Whether you like baking just for the fun of it or use it to procrastinate (known on Instagram as a #procrastibake), taking your baking skills to the next level (literally) can be daunting. Swirling a thick layer of chocolate buttercream across a simple sheet cake is easy—barely worth a second thought—but when it comes to stacking, layering, and “crumb coating” a two or three layer cake? Even the most comfortable of home bakers is likely to break a sweat. But don’t worry, with the right information, tools, tips, and some practice, you too can frost a smooth, sleek, and beautifully stacked layer cake.
Before you get baking though, I’d recommend taking in all the info this article has to offer. From the tools you need to the unnecessary ones that just make life easier; the frostings that are best for layer cakes to the tips and tricks that will save you some frustration—here’s all you need to know to frost a layer cake like a pro.
Tools of the Cake Frosting Trade
When it comes to baking, there are tons of tools out there that can be either extremely helpful (see a cake turntable) or completely unnecessary (see baking beans or pie weights). The only tools you really need to frosting a layer cake can be whittled down to this short list: a large serrated knife, some parchment paper, and an offset spatula. That’s it.
Things that will make your frosting a bit easier or the outcome a bit better? The aforementioned cake turntable, a piping bag and decorating tip for extra frosting flair, and a bench scraper.
If you plan to transport your cake, it would also be a good idea to invest in a cake carrier.
The Four Best Frostings for Layer Cakes
While the number of sweetly flavored frostings you could choose for a layer cake is numerous, there are really only four main types of frosting to choose from for smoothing over an entire layer cake: buttercream frosting, cream cheese frosting, fudge frosting, and meringue.
Buttercream frosting is mostly made of, none other than, you guessed it—butter. It’s a soft and spreadable frosting that goes well with just about every type of typical layer cake, but it can be a bit tricky to make, as it has the tendency to look a bit curdled if your ingredients aren’t at the right temperatures.
Here’s how to make it: Beat 4 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar with 15 tbsp (nearly 2 sticks) room temperature, unsalted butter on low speed. You can use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer with beaters for this. Once the butter and sugar are very light and fluffy, add 1/3 cup room temperature milk, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and 1/4 tsp salt and beat for another minute to combine.
If the buttercream is a bit too stiff, add some more milk to loosen it up. If it’s too thin, add some more confectioner’s sugar.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Light and silky like buttercream but 100% foolproof, tangy cream cheese frosting is a perfect foil to any cake spiced with warm cinnamon, cardamom, or studded with ginger. It’s the only frosting that should (in my opinion) be slathered on a classic carrot cake.
Here’s how to make it: Add 7 oz room temperature cream cheese to a large bowl and beat in 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar until very light and fluffy. You can use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer with beaters for this.
Chocolate goes with everything, and fudge frosting is probably everyone’s favorite part of any cake it’s on. Super spreadable right after you make it, the one tricky thing here is that you’ll have to gently heat it up if you make it ahead of time, as it thickens and becomes hard to spread the longer you let it sit.
Here’s how to make it: Add 6 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate to a large heatproof bowl. Heat 1 cup heavy cream, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt in a saucepan over medium heat—stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warmed through. Add the cream mixture to the chopped chocolate and stir everything constantly until the chocolate is melted. Stir in 1 stick of unsalted butter and 2 tsp of vanilla extract, then beat the mixture with a hand mixer with beaters until it’s very thick, fudge-y, and spreadable.
Meringue is special in that it can suffice as a dessert all on its own, but I find it really shines as a light, crisp frosting when paired with especially dense, moist cakes like a rich lemon cake or classic coconut cake for instance. Keep in mind that meringue sets hard and cannot be reused once set, so the cake will need to be frosted immediately after you make the meringue. Meringue-frosted cakes are best eaten the day they’re made and should be stored at room temperature.
Here’s how to make it: Add 2 egg whites, 1 1/3 cups sugar, 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, and 1/4 tsp salt to a heatproof bowl (preferably metal). Beat with a hand mixer with beaters until very well combined, but not light and fluffy, approx. 30 sec. Place the bowl over a small pot of simmering water—the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Over low heat, the water still simmering, beat the egg mixture with the hand mixer until very light, glossy, and fluffy, approximately 7 minutes. Flavor as you wish with approximately 1 tsp extract and use immediately.
How to Frost a Cake, Step-by-Step
With tools and frosting recipes in hand, now we’re at the fun part: the frosting! Follow these step-by-step directions to a simple, but show-stopping, frosted layer cake.
- Bake off your cake layers, let cool completely on a wire rack (at least 2 - 3 hours), then remove from the pans, wrap in plastic wrap, and let cool in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
- Remove your cooled cake layers from the fridge and the plastic wrap. Now, you’ll want to slice off a thin layer of cake to ensure that it’s flat and will stack perfectly. Place one cake on a cutting board and use the serrated knife to gently score the top of the cake where you want to slice it. Place your hand on the top of the cake and use a gentle sawing motion to slice the top of the cake off where you scored it. Save this piece for snacking and repeat with the other cake layer(s).
- Transfer one cake layer cut-side up to a cake turntable or your serving stand. Cut a piece of parchment paper into 4 long, thick strips and tuck these under the cake so they sort of create a square of paper around the cake. These will protect the cake from sliding around while you frost and make clean up easy after you frost.
- Prepare your frosting of choice.
- Add some of the frosting to the center of your first cake layer and use the offset spatula to gently push the frosting out from the center to the edges of the cake. Do not use a back and forth motion, but instead lift the spatula up and bring it back to the center or adding a bit more filling if needed.
- Once the filling is on and smoothed out, carefully top the first cake layer with your second layer—cut-side down. Press a bit so you know that the cake is secured by the filling and even.
- Now you’re going to give the cake a “crumb coat” which helps to hide any stray crumbs from appearing in the finished layer of frosting. Take some frosting (about 1/2 cup) and put it on top of the cake. Use the offset spatula to coat the entire cake—top and sides) with this frosting, feeling free to push and pull the frosting where you need it to create a very thin layer all over the cake. Transfer to the fridge and let chill for at least 30 min. Repeat and chill once more, so you’ll see barely any (or better yet, no) crumbs in the crumb coat.
- Now you’re free to go hog wild with your frosting. Place a bunch on top of the cake and use your offset spatula to spread it around the top and down the sides of the cake, as you did for the crumb coat. Use a bench scraper or the edge of your offset spatula to make the sides and top of of the cake even (very easy to do if you have a cake turntable), removing excess frosting—if there is such a thing.
- Now you can gently pull out the parchment paper from around the cake or get to decorating.
If you have a piping bag, you can make your frosting journey even easier. Place all the frosting into the piping bag with a large tip (or even a plastic bag with one of the corners cut) and use the bag to pipe the frosting on top or around the sides of your cake.
Four Basic Methods of Decorating a Frosted Layer Cake
Decorating a layer cake can be as simple or as complex as you want to be. Personally, I really like the look of a frosted layer cake as is—nothing more needed—but here are a few very easy at-home decorations you can opt for if you want to give your cake a little something special or make it look more professional.
- Gently drag a fork from the bottom of the sides of the cake to the top for a simple texture decoration.
- Add a bit more frosting to a small offset spatula and use gentle swooping motions to add it to the sides and top of your cake for another, soft and easy texture.
- Sprinkle the top of the cake with sprinkles, toasted chopped nuts, coconut, etc.
- Press sprinkles, toasted chopped nuts, coconut, etc. gently into the sides of the cake.