How to Frost a Cake

Never frosted a cake before? Don't fret — it's a piece of cake.

the naked layers of a cake show through rough frosting as if to show the cake is being frosted
Photo: Dotdash Meredith

Plain, frosted cakes are one of the easier desserts to take on, and they make a great first project for beginner bakers. Truly, an elegant, simply frosted cake doesn't need a field of piped flowers or a bucket of technicolor sprinkles to garner admiration (though decorations are a great way to hide flaws in your frosting).

Achieving a perfectly frosted cake takes a bit of effort, but it will absolutely be worth it when you present your guests, family, or just yourself with the gorgeous confection. Use this handy guide on how to frost cake — which covers preliminary steps, necessary tools, and how to store your cake once you've finished frosting it — to help you through the entire process.

What You'll Need

  • An offset spatula: The offset spatula, also known as an icing spatula or cake decorating knife, is an essential tool for any baker or cake decorator. The larger blade makes spreading frosting easy and puts less stress on the wrist. In a pinch, a butter knife will also work.
  • A long, serrated knife: A serrated knife is key for trimming domed peaks off cakes and dividing thicker layers.
  • Parchment paper: You'll want to place strips of parchment paper under the bottom cake layer to protect the cake plate from frosting. If you don't have parchment paper, you can use aluminum foil or wax paper in this application.
  • A cake turntable: This is more of a luxury than a necessity, but if you plan on frosting lots of cakes, a cake turntable will save you a great deal of effort and make smooth frosting easier to achieve.
  • A pastry brush: The thin bristles of a pastry brush remove delicate loose crumbs on the cake's crust before you frost it. The brush isn't an absolute must-have — you can wipe the outsides with your fingers — but if you frost cakes regularly, it's a tool that makes a big difference. Try one of these pastry brush substitutes if you don't have one on hand this time.
  • A bench scraper: A bench scraper or bench knife is an excellent tool for getting the smoothest frosting possible. If you don't have one, you can use the offset spatula for a similar result. We'll explain this in more detail below.
  • A cake carrier: The last thing you want to do after frosting your cake is drop or ruin it. Stash cake in a secure container with a handle before transporting it to prevent the worst.

How to Frost a Cake

There's one rule to know going in: Every baker will approach a cake slightly differently; the best way to frost a cake is the one that makes sense to you and results in a custom cake you can be proud of. That said, if you're relatively new to frosting cakes or simply want a better method for frosting your next cake, we can help.

Before you dive into the steps of frosting, here are some tips experienced bakers want home cooks to know.

Before You Start...

Wait until the cake has completely cooled. Frosting a warm cake can result in sagging and dripping sides. Allow the layers to cool for at least 2 to 3 hours. If you have time, wrap the layers in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Bring frosting to room temperature. Warm cake isn't the only temperature-related factor that can compromise your cake-decorating process. Whether it's canned or made from scratch, frosting needs to be at room temperature before it goes anywhere near a cake's surface. Frosting that is too cold will not spread well, and it could easily tear the surface of your cake.

If you make your frosting ahead of time and refrigerate it for safe keeping, bring the frosting back to room temperature. After the frosting has been sitting out for 25 to 30 minutes (and before you attempt to spread it over your cake), pop it under the mixer blade for 20 to 30 seconds to add air back in and make the consistency as smooth as possible.

Trim your cake. A perfectly frosted cake, especially when we're talking layer cake, is easiest to achieve when you're working with a flat surface. Trim off any peaks or domes from the top of all cake layers using a long serrated knife. Enjoy the scraps of cake for yourself, or make a few cake truffles with the extra cake and frosting.

How to Cut Layers

If you have thick cake layers, you can split them before you frost the cake. Here's how:

  • Press the teeth of the serrated knife into the side of the cake layer at the middle mark around the entire perimeter of the cake layer. These indentations will act as a guide for the knife as you move it through the layer.
  • Press down on the cake top with the hand that is not holding the knife. Guide the knife through the cake layer, following the scored horizontal line. Use a sawing motion, instead of pushing the knife through the cake layer. This will help prevent rips and tears.
  • Repeat the process with remaining layer(s).
frost a cake - cut

Step 1: Prepare Your Base

Once your cake and frosting have reached their respective ideal temperatures, you can start the work of frosting the cake. Be sure to gather all of your utensils first so that you're ready and set for every step. Start by readying the cake plate.

Tip: If you don't have a cake plate large enough for your cake, cut out a cardboard circle that is 2 to 3 inches bigger than your cake layers, and wrap it in aluminum foil (as seen below). This makeshift cake plate also works great if you're taking a cake somewhere and don't want to risk losing your dish.

  • Cut 4 wide strips of parchment paper. Lay the parchment sheets on the cake plate or pedestal, forming a diamond of exposed surface at the center. (If you have a turntable, put the plate or pedestal on the turntable at this point.) The cake layers will sit on these parchment strips and guard the cake plate from excess frosting. You'll remove these strips before you serve the cake.
  • Using the long serrated knife, trim any bumps or domes from your cake layers. Flat layers stack better.
  • Drop a dollop (about 1 tablespoon) of frosting in the center of the cake plate. This frosting is the "glue" that will help keep the bottom cake layer in place as you frost.
  • Place a layer of cake onto the plate, on top of the parchment paper and frosting. Gently brush away any crumbs with the pastry brush or your fingers.

Step 2: Spread Frosting, Stack Layers

frost a cake - layer 1
  • Use the offset spatula or a butter knife to evenly spread frosting over the top of the base cake layer.
  • If you want even layers of frosting between the layers of cake, you can measure the frosting before spreading it. Use 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup in between layers.

Tip: For more precise measurements, use a food scale to measure out the same amount of frosting for between layers.

frost cake - stack
  • Next, carefully lift the second layer with the offset spatula or your hand, and place it on top of the first frosted layer, top side down. If the layer is not centered, use your hands to gently move it into place.
  • It's OK if frosting goes beyond the edges of the cake. This frosting can be used as part of the crumb coat later.
frost cake - layer 2
  • Repeat this process until all layers are stacked.
  • The top layer of cake should be placed top side down so that the top of the cake is as flat as possible.

Step 3: Add the Crumb Coat

frost cake crumb coat
  • Next, you'll add the crumb coat, a thin layer of frosting that secures crumbs to the cake and prevents any from showing up in your final layer of frosting.
  • Before you add the crumb coat, gently brush the exterior of the layers with a pastry brush or your fingers to remove any stray crumbs. Take half a cup of frosting and thin it out with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water or milk so it's very easy to spread but not watery.
  • Hold your offset spatula vertically, and spread frosting over the sides of the cake, then the top. Use your spatula to make the crumb coat as smooth as possible.
frost cake crumb coat 2
  • Chill the cake with the first crumb coat layer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, or until the the frosting is set. It is not mandatory to chill the crumb coat, but doing so will help make your final coat as smooth and crumb-free as possible.
  • If you still see crumbs (note: it's OK to see a bit of the naked cake through the crumb coat, but you shouldn't see free crumbs) do a second crumb coat. Second coats are more common with dark cakes, like chocolate and red velvet. Chill after the second coat 30 minutes to 1 hour, or until set.

Step 4: Finish the Frosting

frost cake - top coat

Once the crumb coat has chilled and set, you can add the final layers of frosting. You do not have to use up all your frosting, but it's definitely alright if the final layers of frosting are thicker than the crumb coat(s), so use as much as you'd like.

Tip: If your spatula or knife is coated with frosting, wash it with warm water. The warm metal makes smoothing out the frosting easier, too.

  • Spread the remaining frosting, or about 1 cup, evenly over the top and sides of the crumb coated cake with an offset spatula.
  • For smoother sides, hold the offset spatula vertically, and gently press the side of the blade into the frosting. Rotate the spatula around the outside of the cake to smooth the frosting.
  • If you're using a turntable, this process is easier: Hold the knife or spatula in place, pressing gently into the frosting. Turn the table to smooth the frosting. Wipe off any frosting on the spatula, and smooth the frosting once more.
  • Alternatively, you can use a bench scraper to smooth out the frosting on the top and sides. Hold the bench scraper vertically, and gently press it into the side of the cake. Rotate it around the sides of the cake, or hold it in place, and rotate the turntable.
  • Before serving, gently remove the parchment strips under the cake. Clean up any crumbs or drops of frosting from the plate.

How to Store Frosted Cake

  • Store your cake in an airtight container, such as a cake carrier. A cake that's been covered and decorated with any type of dairy-based frosting, such as buttercream, cream cheese frosting, or whipped cream, should be kept in the refrigerator.
  • Dairy-based frosting should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

Common Questions About Frosting Cakes

Frosted before? You may have a few questions about your last turn around the cake table to make your next frosting adventures easier. Here, we answer a few common cake frosting questions.

How long should I cool a cake before frosting?

Cake layers should be completely cooled before you frost them. If they aren't, the frosting could drip and run off the sides. At a minimum, cake layers should cool two hours at room temperature. If the temperature of your home is warm, consider cooling them in the fridge. Even better, let them cool overnight (wrapped in plastic, so they don't dry out). A cool cake is firmer and easier to frost.

How can I frost a cake without crumbs?

The secret is in the crumb coat. You do not have to do a crumb coat, but if you want a crumb-free finish, this layer of thin frosting is vital. To be doubly sure there won't be any crumbs, you can do two layers. Be sure to chill the cake between layers, and chill it again before putting the final coat on. Chilling the crumb coat helps it to set so that you won't risk picking up any pesky bits of cake.

What's the best frosting for decorating cake?

This is really up to you. Certainly, some frostings are better suited to specific cakes or sponges. For example, buttercream is great for sturdy sponges and layer cakes, but not so great with delicate angel food cake. Ermine frosting, or boiled milk frosting, is classic with red velvet cake, but cream cheese frostings are often used on these ruby hued beauties, as well as carrot cake.

Lighter cakes and sponges, like chiffon cake, may do better with a whipped frosting or glaze.

Can I frost a cake the day before a party?

Absolutely, you can frost a cake the day before you plan to serve it. But keep in mind, any cakes frosted with dairy-based ingredients, such as cream cheese, butter, or heavy cream, should be refrigerated. They should not sit out overnight.

How much frosting should I make for a cake?

Each section you frost, you'll use about half a cup of frosting. So that's half a cup between layers, half a cup on top, at least half a cup for each crumb coat, and half a cup or more for the final layer. You can do the math for the number of layers in your cake, but a safe bet is 4 to 5 cups for a two-layer cake; 5 to 6 cups should be enough for a three-layer cake.

When in doubt, make a little extra. You can always freeze extra frosting. Scoop it into a resealable freezer-safe, zip-top bag, and stash it until you frost your next cake.


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