No matter the season, a stunning layer cake is the crown jewel of any celebration. At Southern Living, we consider ourselves experts in the art of the layer cake. We've been baking these towering beauties for decades, and we've learned plenty of handy tips and tricks along the way.
Here's a secret that a Southern hostess might be uninclined to admit: Boxed cake can be great. We'll always keep a box of cake mix around for hosting emergencies—all it takes is a bit of gussying-up to transform into moist, fluffy cake layers. We have a few tricks to upgrade your boxed cake mix, but the key to creating a memorable, centerpiece-worthy cake? Frosting like a pro. If you know how to properly frost a cake, even boxed-mix layers will look just as good as the real, from-scratch deal.
If you're a cake-baking novice or are simply looking to hone your decorating skills, this guide will help you gain confidence in your frosting abilities. Add this to your foundational baking skills, and you'll be well on your way to pastry perfection.
Whether you're making a multi-layered beauty or a one-tier wonder, we're sharing all the secrets on how to frost a cake. There are plenty of different types of frosting out there, from glossy ganache to light, fluffy Swiss meringue. In this guide, we'll mostly provide insight into working with buttercream and cream cheese frostings, two staples in any cake baker's repertoire.
How to Prepare Cake Layers for Frosting
First thing's first: Get your cake layers ready to frost. It's key to start with cake layers that have cooled completely; otherwise, your frosting will melt and the cake layers may slip or slide out of place. If you have time, you can even freeze your cake layers before decorating; simply let them sit out for a few minutes beforehand to thaw. Starting with very cold cake layers and trimming them evenly will help you maintain the integrity and structure of the cake.
Before you begin to stack your cake layers, you will want to trim them to ensure that they sit straight on top of each other. Stacking domed cake layers will result in a wonky, topsy-turvy tower; use a serrated knife (such as a bread knife) to cut the domed top off the cake, sawing back and forth with low pressure in a slow, even motion. Use the scraps to make cake pops (or save them as a snack for yourself—you deserve it).
How to Layer a Cake
Set your first cake layer on the cake stand. Start with a firmer buttercream between your cake layers to give the cake more structure. Spoon 1 cup of frosting (for an 8-inch cake; adjust for more or less depending on cake size) onto the cake layer. Use a small offset spatula to spread the frosting to the edges of the cake, ensuring that it's evenly distributed to keep your cake level. (For the neatest look, you can use a piping bag to circle frosting between your cake layers.) Next, place another layer of cake—trimmed-side down—on top of the frosting. Repeat with any remaining cake layers. Once you've added your final layer, it's time to frost the outside of the cake.
How to Frost a Cake
Now for the fun part: It's time to frost the outside of your cake. While it's important to execute all the earlier steps well, as this provides the foundation and structure for your cake, the exterior coat of frosting is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. There are many styles you can take when it comes to cake frosting: Some may prefer elaborate buttercream ripples, while others prefer a sparse, barely-frosted look (you may know this as a naked cake: We have tips on that, too).
No matter the frosting style, you'll first want to start with a crumb coat. This thin, preliminary layer of frosting spread around the sides and top of the cake seals in any crumbs, preventing them from disrupting the smooth look of the final layer of frosting. The crumb coat provides an even foundation to build on as you frost your cake; think of it as the glue that's sealing in the cake's moisture and providing a barrier between the cake layers and the final buttercream shell.
To apply a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to spread a thin layer of frosting around the sides and on top of the cake. Smooth with a large offset spatula or a bench scraper. Once you've covered the entire cake, refrigerate the cake for at least 15 minutes or up to 2 hours to allow the frosting to set. Then remove your cake from the refrigerator and execute the same motion with slightly more frosting, using an offset spatula to cover the entire cake with a thicker layer of frosting. At this stage, you'll want to use a slightly more viscous, spreadable frosting—the fluidity allows you to achieve a clean finish. You can thin your buttercream out with a small amount of heavy cream (even just ¼ teaspoon).
How to Decorate a Cake
When it comes to decorating your cake, the possibilities are endless. Your cake decorations can be as simple or elaborate as you'd like. If you're looking for inspiration, check out some of our favorite layer cakes or our famous white cakes of years past.
For expert cake decorating tips, we spoke to pastry chef Lauren Gavin, who has been baking wedding cakes for 7 years. Gavin notes that naked cakes—famous for their rustic, yet smooth exposed cake layers—account for at least 50% of all orders.
"The naked cake is achieving the skill of un-decorating. It's not about how you put the frosting on, but how you take it off," Gavin says. "Use a straight spatula or a bench scraper—you can warm it up with a little bit of hot water, dry it really well, and use that to take off some of the frosting. It eliminates a lot of imperfections of air bubbles without having to press into your cake layers and tear them up. With every stroke that you take buttercream away, clean your tool." This gives you a clean slate to work on. If you're in search of a recipe, our Lemon Naked Cake with a Flower Crown is just about as elegant as it gets.
To make casual, effortless frosting swoops (as seen in our Butter Toffee-Pecan Layer Cake), use a small offset spatula or a spoon to indent and create waves in the frosting. We love to apply Swiss meringue buttercream in spackle-like motions all around the cake.
Cake Decorating Supplies
In terms of tools, you don't need much to beautifully decorate a cake. Piping bags can come in handy, especially when frosting between your cake layers, but all you really need to beautifully frost a cake is a large offset spatula or bench scraper. "A rotating cake stand is really nice, but if you don't have something like that, you can flip over a cake pan a size smaller and spin the board that the cake is sitting on," Gavin advises.