Cake Decorating Tips I Wish I Knew When I Started Out Cake Decorating That Changed My Life
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When I first started cake decorating, I knew literally nothing, not even what cake tools I should have. I do not have one of those fun stories where I grew up baking with my mom and grammy in the kitchen. I didn't know how to bake, I definitely didn't know how to bake from scratch, I definitely didn't know what fondant was. I just knew, cake decorating was a job that real people had and I wanted to learn how to do it.
My first PAID (yes someone paid me to make this) wedding cake circa 2009. I think I charged a whopping $150. The whole thing fell apart during delivery. The heavy sugar flowers cut through the box cake on the way to delivery. They were just stuck into the cake. No straws).
I had to tear the whole thing apart in the kitchen of the venue and reconstruct it from cakes purchased from a grocery store bakery. Crazy thing? Bride wasn't even mad and didn't even ask for a refund. You would NEVER see that these days. I wish I could hug that bride today. If she would have yelled at me (which she totally had every right to) I think I would have given up right then and there.
Cake Decorating Is Not A Job, It's How I Create Art
But let's back up and give a little history just in case you don't have my book and have no idea who this Liz chick is.
I grew up as an artist in a small town. If anyone asks what I do now, I say I am a cake artist. All I ever wanted to do when I grew up was to be an artist and get the heck out of my small town. Alas, life loves to crush your childhood dreams and a not-so-delicate 8th grade teacher informed me that being an artist was not a career. She suggested maybe veterinarian since I liked to draw cats and horses.
I proceeded to live life basically goal-less for the next 10 years. No clue what I wanted to do or what "job" I should have. I have had over 30 jobs in my lifetime. Everything from fast food to filing home liens. Nothing stuck and I would get bored around the 4-6 month mark. I'd quit my job and move on.
Charcoal portrait circa 2006 - I used to have a side hustle that involved making charcoal portraits of kids. I don't know why I didn't just do this for a living. Things seems a lot less attainable in art before social media.
My First Cake Wreck
I ended up going to school for graphic design in 2004 so that I could work as an "artist" but of course, if you've ever been a graphic designer you know it's not really artistic. It's mostly stressful. But the best thing that came from that career is that I was so stressed, I started cake decorating as a way to relax.
The thing is, as I stated previously. I knew zip about cake decorating. All I knew was that there where people out there making cakes that were fabulous works of art. I bought myself some nice box mix, took a wilton class from Michaels and offered to make a friend a cake for her daughter's first birthday as a reason to practice.
The absolute worst thing about this cake is the tinfoil covered cake board. OMG the shame!!! Cover your boards! lol
The cake was a mess. I'm not gonna lie.
I couldn't get the lemon frosting (from a can) to stick to the cake. I didn't know how to make circles in fondant (yes I literally could not figure out how to make circles of fondant, don't judge me) so I bought giant sprinkles and stuck them to the sides of the cake.
Even though this cake was just fugly as all get out, guess what. My friend loved it and so did her daughter. I was officially bitten by the cake decorating bug. I wanted to cake ALL the things. Luckily I was in that part of my life where all my friends where getting married or having babies so there where lots of cakes to make!
The Cake Decorating Bug
As I began to dive into the cake world, I started searching for ways to learn. This is before YouTube tutorials existed, facebook groups or even the idea that people would share their precious cake decorating secrets.
I would go to book stores to buy cake decorating books, and the cakes were gorgeous but I couldn't find anything on very, very basic techniques. Like, how do you get your buttercream to be smooth? Why aren't the sides of my cake straight? Why do I get that bulge around the middle of my cake and so on.
My sister's wedding cake. That HUGE topper almost caused the whole thing to fall over because I didn't know to put any supports underneath it. The cake was super soft and you can see it bulging all around the middle. Sharp edges?? What's that? But they loved it and I loved making it.
After 10 years of cake decorating, I decided to put out this article because even though the world is FULL of ways to learn now, it can be information overload. What do you follow, what do you ignore and why is a must!
I hope this list of my top 8 cake decorating tips for success helps answer a few of those beginner questions and leads you to be the cake decorator you have always wanted to be. You got this!
Cake Decorating Tip #1 - Easy Buttercream Frosting
Buttercream comes in many forms. When I first started cake decorating, all that existed to me was canned frosting. It wasn't until I went to pastry school in 2010 that I learned about alllll the other frostings like SMBC (Swiss meringue buttercream) which is my favorite. It's made by whipping up sugar dissolved in heated egg whites to a stiff peak and then you whip in butter and vanilla until it's light, fluffy and delicious.
As soon as I frosted my first cake with SMBC I knew I was hooked. The problem is, it takes forever to make. You have to heat the egg whites, whip them, let them cool, then whip in the butter and if you're making a lot of cakes then that's a huge amount of time.
Then one day, I read about this recipe called Lauren Kitchen's Buttercream and everyone was raving about it. Same amazing flavor as SMBC with one BIG difference. She used pasteurized egg whites instead of heating her egg whites which significantly cuts down on the prep time. LIFE CHANGING!
Now I can literally make a batch of flawless buttercream in ten minutes. By the time I learned this recipe I was retired from baking. I tweaked the recipe to use a little less butter and named it Easy Buttercream and is my forever go-to recipe. It's great for stacked cakes, sculpted cakes, buttercream flowers and even cupcakes. It's not as sweet as regular ABC (american buttercream) which is what most people use for buttercream in the USA. French Buttercream, cream cheese buttercream and Italian buttercream are all delicious as well.
Cake Decorating Tip #2 - Cake Goop
I am embarrassed to tell you how long I used the old vegetable shortening and dusted flour technique for prepping my cake pans. It was the only thing I could do that was fairly easy and dependable. The issue? Super messy. I always had flour remnants all over the trash can, the sink, the floor (when you miss the trash can).
I WISH I could remember who told me about cake goop because it changed my world.
No more pan spray, no more shortening and flour, no more parchment paper. Just brush it in the pan and bake it up. Cakes will slide out of that pan so easy peezy, you'll kick yourself for not making up a batch of cake goop sooner.
The ingredients are simple, mix up equal parts vegetable shortening (or margarine) vegetable oil and flour. Mix well until combined (I do mine in the mixer) and then store in a container. You can keep it on the countertop or the fridge but it won't spoil. I use a pastry brush to brush it on the pans evenly. Don't worry, you don't need a lot. Just a nice even coating will do you.
Cake Decorating Tip #3 - Marshmallow Fondant Recipe
I distinctly remember the day I ran out of fondant. I was in the middle of my biggest cake order yet. Six custom car cakes for a big birthday party! It was also the most amount of money I had ever been paid so the pressure was on. Halfway through covering my cakes, I realized I was not going to have enough fondant. It was 11pm and the cakes where due in the morning.
I decided to do a search for "homemade fondant" and found a recipe that involved combining some melted marshmallows with powdered sugar. That seemed easy enough! Even though Michaels wasn't open and I couldn't buy more fondant, I could definitely buy more marshmallows at the grocery store.
Trouble was, the fondant didn't work. It was oily and just cracked when I tried to cover the cakes. Ugh! In a desperate attempt to stretch what fondant I had, I combined my useless marshmallow fondant with a little of my leftover Wilton fondant and that's when the magic happened.
The fondant covered perfectly! It was soft, stretchy, didn't tear over the odd shape of the car cake and it actually tasted amazing. Like marshmallows.
I decided to keep making my fondant this way. Melting marshmallows, adding powdered sugar and a little bit of pre-made fondant. I got rave reviews from my clients! I even shared the recipe in my groups and it was named lovingly by some friends LMF fondant (Liz Marek Fondant) and was the first thing I think I was really known for sharing.
Cake Decorating Tip #4 - Professional Cake Pans
One of the things I distinctly remember struggling with early on was getting straight sides to my cakes. I would look in these books that showed these perfect cakes getting stacked on top of each other and the sides where just super straight. Mine... were not. They where curved or shrunken or crispy on the top and stuck to the bottom. What was the deal?
So for some INSANE reason, the pans I started out with had slanted sides. The walls where super thin and the best part? They weren't even evenly sized so instead of 8" they where like 7.5". Oye. One of the very first things I did was invest in some good quality cake pans.
It seems across-the-board, favorites are either Fat Daddio (my favorite) or Magic Line. I personally like the nice browning that happens on Fat Daddios because it makes them easier to release from the pan but I know others love how Magic Line produces a much lighter looking cake.
Whichever way you go, you can't go wrong with professional pans. They will make your cakes bake up much more evenly.
Vanilla cakes made with Magic Line pans, sprayed with bakers joy and line with parchment paper. Photo credit from Short Cakes
Cake Decorating Tip #5 - Using a Scale
For some crazy reason, in the USA, our standard of measurement is volume (cups). Everywhere else in the world they go by weight. This may be the reason why I straight up hated to bake my whole life. Everything I tried to make never turned out very well and I had no clue why. My guess is a lot of us start out that way. You find a recipe you like, sometimes it turns out, sometimes it doesn't.
The problem, my friend, is that not all dry ingredients can be measured by volume and turn out the same every single time. Did you know that some measuring spoons can even vary vastly from manufacturer to manufacturer? Sometimes you might get a little too much flour and not quite enough baking powder. Then your cake falls flat and you're out $18 in ingredients.
Buy a scale. Measure by weight.
I know you want to fight this change, change is scary. You no like change. But please, if you ignore all my other advice, at least take this.
I know you're going to say you can't afford one. But listen, you don't have to buy the fancy scale I have, go to Target or whatever store you have near you and go to the kitchen aisle. Scales cost less than $20 and are a priceless tool for cake decorating. This is one of my top tools for every cake decorator.
When you use a scale to measure your ingredients, no longer do you have to worry about whether your cake will turn out. It will turn out every single time (granted you follow the directions but that is another tip, lol). You'll make less of a mess and you can double and triple your recipes easily.
To convert a recipe you already love to weight, measure out in cups as usual then place into a bowl and write down the weight. I usually will round up to the nearest whole number for ease.
For the love of butter, please do not google "how much does a cup of flour weigh" because that's how recipes fail. It depends on your area, how much moisture is in the air, the recipe you're using and even your elevation. One more little bonus tip, if a recipe calls for cups, use cups the first time around before converting. If it uses weight (like all of mine) go with weight and don't try to convert to cups. I mean... unless you like throwing cakes in the trash...
Get a scale. This is the link for the exact scale that I have been using since pastry school. (affiliate)
Cake Decorating Tip #6 - Reading the Recipe
So about that whole "following the directions" thing I talked about before. Would you believe that the #1 answer to 99% of all the questions about failed recipes that come to me is "did you follow the directions". Sometimes the answer is YES! Of course, but then they realize, oops, no they didn't. They used all the correct ingredients but skipped a few steps here and there in the directions. This part is SO important.
You can't mix and match mixing methods or switch out times. Baking is a science and someone spent countless hours perfecting that recipe you're trying and you spent good money on ingredients so don't waste them.
How to follow a recipe successfully
- Read the whole recipe before you start making it.
- Gather all your ingredients together to make sure you aren't missing something. Nothing like stopping mid-mix to go buy oil (guilty of this).
- Bring ALL your cold ingredients to room temp (eggs, butter, milk). This is CRUCIAL to a cake turning out. If you don't do this, often times your batter will break, the center will be doughy or it might not rise. Cake batter is convincing oil and water and dry ingredients to come together as one. For this to be a success, they have to be the same temperature. Now, I have many times forgotten to bring my ingredients out of the fridge before I start baking.To warm up your eggs, place them in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes to warm them up. You can nuke milk for 30 seconds in the microwave to bring the temp up. Butter can be microwaved as well just make sure you don't melt it.4. Measure out all your ingredients in bowls ahead of time so they can easily be reached while mixing. This is called Mise en place (everything in it's place) and yes I do it too, every single time.
- Don't make any adjustments to the recipe until you have at least made it successfully one time.
Cake Decorating Tip #7 - Chilling Your Cakes
Last but not least, I want to talk about chilling yours cakes. I remember hearing in the very beginning of my cake journey that you can't put your cakes in the fridge because if you did, the cakes would sweat and that would ruin the fondant. So when I covered in fondant, I would literally be trying to put it over soft buttercream. It was not pretty.
I distinctly remember making this cake for a friends wedding (yes wedding, lol) and the cake literally split in half while I was trying to frost it. How did people do this? How do you get your cakes to be so straight and pretty with sharp edges?
One of my first HUGE wedding cakes circa 2009. I delivered this cake fully stacked and was not refrigerated. The cake actually slid off the cake board during delivery because we where driving up a STEEP hill. I was so lucky the thing did not topple over. I now always deliver my cakes not stacked, all chilled and boxed individually.
The answer is you CAN put your cakes in the fridge. As Yolanda Gampp says, crumbcoat and chill! YES your cakes will sweat a bit coming out of the fridge but that small amount of condensation is not going to ruin your cake.
That beings said, if you live in an area that has HIGH humidity you might need to put a fan on your cake to get rid of that shine. For instance, you plan on painting on your cake, you take it out of the fridge and it's shiny. You'll want to wait until it comes to room temp before you paint on it. The fan will speed up that process.
Another tip, if you store your cake inside a cardboard box when it's in the fridge, when you take out and go to deliver it, the condensation will collect on your box, not on your cake.
This cake was covered in tiny rolled pieces of fondant because I didn't know how to make a chocolate cigarette as the bride requested lol. During delivery, this un-chilled cake fell to pieces. All the fondant pieces detached every time we went over a bump. The fact we had very bad air conditioning in the car did not help. I think we bought a new car the day after this white-knuckle delivery.
To stop my cake from getting sweaty, I store my cakes in a regular standard freezerless fridge. I have it on the warmest of the cold settings so there isn't a huge gap between room temp and the fridge. You don't want it like a freezer or it will take even longer to come to room temp. Some commercial fridges will make your cakes sweat even more because their fans blow inside the fridge not outside. Weird huh!
So that's it! I just brain-dumped everything I could think of as a "must-know" for any beginner cake decorator. If you already knew all of this stuff then I hope at least you had a good laugh with me. I was just like every other eager newb starting to sell cakes before I knew what I was doing, I under-charged for years (probably still do) and made tons of mistakes. I would like to say I've grown a lot since then and have had a fair amount of what I would call success so there's hope for anyone, lol.
Tip #8 - Want to learn more about the basics of cake decorating? Take our basics series online!
This may or may not be a shameless plug but truly, I wish I had a series of videos to watch when I was first starting out to teach me everything, and I mean EVERYTHING from start to finish on how to make beautiful and successful cakes. If you feel like you're missing something in your process, you might check this out. We're even doing a 7 day free trial right now for new memberships so you literally have nothing to lose <3
Do you have a cake tip? Leave it in the comments below for anyone reading this post