Baking 101: How To Frost A Cake
Baking 101: a series circling around the basics of baking ingredients and kitchen techniques designed to sprinkle a confidence into our culinary lives.
Today: a step-by-step guide to frosting a three layer cake at home like a champion. Nothing too fancy. No fondant flowers. Just the basics to even frosting, smooth sides, and a spiral top. The basics with which to tuck another kitchen skill under our belts, gain kitchen confidence, and impress ourselves and our birthday companions.
AND! I’ll be frosting a cake LIVE on FACEBOOK today (8/2) around 2:00pm central. See you there!
Here’s what you’ll need to frost a 3-layer cake:
(Note: These items are as negotiable as you’d like. This is a pretty bare-bones list and the absense of these items won’t make for an awful cake… not at all… it just might make decorating a cake more difficult.)
• Cake Turntable for easily and smoothly rotating the cake as we frost it.
• Bench Knife for smoothing the sides and top of the cake.
• Sprinkles for sheer joy.
Tip: Let’s start with the cake and with the frosting. For this recipe I used 1 1/2x recipe of Everybody’s Birthday Cake and one full recipe of The Best Chocolate Buttercream Frosting. Cake layers must be completely cool before frosting. This is a non-negotiable rule and breaking it involves slipping cake layers, melting frosting, and tears (lots of tears). Frosting should be room temperature and easily spreadable. There’s no reason to fight cold or thick frosting.
Line a cake plate with four strips of parchment paper, layering the paper around the edges of the plate, creating a diamond in the center. Place a cake layer, top side up in the center of the paperless diamond.
We’re using a paper border to frost the cake to keep the cake plate clean. We’ll carefully remove the paper when the cake is done being frosted.
Tip: Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a very large tip with frosting. This makes for easy frosting distribution without tearing the cake crumb.
Starting on the outside edge of the cake, apply pressure to the bag and trace a thick line of frosting around the edge of the cake, making a spiral towards the center.
Use a cake decorating knife to evenly spread the frosting, allowing some of the frosting to gently fall over the sides of the first layer of cake.
Place the second cake layer, top side down, atop the first frosted layer.
If you need to trim the second make layer because it’s drastically uneven, carefully trim the top even before placing on the first layer.
Repeat the frosting trim and coil towards the center. If you’re keeping track, the frosting on each later will be a about 1/2 cup.
Use the cake decorating knife to again spread frosting in an even layer across the second cake, allowing some of the frosting the cascade down the sides.
Trim the top of the third and final cake layer and place, top side down, atop the second frosted layer. The bottom layer of the cake will face up, ensuring a super smooth and even cake top.
Press gently and check the sides of the cake with your hand to make sure the layers are placed on evenly.
Use the piping bag, you may need to refill it at this point, to again pipe a thick stripe of frosting around the edge of the cake, spiraling towards the center. Be a bit more generous with this layer as the frosting you place on top will also be worked down the sides of the cake for a thin crumb coat.
Rinse the knife in warm water and shake off excess water.
Work the frosting into an even layer across the top of the cake, pushing the excess frosting over the edge of the top cake layer.
Holding the knife vertically, use a short sweeping motion to spread the frosting across the sides.
The frosting that we allowed to cascade over the sides of the lower layers will come in handy here for lightly coating the sides of the cake.
A crumb coat is the thin layer of frosting that seals in any pesky crumbs. It doesn’t need to be perfect, the sides can show peeks of cake edges.
Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. It’s important that the crumb coat chill and set before we put on the final coat of frosting. Worth the effort. Trust the process with me.
After the crumb coat sets, remove from the fridge and again top the cake with a thick ribbon of frosting around the edges and spiraled towards the center.
Trace the sides of the cake in a ribbon of frosting as well.
Use the cake decorating knife to evenly spread frosting across the top of the cake, turning the rotating cake plate as necessary.
Holding the knife vertically, spread the frosting ribbons along the sides of the cake smooth. This doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth, just try to make sure that all sides have an even thickness of frosting and no naked cake layers show through.
I find that a clean and slightly warm (from the warm water) knife makes smoothing the frosting much easier.
Tip: Frequently rinse the knife in warm water, shaking off the excess and getting back to frosting. Frosting sticks to frosting and if you find yourself fighting to get the sides of a cake smooth with a pound of frosting on your knife, stop. Don’t fight the system. The frosting always wins. Pause. Rinse knife. Shake off excess water and heat back in.
Now to the final smoothing!
Tip: Use a bench scraper! Hold it vertically against the cake. Applying lightly firm and even pressure (this takes some practice but you can do it), spin the cake stand, holding the bench scraper in place. This will create a smooth finish along the side of the cake.
If you don’t have a bench scraper, use the knife you used to frost the cake. Rinsed, held vertical and still alongside the spinning cake.
Once the sides are smooth, gently and starting from the edges of the top of the cake, lightly scrape the frosting towards the center.
Now for the spiral!
Hold the cake decorating knife at a 45 degree angle so the tip meets the center of the cake.
This is similar to the motion we used to scrape the sides of the cake with the bench knife. Holding lightly firm and even pressure in the knife, begin the spin the cake (at a medium speed), smoothly working the knife out towards the edge of the cake as you spin. If you spin the cake too slowly, you’ll make your job harder. Just give it a spin and see how it goes. You can always clean the knife, smooth the top of the cake, and try again.
They don’t call em sprinkles for nothin’.
Along the edges of wherever makes you feel good!
Before the cake is completed, remove those four parchment paper protectors.
Tip: Remove the paper from under the cake before you place the cake in the refrigerator to set. Once the cake frosting has set, the paper when removed will take more pretty frosting than you want from the sides of the cake.
How about a border along the edge of the cake?
I used a medium round tip and most of the remaining frosting to make a simple border.
Holding the tip at a 45 degree angle, squeeze pressure into the bag creating a ball of frosting. Release some of that pressure while pulling the tip slightly down and towards you.
This may take a bit of practice. You can always just do simple dots around the border if you’d like.
Refrigerate for at least one hour to set frosting.
And that’s a cake! Time to celebrate (yourself and the birthday someone)!
For others in the Baking 101 Series, see:
Happy Baking (and frosting)!
Photos with the talented and cat-like Jon Melendez.