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Frosting a cake seems simple, but it’s easy to mess it up if you use the wrong tools or have your ingredients at the wrong temperature. A little patience and some basic know-how will make your cake look bakery-worthy. Here’s how to frost or ice a cake like a pro.
We’ll summarize the key takeaways, supply a few extra tips, and suggest some specific tools below—but once you’re ready to try out your newfound technique, check out our cake recipes and frosting recipes to create your own showstopping desserts.
First: What Is the Difference Between Frosting and Icing?
While the terms frosting and icing are sometimes used interchangeably, frosting is typically thicker and fluffier; think buttercream frosting or cream cheese frosting. Icing tends to be a thinner substance with more liquid (often milk or cream) in the mix so it can be poured or drizzled over a cake or other baked goods.
Read more about the difference between frosting, icing, and fondant.
Don’t Frost a Hot Cake
Attempting to ice a hot cake is a sure route to melted frosting and soggy, ugly cake. Cool your cake completely before frosting it—or icing it; even a thin glaze will be melted and absorbed by a piping hot cake. The same rules apply to frosting or icing a cupcake. Even sprinkling powdered sugar on a hot cake will make it melt away.
Cooling your cake on a rack helps air circulate and brings the temperature down faster, but you’ll still have to wait a while before you can start covering it up, so always plan ahead. Luckily, most cakes don’t suffer from being baked a day in advance, and in fact, icing a cake that’s just come out of the fridge can make the process a lot easier. You should still apply a crumb coat and have your frosting at the right temperature, but a chilled cake will help it go on even more smoothly. Just wrap the layers in plastic before popping them in the fridge (and make sure they’re cooled before wrapping or condensation can make the tops sticky and soggy).
You can also freeze cake layers, but should partially thaw them before frosting (otherwise the icing can start to seize up and be harder to spread).
Don’t Use Cold Frosting
Making frosting ahead is fine, but frosting straight from the fridge will be stiff enough to tear your tender cake and make it crummy (literally). Let the frosting come to room temperature but don’t let it get too warm and melted; it should have a nice spreadable consistency. It’s preferable to make the frosting just before you want to apply it only because it will be at that sweet spot right away. If it’s been refrigerated, it’s best to let it come to room temperature on its own; heating it in the microwave can easily make it too runny and change the texture.
Icing for a bundt cake, pound cake, or cookies should be pourable, but if it seems too thin, refrigerate it until it thickens up a bit. You don’t want it to slide completely off your dessert, after all.
Don’t Forget the Crumb Coat
Even with your components at the right temperature, spreading creamy frosting on a cake will pull up crumbs. That’s OK! A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting that seals the crumbs in place so they don’t mar the surface of the cake. When applying this first layer, smooth the frosting in a single direction to minimize crumbs and fix them in place.
You’ll also want to let the crumb coat set for 15-30 minutes in the fridge before applying your final layer of frosting. That will ensure it goes on smoothly. Again, make sure the frosting isn’t too cold to easily spread. This second, thicker layer of frosting can be applied when slightly warmer and looser than before, since that makes it a bit more smooth and shiny on the finished cake.
Do Use the Right Tools
A butter knife might do in a pinch, but the best tool for the job is a metal offset spatula, which gives you greater dexterity when covering the curved sides and flat top of your cake.
A rotating cake stand is also helpful since it lets you turn the cake as you wield the spatula for a super smooth, even finish.
If you only have a stationary cake stand, you can set it on a lazy Susan. But if you don’t have either, no worries. Just don’t frost the cake on the serving plate, which will result in lots of wasted frosting—turn the cooled cake pan upside down and set the cake on that surface to frost it instead:
Cheap cake boards will make transferring the cake from the stand (or inverted cake pan bottom) to the serving plate a piece of…well, you know.
You can also use a pastry bag to pipe frosting onto the top of each cake layer before smoothing it out with your spatula.
How Much Frosting Do You Need for a Cake?
A short two layer round cake will need about four cups of frosting, while a three layer cake will need five cups (less if you’re making a naked cake). A standard sheet cake will need six cups. Here’s a detailed frosting amount chart from Wilton so you can mix and match frosting recipes for any size and shape of cake you’re making. And here are hints on how much frosting to use on each part of the cake.
What Should You Do with Excess Frosting?
If you have extra buttercream or cream cheese frosting, you can freeze it in an airtight container like a zip-top bag for up to three months; just thaw overnight in the fridge. Or use it as an excuse to bake a batch of brownies or cinnamon buns. You can also serve it as a dip for fruit (thin it out with a little milk first if you’d like).
Now, Learn How to Cut It
If You Cut Cake in Wedges, You’re Doing It All Wrong
The original version of this post was published by Leslie Jonath, Eric Slatkin, and Blake Smith in 2010. It has been updated with additional images, links, and text.
Header image by Chowhound