A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Frosting Cakes

December 21, 2020

complete guide to frosting a cake

Before actually starting to frost a cake, it’s important to get to the basics and prepare everything you’ll need.top

This Complete Beginner’s Guide to Frosting Cakes will teach you everything you need to know to frost your first cake. 

In this article, find out what are the main tools you'll need to frost a cake, the different types of frostings, different types of fillings, different ways of frosting a cake, and last but not least, a step-by-step guide to frosting your very first cake! Click the links to go straight to the respective sections!

As a beginner, the thought of frosting a cake might be daunting. Before you attempt a cake frosting project, read through this crash course to give you all the confidence to start! Don’t forget to save, share, and bookmark this page—this guide will surely come in handy next time.

Check out other cake frosting and decorating articles: 

Main Tools You’ll Need

This section highlights the main tools you’ll need to frost a cake. While there are available substitutes, using the right tools will help you achieve a beautifully frosted cake more easily. 

Many of these baking tools are also multi-functional! This means that besides frosting cakes, they can also be used for a variety of purposes, such as working with bread dough, cutting and kneading bread dough, and more.

Offset Spatula

Offset SpatulaAn offset spatula helps to smoothen out your frosting, filling, and cake batter. 

To avoid an uneven surface while frosting a cake, use an offset spatula with the right size—at least as tall as the cake. You can also use it to slice and serve the cake to your guests!

Bench Scraper 

Bench Scraper (Large)
A
bench scraper helps to get sharp edges and smooth sides on your cakes. Use it interchangeably with your offset spatula, and find out what works best for you.

Besides frosting cakes, you can also use it for all sorts of desserts and purposes, such as cutting, slicing, and kneading dough.

Cake Turntable 

Turntables
A heavy-duty
cake turntable makes cake frosting much easier. Simply spin the turntable while holding your bench scraper/offset spatula against the cake to get a super smooth and even frosting. 

Nowadays, turntables come in attractive designs, so you can serve the cake right away without needing another serving dish!

Shop the Bakestarters' range of turntables, available in sexy black quartz, matte marble, and natural marble.

Serrated Knife


Image credit:
RedMan Shop

The jagged edge of a serrated knife glides easily through the cake while you make a zig-zag motion, resulting in a clean-cut appearance. It gives you exactly what you want when leveling and torting a cake! 

It’s also suitable for slicing cakes with a delicate texture (e. g., chiffon cake) to keep them from getting squished, and slicing through bread.

Piping Bags

Reusable Featherweight Decorating Piping Bag, 18-Inch image number 0
Image credit:
Wilton

Invest in good quality piping bags that won’t tear open or burst while you use it. 

Choose those with 12- or 18-inch sides for filling or frosting larger parts of the cake, so you won’t have to refill them so many times. For easier control when making intricate details or lettering, use smaller piping bags with 6-inch sides.

Piping Tips

Large Drop Flower Cake Decorating Tip 2D image number 0
Image credit:
Wilton

Piping tips come in tons of different shapes. The wide array of choices might overwhelm you at first, but owning 10 of the most essential ones is enough to start with. 

Believe it or not, the gorgeous rosettes on our Red Velvet Cake are made using a single piping tip!

Cake Leveler

Cake Leveler Out of Packaging image number 0
Image credit:
Wilton

Using a cake leveler is an easy and quick way to create even cake layers. Simply adjust the blade to your desired cake height, and cut through the cake in one go. 

The sturdy feet helps to keep it stable, ensuring that your cake’s surface will be even all the way through.

Cake Carrier


Image credit:
Amazon

Transporting a cake might feel like a challenge sometimes, especially in Singapore’s warm and humid weather.

So many things can go wrong along the way, smudging your cake and undoing all your hard work. If you frequently transport cakes from one place to another, invest in a good cake carrier to make the whole process less stressful.

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Types of Frostings

Learn more about the different types of frosting in this section. Besides buttercream, there are many more types of cake frosting that vary in taste, texture, and stability.

Some of these frostings are best suited for certain cakes, while the others pair well with almost anything. Experiment with these delicious frostings to give your cakes another layer of flavour and texture!

Here are the different types of frostings that we'll be covering: 

  • Buttercream Frosting 
  • Cream Cheese Frosting 
  • Fondant 
  • Fudge Frosting
  • Chocolate Ganache Glaze
  • Seven-Minute Frosting
  • Whipped Cream
  • Meringue
  • Glacé Icing

Buttercream Frosting 

Ondeh Ondeh Pandan Gula Melaka Coconut Semi-Naked Cake w/ Gula Melaka Drip & Coconut Crumble ToppingButtercream is the most popular type of frosting made by combining sugar and a type of fat, with butter being the most common one. 

Several types of buttercream have the addition of eggs for an airy and smooth texture. There are at least 7 types of buttercream which you can use according to your needs.

    1. American Buttercream

    This is the most basic type of buttercream, made by creaming butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

    The firmness and stability of this buttercream makes it suitable for anything, from frosting to filling cakes. 

    You don’t need to worry about the decorations melting when the cake’s on display! However, be wary of using too much of it, or your cake will become way too sweet.

      2. French Buttercream

        The usage of egg yolks gives French buttercream a rich flavour. Yet, its texture is extremely light as a result of whipping. 

        French buttercream is made by adding a boiling sugar syrup into whipped egg yolks, before adding softened butter and whipping until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

        French buttercream works well as a tart filling. It’s noticeably smoother than American buttercream (which can be a bit grainy), but also less stable. 

        It’s better to use French Buttercream to fill and frost; however, intricate details made with French buttercream probably won’t last that long.

          3. Swiss Meringue Buttercream

          Soft yet stable, Swiss Meringue Buttercream works great as a filling and frosting. The mild sweetness won’t overpower your cake, and it holds its shape quite well.

          The components of Swiss Meringue buttercream are similar to Meringue, but with the addition of butter. 

          Swiss Meringue Buttercream is made by cooking egg whites and sugar over a double boiler, before the mixture is being whipped up until stiff. Butter and flavourings are then added. 

          Double-boiling egg whites gives Swiss Meringue Buttercream its sturdiness. The proteins in egg whites harden when heated, and the sugar helps to stabilize it. Lastly, the butter that is whipped in after helps to volumise the buttercream.

            4. German Buttercream

            This custard-based buttercream is creamy, buttery, and not too sweet. 

            German Buttercream is made by whipping butter into pastry cream until it turns smooth and fluffy. 

            German Buttercream is less stable than American Buttercream, but still works great for decorating, filling, and frosting.

            Whip the butter well when you’re making German Buttercream. It lightens up the buttercream, minimizes the yellowish tinge, and gives it a silky-smooth texture.

              5. Italian Meringue Buttercream

              Making Italian Meringue Buttercream involves whipping a hot sugar syrup into egg whites until stiff peaks, then beating in room-temperature butter. 

              Although it’s quite complicated to make, Italian Meringue Buttercream is extremely stable. Piped decorations made with this buttercream will last much longer.

              Wait for the egg whites to turn opaque white before you stop whipping. This indicates that they’re cooked, stable enough, and safe to eat. Whip the butter well to give it maximum volume!

                6. Ermine Buttercream

                Also called Boiled Milk Frosting or Roux Frosting, Ermine Buttercream is made by cooking together flour, sugar, and milk, then combining it with whipped butter. 

                It is light and creamy with a pale white colour, making it a great alternative to Swiss Meringue Buttercream. It is also extremely stable!

                You can also use it in place of cream cheese frosting for cakes such as Carrot Cakes and Red Velvet Cake. Although it is flour-based, this buttercream doesn’t have a floury taste.

                  7. Vegan Buttercream

                  It’s totally possible to make buttercream with plant-based ingredients. 

                  Simply beat room-temperature vegan butter, shortening, or coconut oil with powdered sugar until smooth and fluffy! 

                  Note that vegan buttercream is less stable than its counterparts, so don’t leave it unrefrigerated for too long.

                  Cream Cheese Frosting

                  Red Velvet Semi-Naked Cake with Rosette Details (2x 6" layers)
                  This rich, creamy frosting goes hand in hand with
                  Red Velvet Cake and Carrot Cake. It’s made using the same technique as American Buttercream, but with the addition of cream cheese alongside butter.

                  Its soft and pipeable consistency makes it great for making frosting flowers and designs, but it tends to melt quickly in warmer climates. 

                  Always keep your cream cheese frosting refrigerated when not in use. Also, remember to keep frosted cakes chilled until ready to serve!

                  Fondant

                  Fondant is a sugar paste that can give your cakes a clean, smooth finish. It is sweet and sugary, and can be easily coloured or flavoured. There are two types of fondants—Rolled Fondant and Poured Fondant.

                    1. Rolled Fondant

                      This type of fondant is stiff and pliable. Roll it out into sheets to cover your cakes, or mould them into little sculptures. Cut out the rolled fondant sheets with adorable Cookie Cutters and use them to decorate your Christmas Cake!

                      Making rolled fondant from scratch is quite a long process, but ready-made fondant is widely available nowadays. Get some from your trusty baking supply store and decorate your cakes with ease.

                        2. Poured Fondant

                        With a much thinner consistency, poured fondant adds a beautiful sheer glaze when used on top of your cakes. 

                        To make it, simply melt together some sugar and corn syrup, then add water to reach your desired consistency. 

                        Fudge Frosting

                        Being the heaviest and thickest frosting on the list, opt for fudge frosting to make your chocolate cake extra-rich and decadent. 

                        It becomes thicker as it sets, and may harden to a fudge-like texture depending on the amount of chocolate used. The more chocolate there is, the thicker your fudge frosting will be!

                        Fudge frosting must be applied before it hardens too much, or else, it’ll become impossible to spread on your cake.

                        Chocolate Ganache Glaze

                        Drunk On Chocolate | Double Chocolate Fudge Cake
                        Made by combining melted chocolate and heavy cream, ganache is a simple frosting that instantly gives your cakes a luxurious look.

                        We’ve tried and tested it beforeadding a layer of ganache to these Cheesecake Bites takes it up a notch with little effort!

                        Adjust the consistency of your ganache by modifying the chocolate to heavy cream ratio. 

                        For a pourable ganache that you can easily spread, use 1 part chocolate to 2 parts heavy cream. If you prefer a spreadable consistency, use equal parts of both ingredients.

                        Note that ganache gradually gets thicker as it cools down, so make it a bit thinner than you want it to be.

                        Seven-Minute Frosting

                        This cooked frosting is made by boiling together sugar, water, and corn syrup, then beating the boiling mixture into meringue that has reached stiff peaks. This is done for at least 7 minutes to reach the right consistency.

                        The heat cooks the egg whites in the meringue while it’s being whipped, which results in a stiff and glossy appearance. 

                        Whipped Cream

                        Nothing could be simpler than making whipped cream frosting. 

                        Beat whipping cream with powdered sugar, then add flavourings and colourings as needed. Stop beating once it reaches the firm peaks stage to avoid over-beating and turning it grainy.

                        Whipped cream frosting is very light, airy, and fluffy, which makes it a good choice if you need a frosting that won’t overpower the cake. Use it right away after making, or it will collapse.

                        Read More: Soft, Medium, Firm, And Stiff Peaks | A Visual Guide To Whipping

                        Meringue

                        Whipping egg whitesBeating egg whites and sugar gives you a light, airy mixture known as meringue, which you can use as a frosting too! Note that it’s not the same as meringue buttercream, since this one doesn’t use butter.

                        There are 3 popular types of meringue: French, Italian, and Swiss. The difference lies in the way they’re prepared.

                        Spread, whip, and torch it on top of the cake for a dramatic effect, or bake it and use the meringue cookies to pimp up your cake.

                        Read More: The Difference Between French, Italian & Swiss Meringue And How To Make Them

                        Glacé icing

                        Gingerbread Babies (makes ~75 cookies)Smooth, easy to pipe, and hardens nicely, glacé icing (or sugar icing) is suitable for making intricate details and handwritten letters.

                        You can quickly make it from scratch using only confectioners’ sugar and water, as seen on our Gingerbread Cookies! Since it’s pure white with a neutral flavour, you can tint and flavour it with anything you like.

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                        Types of Fillings

                        Besides holding the layers together, adding some filling adds flavour and height to your cake. You may fill your cake with the same frosting, but these are equally great options if you’re looking to add extra flavour. Remember to level the filling with an offset spatula before stacking.

                        Here are the type of fillings that we'll be covering:

                        • Chocolate Ganache 
                        • Pastry Cream 
                        • Chantilly Cream 
                        • Jams, Curds, and Jellies

                        Chocolate Ganache

                        chocolate ganache
                        When made into a thicker consistency, chocolate ganache makes a great filling for your layered cakes. With a rich and intense chocolate taste, it’ll add extra decadence to your cake!

                        The quality of your chocolate ganache highly depends on the ingredients. Use high-quality dark chocolate to allow the chocolate to shine through, and choose whipping cream with at least 35% fat for a silky-smooth texture.

                        Read More: [RECIPE] A Rich Chocolate Brownie Mousse Cake, Where Fudge Brownie Meets Silky Mousse And Shiny Chocolate Glaze

                        Pastry Cream

                        Belgian Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cream Puffs (makes 20 puffs)Also known as crème pâtissière, pastry cream is a thick custard made by cooking together milk, eggs, and sugar. We use it a lot in our cream puffs, but it also tastes great between your cake layers.

                        The great thing about pastry cream is that you can modify it in any way you like. Add flavourings, extracts, or even liquorsthe possibilities are endless!

                        You can also fold some whipped cream into your pastry cream to lighten it, and then use it to pipe decorations.

                        Chantilly Cream

                        Infusing plain whipped cream with vanilla and adding sugar turns it into Chantilly cream, which makes a delicious cake filling. It’s a pleasantly sweet cream commonly added to French pastries, sponge cakes, and tarts.

                        Chantilly cream makes a perfect pair with a crumbly, buttery tart crust. To make the most of your Chantilly cream, use the right type of vanilla!

                        Read More: A Basic Introduction To Tart Making If You're Interested But Afraid To Start (Tart Tips, How To Blind Bake And Tools You'll Need)

                        Jams, Curds, and Jellies

                        If you need a quick fix, these are your best bet. Pair a chocolate cake with Nutella, or a vanilla cake with strawberry jam! The possibilities are endless, and the cake will surely be a crowd-pleaser if you pick the right combinations.

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                        Different Ways to Frost Cakes 

                        You don’t always have to apply frosting all over a cake. If done the right way, cakes with minimal amounts of frosting can be just as gorgeous!

                        Discover the different ways to frost your cake in this section. Know what to expect from these cake frosting styles, and how to successfully execute each one.

                        They can be frosted in these three ways:

                        • Naked
                        • Semi-Naked
                        • Fully-Frosted 

                        Naked

                        naked cake
                        Image source:
                        Freepik

                        Naked cakes are essentially layers of cake with some filling in between, without any frosting on the exterior. It started as an alternative to heavily frosted cakes we are familiar with.

                        However, making a good naked cake requires more finesse than it looks. If not done well, naked cakes can look messy and sloppy. It’s something you definitely can’t serve to your guests!

                        There should be just the right amount of buttercream between layers, and the outer edges must be completely smooth.

                        If you want to try your hands on a naked cake, invest in an offset spatula. It helps to even out the layers of frosting, giving your cake a neat and clean-cut appearance.

                        Another problem with naked cakes is that they tend to dry out quickly. This shouldn’t be a concern if the cake is served within several hours from making. 

                        However, if the cake’s going to be on display or refrigerated for a longer period, it’s better to opt for a semi-naked or fully frosted cake.

                        The frosting keeps the moisture intact, ensuring that the cake remains delicious even after storage!

                        Semi-Naked

                        Red Velvet Semi-Naked Cake with Rosette Details (2x 6" layers)
                        A semi-naked cake has a minimal amount of frosting on its sides. On some parts, the cake layers and fillings can be seen peeking through.

                        It’s also known as a “half-dressed”, “crumb-coated”, or “dirty-iced” cake.

                        Crumb coating itself is a step taken before fully frosting a cake. It’s a process of covering the cake with a thin layer of frosting, which prevents cake crumbs from getting scattered around.

                        Read more: 10 Cake Frosting Tips for Beginners to Nail Their First Cake

                        Instead of covering the crumb coating with another layer of frosting, we’re leaving it at this stage to make a semi-naked cake.

                        Frosting a semi-naked cake
                        Although some parts of the cake are still exposed, semi-naked cakes are less prone to drying. The thin layer of frosting outside helps to seal moisture inside.

                        Making an evenly frosted semi-naked might require some work and practice. You’ll need to clean off the sides, ensuring that the edges are sharp and the surfaces are smooth.

                        Make a semi-naked cake if you want something with a rustic, vintage feel. It takes less time to complete than a fully frosted cake, and is absolutely gorgeous if done well!

                        Fully Frosted 

                        Carrot Cake with Cream cheese frosting
                        This is undoubtedly the most popular way to frost cakes. An additional layer of frosting is added onto the crumb coat, transforming it from a semi-naked cake to a fully-frosted cake. 

                        Choose the right combinations, and the frosting will complement the cake nicely. That’s something you’ll definitely love!

                        However, fully frosted cakes can be quite challenging to move around. If you do not handle it properly, you might accidentally smudge, or ruin the cake during transportation. 

                        The Christmas season sometimes makes transporting cakes inevitable. Unfortunately, very few of us have enough space for a cake in the car.

                        We’ve rounded up some tips to safely transport your cake without all the stress! Keep these in mind, and your cake will arrive as gorgeous as it was before.

                        Read More: How to Store and Transport a Frosted Cake from One Place to Another

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                        How to Frost a Cake

                        After gathering the essentials and knowing the basics, you’re ready to frost a cake. These steps will guide you on building a successful frosted cake.

                        1. Trim and level the cake layers.


                        This gives your cake a clean-cut appearance and prevents it from collapsing. 

                        Make sure the sides are smooth, and there are no “domes” on top. A serrated knife or cake leveler works best!

                        If you baked the cakes using bake-even strips, this step may not be necessary.

                        2. Cover the extra space with parchment paper strips.


                        This will make clean-up much easier. After frosting the cake, you can simply remove the parchment strips to reveal a squeaky-clean turntable!

                        3. Place the bottom cake layer onto your turntable.


                        Slow and steadily, place the first layer of cake on the centre of your turntable. You may put some frosting under the cake to prevent it from moving around in the later steps.

                        4. Apply the first layer of frosting.


                        Put a big dollop of frosting on your cake and spread it using an offset spatula. Try to create an even surface, so that your cake will be neat and stable.

                        5. Stack the cakes.


                        Take the second layer of cake and place it top-side down. Press it down gently to make sure it sticks.

                        6. Crumb coat the cake.


                        This thin layer of frosting prevents cake crumbs from getting scattered. If you’re making a semi-naked cake, this will be the outermost layer of frosting.

                        7. Frost the cake and smooth the sides.


                        If you’re making a fully frosted cake, chill the cake in the fridge until the crumb coast has set before moving on to this step. 

                        Put a generous amount of frosting on the centre of the top layer, then spread it to the edges using an offset spatula

                        Work with a quarter of the cake at a time, turning the turntable around as you go. Try making the surface as smooth as possible. You may also use large and small bench scrapers to help you.

                        8. Decorate with piping bags and tips.


                        Have fun decorating your cake with various piping tips! With only 10 of the must-have piping tips, you can create multiple gorgeous designs. The rosettes on our Red Velvet Semi-Naked Cake are the perfect example!

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                        Kickstart Your Cake Decorating Journey

                        By grasping the basics and arming yourself with the essential tools, you can start your cake decorating projects right away. 

                        If your first few attempts don't yield perfect results, don't get discouraged. Practice makes perfect! After all, your cakes will still taste delicious. 

                        Having a hard time deciphering your recipes? Our Ultimate A to Z Glossary of Baking Terms will help you understand what your recipes actually mean.

                        Also check out these simple, yet delicious recipes. They’re the way to go if you’re feeling not quite ready for a frosted cake project!

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                          The Bakestarters blog features tips and lessons to baking in Singapore, along with useful tips when using our signature baking kits.

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