If you’re just starting out as a cake decorator, whether it’s just for yourself or whether you’re selling cakes to other people, these are some tips that I came up with that would have helped me when I was just starting out.
Basic Cake Recipes: Get a few good basic cake recipes that you know are going to be consistently good.
I used to make everything from scratch, but if you use cake mixes you’ll need to be able to get a consistent result either way. Don’t switch cake mixes back and forth and think that you’re going to get the same result from one brand to the other.
And if you do bake things from scratch, make sure that you understand how the recipes work so that you can fix any problems that might come along.
Your baking abilities are really, really important, especially if you’re selling cakes to other people.
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Buttercream Basics: Learn how to make and work with different types of buttercream.
Whether it’s a regular confectioner’s sugar American buttercream, or an Italian meringue buttercream that has no confectioner’s sugar in it at all, different buttercreams work better for different purposes.
If you have a repertoire of different buttercream recipes that you can use, you’ll be able to pull those out and put different cake decorations and flavored fillings together without much of a problem.
Icing Consistency: Understanding icing consistency is actually pretty important.
If you take the time to learn how to get an icing to do what you want it to do, based on how thick it is, it’s going to be a lot easier to ice cakes and to decorate them.
And since different buttercreams have different consistencies, it’s important to know which one is going to serve your purpose the best.
A buttercream that is really great for piping might not be the best for icing a cake, so you do need to know which one is going to work best for what you need it for.
Piping Techniques: Learn how to do at least the basics of piped buttercream.
For a long time, buttercream was the only game in town. Then people started using fondant in the US, even though it had been used everywhere else in the world for years.
After about 10 years of that, people suddenly discovered buttercream again like piping was something brand new.
It’s not brand new, it’s been done for decades, but a lot of people needed to learn basic piping skills in order to make a cake that didn’t look like it was melting.
If you take the time to learn even just the basics you’ll be better off, and you’ll be able to pull out a piping bag and finish a cake off without any effort, and without ruining it.
Color Mixing: Learning how to mix food coloring is actually a pretty important skill.
Depending on what kind of food coloring it is, it’s not going to work the same way that paint does. But having a working knowledge of mixing paint colors will still help you.
And it’s not just the mixing, it’s knowing which colors tend to fade out and disappear when they’re mixed with other colors.
Purple is the worst, and there are some brands of red food coloring that will just evaporate in front of your eyes and turn to blue if you made purple icing from red and blue food coloring.
Learn how to mix the colors to get the ones that you want, how to adjust colors if they’re too bright, and also which brands of food coloring hold the color best depending on what it’s mixed into.
Leveling Cakes: Getting a flat cake is important in order to get a decent solid foundation to decorate on.
Learning how to level a cake isn’t that difficult, and there are a few different ways to do it.
Ignoring the leveling of a cake though, is going to give you a bulging surface, and if you’re not looking for a dome effect, it might not give you the effect that you want on the cake.
I wrote an article about how to level cakes here, and you can read that by clicking this link: How to get a flat cake
Crumb Coat: Learn how to do a quick crumb coat with thinned out icing, and it will save you so much time in trying to clean up a messy icing surface you won’t even believe it.
Crumb coats are highly underrated by most home bakers, but the pros know that it’s the best way to get a clean surface to work on once you do that final coat of icing.
Fondant Application: It’s not 100% required that you ever use fondant at all, a lot of people never touch it at all.
But it’s always good to know how to do it in case you do need it for something specialized.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to make a cake that looks like something else, and most of those do need some fondant on them at some point.
Knowing how to work with fondant to get a good finish is going to be a handy skill to have even if you don’t do it a lot.
Smooth Frosting: Smoothing out frosting is a lot harder than it looks, a lot of the time.
Take some time to learn different ways to smooth out the frosting on your cakes and it will just give you a more professional look at the end.
Some people are really, really terrible at smoothing out icing though, so if that’s you, embrace the rustic cake look and don’t even worry about smoothing it out.
Cake Stacking: Learn how to stack a cake the right way without using too many dowels or straws, and you won’t have to worry about your cakes collapsing.
There are a lot of ways to stack a cake, and a lot of them go way too far as far as trying to put too many supports inside the cake.
It’s important to know how many supports you need without going overboard.
And if you’re really worried about your stacking skills, learn to invest in a system that will help you stack a cake using pillars and plates, because those can sometimes be more secure than trying to do it on your own with dowels.
Cake Boards: Make sure that the cake boards that you buy to use are not wiggly at all, and that they don’t bend at all.
A lot of the boards that you get at craft stores are thin cardboard, and they bend pretty easily.
To avoid that, you can take two boards and put them together with the corrugated direction of the cardboard at a 90° angle to each other.
That’s going to create a stronger board than just having one that might bend at any given time.
A better source for the strongest kind of board or going to be the ones that are corrugated plastic. They can be hard to find, but they’re well worth the investment because they will give you the strongest support for the cake tiers that you’re making.
Edible Decorations: Learn how to do a variety of different types of decorations on your cakes.
Part of the fun of cake decorating is coming up with different designs that are made with different types of cake decorating materials.
It can be buttercream, fondant, modeling chocolate, wafer paper, or any other number of decorating techniques, but it’s good to have a few different ones in your repertoire that you’re good at.
That way your cakes won’t all look exactly the same, and you’ll be able to use materials that fit the type of decoration you’re looking for the best.
Piping Bags and Tips: Don’t cheap out on the piping bags. And only buy the metal tips. The cheap plastic ones that you get in some kits aren’t the best.
The brand of the piping tips generally isn’t as important as the bags, I’ve seen people buy the really cheap plastic piping bags and the bags end up exploding all over them.
Make sure to get the heavier plastic bags that you can reuse by washing out and drying, or good-quality disposable bags
A lot of people will swear by the cloth piping bags because I think it makes them look more professional, but the truth about those is that unless you dry them really well they tend to start getting smelly very quickly.
Sticking with a heavier good quality plastic piping bag is a lot easier and it avoids the stink.
Texture Techniques: Learn how to do different textures on your cakes, including things like basket weave, Ruffles, rustic icing ridges, and piped decorations.
Having a variety of options is going to give you more opportunities to create different looks for your cakes.
Handling Mistakes: if you make a mistake or something is damaged on the cake, take it as an opportunity to learn how to fix that.
When I was in culinary school, the chef instructor said that the most important thing that people could learn was how to fix a broken meringue buttercream.
After doing cakes for over 20 years, I tend to agree with that, and my video on YouTube about how to fix a broken meringue buttercream is one of the highest viewed and most appreciated videos that I have on my channel.
Whatever I get a comment that says “thank you so much, you saved my life,” I know it’s about that video.
So don’t look at mistakes as the end of the decorating session, look at it as a learning opportunity, because you’re probably going to need those skills again at some point.
Temperature Control: Pay attention to how the different temperatures affect your decorating.
Even if you’re working in an air conditioned room, buttercream seems to know when it’s humid outside.
Things just seem to handle a little bit differently, and some things like chocolate are just more difficult to work with regardless of what temperature it is inside.
If you understand that, then you can kind of anticipate problems before they happen, and take care of them by putting things in place that will prevent them from happening in the first place.
Storage Tips: Make sure that you understand how to store a cake both before and after it’s decorated.
Especially if the temperature is strange, like I mentioned above, because if it’s a really humid or hot day, and you’re moving the cake around, it’s going to run the risk of getting damaged from the heat.
Learn about what cakes definitely need to be refrigerated because they’re perishable or have perishable fillings to avoid giving people food poisoning!
Transportation: Develop skills for transporting cakes safely, especially for tiered cakes.
If you’re making cakes for other people this is really, really important.
When someone pays you to make a tiered cake, like a wedding cake, it’s not something that you can mess up and say “oh well I’m sorry.”
They are not going to be happy, and you’re probably going to have to return their money if you can’t transport the cake safely.
And it’s not just transporting it safely, it’s giving yourself enough time to get it from point A to point B without having to rush.
Giving yourself more than enough time is the best bet, because then you’ll have time to fix any mistakes that you may have made, or damage to the cake that happened in transit.
I used to transport my wedding cakes in sections and then put them together at the reception site and finish decorating them there.
Sometimes that meant it was a 3 hour process to deliver the cake, but that was the safest way to do it, so that’s how I did it.
Flavor Combinations: Keep lists of the flavor combinations you come across that you really like, and then see if there’s a way that you can translate that into a cake.
There are usually things that you can mix into icings to create different flavors of fillings, and you don’t even have to make a cake that flavor, you can just use the filling to give it that extra taste.
Having a wide variety of flavors available and ways to make them is going to give you a lot more options when it comes time to come up with different ideas for flavors.
Theme Planning: Make sure that you’re planning for the theme of whatever party you’re making the cake for, but don’t go crazy trying to make what will essentially end up being a clown cake.
The phrase “less is more” is really true with cake decorating.
Unless you’re going for a super lavish, over the top look, it’s probably better to keep things a little more minimal than you might think.
Watch out for colors that might be too bright, or having too many decorations on the cake, because both of those can make the cake look overdone.
Time Management: Make sure that you know exactly how long it’s going to take you to make a cake if everything goes right, and then double that time to give yourself enough time in case something goes wrong.
Time management is really important for professional cake decorators, because you usually have to be making and decorating cakes at the same time, and then delivering them at the same time, or at least within the same timeframe.
Not only that, but if you have a family that you have to make dinner for, or other activities that you have to do during the time that you need to be decorating, you need to allot time for that also.
Never try to underestimate the time that you need to make a cake. I guarantee you it’s going to take longer than you think, so give yourself way more time than you think so that you’re not standing in your kitchen at 2:00 in the morning exhausted and still decorating the cake.
Customer Communication: If you start selling cakes to customers, you need to understand that you need to treat it like a business.
If someone buys a cake from you they’re not going to be very forgiving if you tell them “oh I’m sorry I was late delivering it, but something came up.”
They’re also not going to be happy if you don’t deliver exactly what they ordered.
Come up with a system for yourself that works so that you can keep track of what you need to make and when you need to deliver it, so that you won’t make mistakes and get a panicked phone call because you forgot to deliver someone’s cake.
Hygiene Practices: If you are selling cakes, you need to check to make sure that you don’t need any kind of food licenses to do that if you’re working from your home.
A lot of places won’t let you sell cakes from your home, or if they do there are restrictions on how you can advertise and publicize the fact that you do bake from home.
You might have to have a health inspector come to your house to give you the okay, and you’re going to need to understand basic hygiene practices as far as handling the cake goes.
Especially if you’re selling cakes to other people, this isn’t the time to take chances on whether your hair is going to fall into the cake, because I can guarantee you that your customer is not going to be forgiving about that.
You also might want to remove any jewelry that you wear while you’re decorating, so that you don’t have to worry about stones falling out of rings or necklaces swinging over and whacking the cake and causing a divot.
When I did wedding cakes, I used to tie my hair back and use a ton of hairspray to glue it down so that nothing would come out of that ponytail. I also took all of my rings off so that I wouldn’t look down, realize that a diamond had fallen out of my engagement ring, and not known where it was.
Because if it was on the floor that’s one thing, but if I couldn’t find it and there’s a chance that it was inside one of the cakes I was working on, that would be really, really bad.
Inspiration and Creativity: Remember that cake decorating is supposed to be fun.
If you tell professional cake decorators that, they’ll laugh, because it’s work for them.
(And I guarantee you that if you do this for a living, it’s not going to be fun for very long, it’s just going to turn into work.)
But if you’re just doing this as a hobby, have fun looking at pictures of cakes and trying to figure out how they did things, so that you can try them yourself.
Continuous Learning: On the note of looking at pictures of cakes, there are lots of cake forums online and cake decorator groups on Facebook that you can join to keep up with Trends and things that people are trying out for new designs.
Do a search for cake decorating websites that might have tutorials or photos of cakes that other people have made.
You can learn a lot from other people, and just by looking at pictures of cakes.
One thing to watch out for, though, is that right now there are a lot of pictures of AI-generated cakes online, and a lot of them are so unrealistic as far as the structure goes, there’s no way you’d be able to make them in real life.
Once you see a few of them you’ll start recognizing them, and while they’re nice to look at, it’s not always the most realistic thing because a lot of them can’t be replicated the way that they actually look in the pictures.
Remember that practice is key in developing your skills as a cake decorator. Happy decorating!