Tips on Icing a Cake, Sort Of…

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I have always been a horrible cake icer. Horrible. My kids have said my cakes look like a dog vomited on them (although they eat them with glee and joy). Well, it took me about 20 years to learn that you need to let a cake COOL before you ice it. WHY DON’T THEY TEACH THIS IN SCHOOL? The other week when I was making my own damn birthday banana cake, it happened to be the Monday of Martin Luther King Day, so not only were my babysitter and cleaning lady in the house, but we were all watching the inauguration in the kitchen, while I was attempting to ice the cake….

They waited patiently and quietly—until it was too late and I was done—to start giving me advice. In that few minutes of advice, I learned more about icing a cake than I had learned in a lifetime. So I quickly wrote it all down so that I could share their tips with you…and ask YOU for your advice too. I’ll never be (nor do I aspire to be) a fancy cake decorator, but I would like to make a decent-looking cake, one I’m not embarrassed to serve to non-family folk.

Find more tips I learned the hard way in my new cookbook Scratch: Home Cooking For Everyone Made Simple, Fun, And Totally Delicious. Here’s how to order!

Here are all the tips I have. But I would love to hear yours, too!

  1. Turn the cake (still in the pan) upside down to cool (on a wire rack).
  2. Don’t even try to ice the cake until it is cool.
  3. If it’s a double-layer cake and it cooked up crooked, put the bottom layer crooked side down and flat side up to ice, then lay the top layer flat side down on top of that so the two flat sides are touching. If it’s all too crooked, cut the cake flat with a knife. (That way you get to taste it ahead of time!)
  4. Ice the sides first. At least, that’s what they said. Someone one else said that’s not true. Not sure what to believe here…
  5. Ice the top last. (See above.)
  6. Ice the cake on a plate that is not the serving plate. Move it to the serving plate after it’s done…although I’m not sure how.
  7. For lord’s sake, keep the knife or spatula free of crumbs. Crumbs in the icing are the number two cause of disgusting icing jobs. Number one cause is not waiting until the cake is cool, which then REALLY makes a lot of crumbs.
  8. Always make extra icing. You can never have too much icing.

What did I miss?


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23 Responses to Tips on Icing a Cake, Sort Of…

  1. Amy Eller February 6, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Always cool cake upside down on rack
    Let cake cool completely
    If its crooked trim it
    Cut piece of parchment paper large enough to put on surface you Will be icing the cake on, the. When you transfer to serving plate you can slip it out easily.
    Keep a damp cloth next to you for easy removal of crumbs or use finger!
    You can never have too much icing!

  2. Suki February 6, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    I’ve done my share of cakes including a few wedding cakes. These are all great tips. Here are a few more I’ve learned over the years.

    1. If you want to ice your cake on the serving platter, keep a paper towel handy. After icing, take the paper towel (wrapped around your finger) and wipe any excess icing from the platter.

    2. If you’re using buttercream icing and want it smooth, dip your knife (preferably a smooth-sided spatula type) in a glass of luke warm water. It will just barely heat the icing enough to make it smooth. Another way to do this is to use a small, clean, dry paint roller rolled in powdered sugar (if the icing is white). Take the roller and roll it across the top and sides to help smooth the icing.

    3. And, yes, crumbs are a big no-no. Be sure to wipe your knife before dipping it into the icing bowl.

    4. Also, don’t forget that old trick with toothpicks. If your cake is still a bit warm when icing, toothpicks between the layers will help hold them together so that the cake won’t slip and be crooked. It’s not the greatest thing to cut into a toothpick but, at least when presenting your cake, it will be straight and pretty. Then again, if you have kids around, it’s always fun to make a game out of who can find the toothpick first.

    Hope some of these help. Happy Baking!

  3. Heidi February 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    I have a short cake stand that spins so you can turn the cake while frosting it. Makes it easier to frost and doubles as a serving plate!

  4. Michelle Shaffer February 6, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    I have been cooking/baking for 45+ years and am still learning new things everyday! Some additional tips-
    I have found that using an offset spatula makes the whole process easier as well. I use waxed paper strips between the bottom edges of the cake and the serving platter to keep the platter clean. I lightly brush the cake off before I put it on the plate. And, yes- the #1 rule is a cake that has been taken out of the pan and allowed to completely cool.

  5. Donna in Delaware February 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    All valid tips and advice. Like Michelle said, the cake needs to cool, until completely cold. If you cut the cake in half or thirds, make sure to use a pastry brush and lightly brush any loose crumbs from the cake before applying frosting and do use strips of parchment or wax paper underneath the edges when frosting. They can be removed easily and you don’t have to wipe up any mess. Do use a turntable and an off-set knife/spatula of different sizes if necessary. Usually the frosting is applied to the sides first, then the top, but if you have done it the opposite way, that is also fine. Do keep some warm water nearby to dip the knife or spatula into, and a damp cloth. Make sure to keep the icing or frosting smooth enough to spread, without tearing the cake. You should have success with all of the above tips.

  6. Chris February 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    When I prepare the pan, I use sugar instead of flour. It’s supposed make the cake surface less likely to crumb.

  7. Danyell February 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    If you have time after the cake is cooled, put it back into the pan and wrap up. Then put into the fridge over night. Frost it the next day with the tips you have already been given. Cold cake is even easier to frost then cooled cake.

  8. Merilee February 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    I have taken cake deco classes. Trying to remember what I learned. We put our cakes in the freezer. Of course they were tightly covered. Also I think we coated them with a thin layer of frosting that could almost be poured over them. Thereby almost completely containing the crumbs. Now do your beautiful iced delicious cake.

  9. Etta Lanuti February 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    Toothpicks are dangerous! When I worked at “Montecito Confections” in California, Katie, the owner taught me to use plastic soda straws! They’ll hold any cake from slipping. Three usually do the job. Ice the lower layer, set the second layer on top, push in the straws, cut off flush with scissors , frost the sides, then the top and your all set! I’ve used this trick on eight- layer cakes without a problem…and when you slice the cake you ALWAYS find the straws. And the hint about strips of wax paper, or parchment, is an old pro trick. To keep your cake from sliding on the plate a little dab of icing or a sprinkle of sugar usually does the trick. Also, if you tort a layer…cut it in half…to make two layers out of one… put a v-notch in the edge before you tort it…if you cut it crooked it won’t matter when you line up the notch after frosting the bottom layer. Have fun! Hope you had a great birthday!

  10. Brenda Hardy March 6, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I enjoyed the article and the comments. I almost quit reading, though, when I came to the word “damn” in the story. Please keep the language clean. Your audience is wide and varied. Your idea could have been expressed in a way that doesn’t offend anyone. Thank you for considering this.

    I have a hint for a chocolate cake: dust the pan with cocoa instead of flour to avoid the “moldy” appearance that flour gives a baked cake. I have also found that a little powdered sugar dusted over a cake (especially a bundt cake) can be an easy way to “frost” a cake.

  11. Elena January 22, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    This is great advice! Also, to the commentor, she did have to bake her own DAMN cake, she is grown and hopefully so are you. Just skip over the word and see the intent. Great job on the blog, look forward to more!!

  12. jack July 3, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    I disagree a bit with icing the sides first…

    Plop a large amount of icing on top of the cake and then spread it towards the sides, and then down the sides. Never let the spatula touch the cake; the icing should always be between the cake and the tool. When the sides are finished, smooth out the top.


  13. Aimen Ejaz August 8, 2014 at 3:34 am #

    Can something please help
    I am new and really want to learn baking my question is can I use the icing the next day ?

  14. Tobu December 16, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I’m way late to the party here, but I just wanted to add – a “crumb coat” is a great way to avoid getting crumbs in your icing!

    Once you’ve got your icing ready, scoop a good-sized spoonful into a small separate bowl, thin it juuuust a tiny bit with a few drops of milk and a good stir (to make it spread thinner/easier), then “ice” the entire cake with it in a thin layer. It doesn’t have to look good (in fact, it will look awful) and that’s okay, because the purpose of this quick-and-dirty coating is just to glue all the crumbs down and seal ’em in!

    Once the crumb coat is dry, you can lay a thicker coat of regular icing over it without worrying about accidentally picking up crumbs. Beautiful results! And although putting on the crumb coat does take a couple extra minutes, I think it makes up for itself by letting you do the final icing faster and with less stress.

  15. Jean July 18, 2015 at 12:41 am #

    @ commentor, Brenda, the word “damn” is not a curse word. It’s used throughout the Bible. It has evolved into a curse word over generations by people who have abused it and used it inappropriately through their own ignorance. If you don’t understand this you are not a reasonably educated adult and should not be allowed to use the internet or contribute your thoughts on any subject. Just as you are offended by the word “damn”, I am offended by your gross intellectual inadequacy.
    @ the author of this blog, thank you for the great frosting tips! My cake turned out beautifully!

  16. Rebecca August 1, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

    Go Jean! Ha ha ha.

    Just wanted to say thanks for the tips, to the author and everyone else who contributed in comments. I feel better prepared to ice my daughters 3rd Birthday Cake and, what more, I had a great chuckle at the DAMN commentary too.

    Let us eat cake and be merry.

  17. Joanne February 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    Thanks for the advice! This isnt the main point of this thread obviously, but I didn’t like the “damn” either. Nothing to do with being an adult or not…just alerting you that it does turn a certain group away. Plus the part about “lord”…it makes my heart sink…for what it’s worth.

  18. Lucy April 2, 2016 at 3:00 am #

    I loce cake.Damn its good.

  19. Mary May 5, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    I was enjoying this read until I hit the post by “Jean.” What surly, condescending and flat-out unkind words. I, too, choose not to be around swearing. As a result, I’ve gone elsewhere as I am also avoiding any boards with drama or people on them who don’t know what good manners look like.

  20. Cyndi July 4, 2016 at 1:17 am #

    You can ice on the serving plate. If you place parchment or wax paper just under the bottom edges of the cake so to cover the serving plate. Then frost the cake. Remove parchment or wax paper and you have a perfect clean serving plate.

  21. Heather October 22, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    Wrap and freeze a cake to 1) have a sturdy structure to pile high with more cake and icing. 2)trap the moisture. Make sure you get a good crumb coat on and sealed before the cake completely unthaws

    If you use buttercream icing, you can add meringue powder to help counteract the effects of humidity (if you live in a very humid location) just add a couple tsp or so to prepared buttercream

    Let you buttercream icing set up in the fridge for 20-30 minutes between each layer and before adding decorations.

  22. Scott January 13, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    Hello Maria,

    You had me at dog vomit.

    I’m making a cake for my wife’s 40th birthday, and hopefully this helps me get the job done.
    Loved the info and thanks for sharing.

  23. Jean August 17, 2018 at 9:05 am #

    Just needed advice on icing a cake and found this site. I love it and will visit again. When reading anything, I just skip over profanity and don’t allow it into my head and continue reading.

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