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How to Decorate Your Own Cake: Tips & Ideas

Cake decorating is something that seems like it would be difficult to do but really isn’t. And it can be so much fun.

As long as you have the right tools and some creativity, decorating your own cake can be easy. No more need to rely on grocery stores to provide special occasion cakes!

I took cake decorating classes many years ago when I was in grad school. I was amazed at what I could do after learning just a few basic techniques.

With a few cake decorating tools and the courage to experiment, you’ll be making amazing cakes – as well as cupcakes and cookies – with gorgeous toppings in no time.

In this article I’ll share tips for decorating a cake even if you’re a beginner. We’ll start with an overview of what type of cake to use and then move on to decorating.

Why Decorate Your Own Cake (even if you’re a beginner)

Sure, you can go into just about any bakery and pick up a cake that is already decorated; however, cake decorating can be a fun and relaxing activity! Not only is it a creative hobby, but it’s also a good way for you to have some control over what your cake looks like and what goes into your cake.

Custom cakes are decorated with love! I still remember the cakes my mom made me for birthday parties – far more than any store bought ones. Self-decorated cakes don’t have to be an amazing works of art to be appreciated.

Anyone can order a cake from a bakery. Taking the time to custom decorate a cake, regardless of your skill level, expresses such unique thoughtfulness that your recipient is sure to appreciate.

What Kind of Cake Should You Start With?

The cake part is the base of your entire cake creation so it’s important to get it right.

If you’re a beginner, you can start with an easy from-scratch recipe or a box mix.

I used plain old cake mixes for years because I didn’t want to worry about the cake failing. After a while I learned how to doctor up cake mixes to make them taste even better. These days I like to make cakes from scratch, but I still keep various cake mixes on hand for making quick cakes and cobblers.

You can even buy a pre-baked cake from a local bakery or grocery store so you can focus on the decorating part.

Another fun option is an ice cream cake!

See? There really is no wrong way to do this. (The only thing you don’t want to do is make a cake that isn’t frosted, like a bundt cake.)

The easiest is going to be buying a pre-baked cake with a frosting layer (and maybe even a pipped border) and doing the decorations yourself. Using a box mix is the next easiest option and if you want to go all-in, tackle making the cake from scratch!

What You Need to Decorate Your Own Cake

The cake decorating tools you need depends on a few things:

  1. What kind of cake you want to make (e.g. simple birthday cake vs multi-tiered wedding cake).
  2. What your cake decorating goals are (e.g. do you just want to try decorating one cake or are you planning to decorate your entire family’s birthday cakes next year).
  3. Your skill level (e.g. if you’re a beginner, you probably have few to no decorating tools).

Here are the basic tools you’ll need to get started:

  • Offset spatula (for frosting your cake, filling piping bags, creating designs and patterns in the icing, and fixing minor frosting mistakes)
  • Piping bag (for creating borders, making flowers, writing, etc – you can get reusable bags or single-use bags)
  • Piping tip or tips (you’ll want a few basics like a star tip, rose tip, writing tip, etc – you’ll also want a coupler for the piping bag so you can switch tips while decorating)
  • Gel food coloring (for coloring your icing)
  • Bench scraper (for smoothing the icing and creating designs on the side of the cake)

You can purchase the above items individually or also make it easy on yourself and buy a cake kit that has everything you need to get started.

And, if you want to easily create pretty flowers (especially on cupcakes) you can get a set of Russian tips.

What Kind of Frosting to Use

You’ve got your cake, your decorating tools, and now all you need is frosting! There are several different kinds of frosting you can use…and one you really should not use – store bought frosting in a can.

Don’t do it! While you’ll be able to frost the cake with that icing, you won’t be able to decorate with it very well. Homemade icing is so easy to make and tastes so much better.

If you’re not sure which icing to make, start with something simple like classic American buttercream or cream cheese icing. If you’ve got those down and want to try something new, go for a Swiss merengue.

One note about buttercream. If you make yours with all butter it will taste better but it will melt more quickly than if you use shorting. In my cake decorating classes we always had to use butter flavored shortening because it created a much more stable icing. Just be aware of the difference so you know what you’re getting with butter vs. shortening.

If you’re short on time you could order a bakery cake and see if they would supply you with a tub of their icing. You might even be able to get it pre-colored. Doesn’t hurt to ask, right?

How to Decorate Your Cake

There are countless ways to decorate your cake but here are a few ideas to try.

Beginner/Easy Cake Decorating Styles

Naked Cake. Decorate a naked cake with a thin coat of icing and decor on the top of your cake. This is probably the easiest way to decorate your cake as it looks simple but elegant at the same time! You can add fresh flowers, fresh fruit or other simple designs to the cake or leave it as is.

Simple Piping. Decorating cakes can be done easily and elegantly using a piping bag and tip or two, which you can buy in any craft store or grocery store. Use this technique for writing, making flowers, stars or a shell border.

Sprinkle Cakes. Add a layer of frosting around your cake and then use sprinkles to make the design. You can have a stencil and only add sprinkles to create the design or cover the entire cake in a layer of sprinkles!

Tip: If you like chocolate, I highly recommend using Dutch De Ruijter sprinkles because they actually taste like chocolate and they come in milk, dark, and white chocolate flavors. I keep a box of these sprinkles in my pantry for cakes, cookies, and for making Dutch Hagelslag.

Use a Cake Topper. Decorating your cake with a topper will make it look decorated without requiring too much work. Add a single layer of frosting to your cake and then add the cake topper of your choice. Simple!

Sugared Fruit. This decorating technique is super simple and easy to do even if you’re a beginner! To make sugared fruit, wash and dry fruit. Dip the cut sides of each piece in a simple sugar syrup (equal parts water and sugar heated until it dissolves, then cooled). Arrange decoratively on cake before serving.

Advanced Cake Decorating Styles

Fondant Cakes. This is a more advanced technique. Fondant is a sugar dough that you can roll out and decorate your cake with. It gives your cake a smooth texture you can’t achieve with just icing. You’ll need fondant tools like cutters, a smoother, and wedges/palette knives to make decorating with fondant go smoothly. Depending on how you want to decorate this can be very simple or very complex, and it takes some practice.

Cut out Cakes. If you’re looking for something more advanced this is definitely your technique! You can use cookie cutters to decorate the cake with cut-out shapes. This requires a few things like buttercream, piping bags and decorating tips/nozzles to make this look nice.

Marzipan Decorations. Marzipan is another type of sugar dough (made with ground almonds) that you can use for decorating cakes. It’s something you need to learn how to work with and you’ll need a few specialized marzipan tools to decorate the cakes properly.

Practice Makes Beautiful Cakes

If you’re interested in cake decorating, jump right in! The more you decorate cakes the better you’ll get. Don’t be afraid to try new decorating techniques and styles as well!

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