is easiest to apply at room temperature, or a little cooler. If it is fridge temperature, it will be too hard and will not flow naturally; if too warm, it will be too soft and it will be impossible to manage. If you are coloring frosting, make sure you dye plenty extra in each color - it can be impossible to match colors later if you need more of that color. Finally, adding the frosting to your decorating bag can be a messy business. Fold over the edges of the bag, and use the straight spatula to fill the bag.
- Frosting layer. Whatever your cake design, you will most likely want a smooth layer of frosting over the entire cake. If your cake is frozen, as I suggest, it will be much easier to frost the cake in a smooth layer. Use your straight spatula to apply and smooth the frosting. Act fast, as the frosting will harden quickly on the frozen cake. To smooth out the cake, dip the clean flat spatula into a cup of hot water and use it to smooth out the frosting.
- Decorate according to your design. All cakes will be different, so use your design as a guide, and have fun!
- Do not frost in the heat. Trying to frost your cake in the heat is a recipe for disaster. I learned the hard way one hot summer how quickly icing melts in the heat. Make sure you have a room temperature environment to frost in.
- Frosting is forgiving. Frosting is very versatile. It can be used, as intended, to make beautiful cakes to be enjoyed. But, did you know it can also be used as cement (if your cake falls apart) and touch-up paint (for when the frosting doesn’t turn out quite the way you want it to!)?
- Cutting out shapes is easy. I shied away from cutting shapes for a long time. When I finally tried it, I was surprised at how easy it was, especially if the cake is frozen. Cut away!
- Make a practice cake. No matter how much I plan for a cake, I always feel better after a trial run. I learn something every time I frost a cake, so the “real” one always comes out better. It also builds my confidence to know that I can execute my design.
With a little bit of creativity and planning, and the right tools, you can decorate a great homemade birthday cake. Have fun!