Every pastry chef should have some cake decorating techniques tucked beside their bench scraper and spatula. This holds true whether you want to spend your life creating seven-tier cake masterpieces, are just getting good at making cupcakes for your kiddos, or are still exploring baking and pastry careers.
With creativity in hand and these seven basic techniques in your toolbelt, you’ll be able to make your cake sketches come to life.
1. Spatula Icing
Just like a room requires a good coat of paint before its decor can shine, the first step to a beautiful cake is a flawless coat of icing.
While the pros make icing a cake look easy, you’ll need the proper tools and some practice to master this technique. A pastry spatula is the easiest way to apply icing, no matter if you’re aiming for a smooth coating or textured finish.
Some designs to practice include smooth coatings, vertical lines, and the spatula painting technique shown below.
If you work in cake decorating, you won’t be able to escape piping. Everything from elegant tiered wedding cakes to playful birthday sheet cakes rely on this classic technique.
Before you begin piping, you’ll need to fill a pastry bag with icing and choose the proper tip. Since piping tips come in a variety of shapes and sizes, make sure you pick the one that will allow you to complete your desired design.
While some cake decorators use their pastry bag like a paintbrush and let their creativity shine, there are some fundamental piping techniques most pastry chefs should have in their repertoire.
Stars are made using a star tip and a single squeeze of the pastry bag. Use multi-colored stars as stand-alone decorations or combine them to create textured tops or borders.
Dots are created much like stars, but with a round rather than star tip.
Rosettes add a floral-inspired element with a limited amount of work.
Shells are the foundation of one of the most popular cake borders, but they can also be used to cover a cake with a subtle texture.
Zig-Zags are just like what they sound like. You can use them to create borders, cover sides, or fill in shapes.
3. Fondant Work
Fondant, a rollable icing, is another tool that should be in any cake decorator’s toolbox. Once you get the hang of working with this flexible yet stable material, you’ll be able to add new styles to your cake decorating skills.
Pastry arts professionals at the very least should practice covering a cake in fondant to create a smooth and elegant appearance. Once you’ve mastered covering a cake, you can then explore adding designs and texture to the fondant.
Along with fully coating cakes, you should eventually be able to use fondant to create shapes and structures. These include everything from simple polka dots to intricate flowers. If you’re looking to create extravagant cakes such as those found on shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss, continue to sharpen your fondant skills.
4. Hand Painting
Once you’re comfortable with fondant, it’s time to add some flair to your cakes with hand painting. As the term suggests, hand painting involves using edible pigments to paint designs on a fondant canvas. Decorators can use this technique to create simple shapes like dots and lines or complete scenes that rival the works of Vincent van Gogh.
This technique may involve freehanding a design or using a template or stencils to help guide your work.
5. Sugar Work
While sugar work is a more advanced technique, it helps cake decorators stand out from the crowd.
Much like artists using molten glass to create bowls and sculptures, sugar work involves crafting melted sugar into exquisite shapes and forms. Once you become comfortable with this technique, you’ll be able to adorn cakes with sugary swirls and sweet sculptures.
Airbrushing uses an air gun similar to that used by car detailers and graffiti artists. But rather than working on rims and underpassses, pastry artists work on cakes.
This technique is similar to hand painting in that it allows you to add color to a cake after you’ve finished with your icing or fondant. However, airbrushing allows for quicker coverage as well as seamless blending of colors.
If you’re aiming for an ombre effect, airbrushing is the technique to use.
7. Mirror Glaze
If fondant and buttercream icing are the equivalent of a matte paint, then a mirror glaze is akin to a high-gloss finish. This technique involves combining gelatin, sugar, and other ingredients until they reach the perfect temperature. At this point, the satiny mixture is poured over a chilled cake.
A mirror glaze can produce the marbled colors seen on the cake above as well as solid hues.
Improve Your Cake Decorating Skills With a Pastry Arts Education
Maybe you’ve been baking cakes at home for years and are looking to turn your hobby into a career. Or maybe you’ve just realized that you can chase your dream of becoming a wedding cake designer. No matter the case, a formal education can provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to follow your pastry passion.
By enrolling in Escoffier’s Baking & Pastry Arts program and taking cake decorating classes, not only can you learn how to seamlessly coat a cake with fondant and pipe a straight line, but you can also learn important baking and pastry fundamentals. This well-rounded education can provide you with the skills you need to bake delicious and stable cakes that serve as canvases for creative design work.
“The challenge in the wedding cake world is that your wedding cake needs to be sculptural and attractive, but it’s also dessert. So it has to be tasty. I think the hardest part of being a wedding cake designer is creating that balance between sculpture and flavor.”*
Chef Steve Konopelski, Escoffier Pastry Arts Chef Instructor
Pastry school also provides you the opportunity to practice new skills and make mistakes in a relatively low-stakes environment. Take the first step to pastry arts mastery, and talk to us about how a degree or diploma program could be the best next step for you.
Other baking and pastry articles you may want to check out next:
- What are the Baking and Pastry Arts…and is it a Career for You?
- How to Become a Pastry Chef
- 8 Skills That Every Baker Should Have
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.