20 things I learned about decorating cakes the hard way

I decorated cake professionally for almost 20 years, and a lot of lessons came along with that. These are some of the things i learned about cake decorating the hard way, and I hope that they help you avoid some of the things I ran into!

20 thing I learned about cake decorating the hard way

1. That super-original technique you thought of has already been done before.

I don’t know how many times people have announced their “new” technique when it’s actually something that people have done for years.

I’ve done it myself, thinking that I “invented” a process or method of doing something, then finding a tool that does the exact same thing that I had rigged up using skewers and corn cob holders. (It was a scribing tool, in case you were wondering.)

One example is the cake spackle thing that we did for years before someone came along and gave it a cute name and said they invented it. (Click here to see how cake spackle works.)

Just take the things you see and adapt them to your own needs, don’t worry about coining a term for it or calling it a technique.

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2. That super-original design you thought of has already been done before.

There will always be people who are enraged that someone has stolen their cake design. But the more likely scenario is that the design wasn’t all that original to begin with.

When I was in culinary school we entered a cake design in a contest somewhere, and we came up with what we thought was a super-original design for the cake tiers.

We were very pleased with ourselves, but then the next year I saw a photo of a cake in an old Wilton cake catalog from 1965 that had the same arrangement.

So oh well, it had been done before. Most things have.

3. Make sure that the large cake you’re doing will fit through the door or into your car before you make it that big.

I saw a tv show once where the bakers made a huge cake, then realized that it wouldn’t fit into the car they were going to use to deliver it.

They had to scramble to figure out how to get a van that was tall enough to fit the cake, when it would have been a lot easier to make sure the cake fit the car.

I did a really big cake in the shape of a building once, and before I made it I figured out how big a board I could get into my station wagon.

Then I assembled the cake in the garage on the day it was due since I wouldn’t have been able to get it out the front door, the board was too wide.

I’m really, really, REALLY glad that I did it that way. I would have been stuck inside the house with a giant cake if I hadn’t thought about it.

purple roses wedding cake

4. Purple fades. A lot.

Purple food coloring is the worst color ever.

I’ve had purple fondant fade to blue in the space of an hour or two.

I’ve had purple cakes turn blue in an hour, and there’s nothing you can do if your buttercream changes color.

If you’re going to be using purple food coloring, do a trial run to see if it stays the same color, or use purple petal dust to get the color right.


5. Your idea of “coral” is not the customer’s idea of “coral.”

Coral is one of the colors that you need to check, but there are a bunch of them.

Always get a color swatch and don’t assume that you know what color the bride is talking about.

I guarantee that you’ll be wrong, and if your color doesn’t match her color scheme, you’ll have an angry customer on your hands.

6. Never say “That’s simple, it won’t take long.”

That phrase guarantees that something will happen to make it take a long time.

Instead, say “I think that will take an hour, so I’ll schedule three hours for it.

7. Food coloring splatters.

When closing a bottle of airbrush color that has a snap top, point it away from you and into the sink when you snap it closed, or you’ll have a polka dot shirt when it sprays tiny bits of color all over you.

And you won’t notice them until you’ve leaned against something and transferred the color all over it.

Or until you step on a spot of it on the floor and track it all over the place, including on the carpet.

strawberry filling in a cake

8. Strawberry filling is slippery.

Strawberries make everything slip and slide, and preserves are the worst.

No, wait, that gross fake strawberry jelly stuff that people use for filling is the worst.

Anyway, strawberries are really slippery, and if you’re going to use them in a cake, take precautions.

cake tent

9. Buttercream cakes that are set up outside on a hot day will melt.

Don’t let a bride talk you into setting up a buttercream wedding came in July in a tent outside. Those cakes should be fondant, or you shouldn’t do them.

Even with fondant, it will soften up and get all sticky, and bugs love that.

The bride will promise that there will be a cooling system, but that usually means that they’ll have a fan blowing hot air directly onto the cake.

Make arrangements for the cake to be kept inside until right before the reception, then moved outside.

If there’s nobody who can move it, don’t deliver it until right before the reception start time.

I’ve sat in my car with the air conditioning running right outside the tent where the cake will be set up more times than I care to remember, but most of the time I was able to arrange with the reception site people for the cake to be moved into place.

Here’s an article about the cake tent that will keep bugs off your outdoor cake, because that’s another thing, bugs like sugar.

10. Not everything is a technique.

This goes along with #1…I think that people are so eager to make a name for themselves, they have to come up with a cute name for everything that you do in the ktichen.

Sometimes it’s just a way to do thing, not everything has to have a name.

Sometimes you just do it and get on with it.

11. Never walk away from your cream while it’s whipping or you’ll end up with butter.

You’ll be able to use the butter if you want to, but you’ll also have to go to the store to get more cream.

This also goes along with…

cooking isomalt

12. Never walk away from your sugar while it’s cooking or you’ll end up with charcoal.

I’ve put sugar on the stove to cook then totally forgotten about it while I did something else, and it literally turned into flaky, black carbon.

Luckily, you can put water in the pan and re-boil it to get it off the pan, but I had to restart the sugar-cooking process.

13. Solid-colored shirts are magnets for grease and batter.

Wear prints when you bake, they disguise marks better.

This goes for food coloring, too.

Or wear an apron. This is why people wear a chef’s coat in commercial kitchens.

14. Don’t stick a spoon under running water to rinse it if it’s bowl side up.

Unless you enjoy shooting water across the kitchen or straight into your face.

If you do enjoy that, go ahead and stick that spoon in there.

15. Cake levelers are very sharp.

And they cut human flesh as well as they cut cakes.

I have many scars to prove it. Don’t be me.

16. Cooked sugar is really, really hot and burny.

Also, blisters can form below the skin and take a couple of weeks to go away.

I once burned myself so badly I think it was something like a second-degree burn, and it made the guy at the pharmacy counter turn pale and look woozy when I showed it to him.

And another thing…When cooked sugar hits your skin it doesn’t cool off, it just keeps burning your skin and it STICKS THERE.

You can’t wipe that stuff off, so always have a bowl with cold water (not ice) that you can use to stick your hand in if you ever get hot sugar on them.

But wear rubber gloves that you can rip off fast, that’s the best way to get that stuff off of you.

17. Don’t leave out the sugar, the recipe won’t work if you do.

I have made recipes without a main ingredient a few times.

It doesn’t make you feel smart when you realize what you’ve done.

And the cake doesn’t taste very good, either.

18. Always buy more eggs than you think you need.

If you don’t have extras, that will be the day that you need to rebake something.

Driving to the store at 10pm isn’t fun, so buy extras or everything.

19. Don’t pour anything red into a running mixer.

Especially if it’s turned on high and you don’t have a pour shield on the bowl.

Splash guards are a must, unless you enjoy having whatever you’re pouring into the mixer all over your shirt.

airbrushing gumpaste leaves

20. Don’t airbrush near the intake of your home’s heating and cooling system unless you enjoy cleaning food coloring off of the floor in every room.

I left the best until last…I once felt very clever and took my airbrush out into the garage so that the overspray wouldn’t float around the kitchen.

What I didn’t bargain for was that I was spraying things too close to the vent or something, and for the next couple of weeks everything in the kitchen and living room were covered with a thin layer of red color that you didn’t notice until you touched it.

So the kitchen floor? Red.

The fireplace mantle? Red.

The counters? Red.

Now I airbrush outside.

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