A layer cake can be simultaneously comforting and sophisticated. But for some folks, making and frosting a layer cake can be a daunting task.
Here's the easy way to frost a cake, from setting the layers and applying the crumb coat, to the finishing frosting and decorating.
Before You Start
But first, before you get started, make sure a few things are set and ready. Follow these three tips to ensure you give yourself the best possible chance to make a great-looking frosted layer cake!
1. Make sure the cake layers are completely cool and at room temperature.
Frosting a just-baked, still-warm cake layer is a recipe for disaster! Let the cakes cool in their pan for 20 to 30 minutes, then unmold them onto a wire rack and let them cool to room temperature, about 2 to 3 hours depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen.
I like to chill the cake for an hour in the fridge, which helps firm up the cake crumb as well, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. It’s just helpful and makes frosting a little bit easier.
2. Slice off the cake domes.
If the cake layers developed a domed top during baking, take the time to level the layers by slicing the top dome off the cake. Again, slicing off a domed cake layer is easier to do if the cake has been chilled in the fridge, but it’s not always necessary.
Save the extra cake scraps as a treat for yourself or repurpose it for another use.
3. Bring your frosting to room temperature.
If you made your frosting ahead of time and stored it in the fridge or freezer, make sure it’s at room temperature as well. Cold frosting is difficult to work with and doesn’t spread easily.
Once the frosting is brought to room temperature, use a mixer on the frosting for 20 to 30 seconds to make sure the temperature and consistency of the frosting is even and to fluff it up again. Stored frosting in the refrigerator or freezer is denser than recently made frosting
What You’ll Need
You don’t need any special tools to frost a cake, but there is some specialty kitchen equipment that will make frosting a cake much easier.
- Stand mixer: It’s not necessary, but if you bake a lot, a stand mixer will make your life significantly easier. The motor of a stand mixer is more powerful than a hand mixer, so butter gets properly creamed with the sugar with minimal effort, which is important for evenly baked cake layers. A stand mixer also enables you to mix and prep the fluffiest, lightest frostings possible in the shortest amount of time.
- Parchment paper: Parchment paper ensures the cake layers won’t stick to the inside of the cake pan. I like to use scraps of the parchment paper to place under the cake as I frost it to help keep the cake plate clean and frosting-free.
- Offset spatula: You can get away with a standard butter knife but an offset spatula is one of my favorite cheap tools in the kitchen. (I wrote all about it here.) The spatula spreads cake batter evenly in the pan, and it makes frosting the cake easier on your wrists too, as you don’t have to twist and contort the wrist as much.
- Turntable: I don’t use my kitchen turntable that often, but every now and then when I’m trying to decorate a cake with an ombre pattern or in a circular pattern, I bust it out. The ability to turn my cake as I frost makes life infinitely easier. And if you find yourself making more elaborately decorated cakes with fondant or piping, the turntable will quickly become your best friend!
- Pastry bags and tips: Like the turntable, I don’t use a lot of pastry bags and tips when making my cakes, mostly because I prefer a simpler aesthetic (like what I can make with a spoon!). But if you like to add ruffles, flowers, or trim to your cake, you need to have a supply of pastry bags and specialty tips.
- Metal bench scraper: Some folks use this to smooth out the frosting on the sides of the cake. I rarely do, as I like my cake to look a little more organic and homemade. But it you want super smooth sides of the cake, a metal bench scraper is the easiest way to do it.
Cake Frosting FAQ
There are always questions about cake frosting! Here a few of the most common I've heard,.
1. What type of frosting goes with what kind of cake?
The mix and matching of cakes and frosting is a personal choice, especially when it comes to flavor combinations! That said, some frostings are sturdier and better for layer cakes.
- American and European buttercreams like Swiss, Italian, German, and French buttercreams are sturdy frostings that are great for layers cakes. Pair our chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream with our vanilla cake, or a French Buttercream with this chocolate cake.
- Ermine frosting is the traditional frosting for a layered Red Velvet cake.
- Cream cheese frosting is a great frosting for this two-layer carrot cake.
- Whipped cream frosting is best used on a sheet cake, as it doesn’t have the stability and firmness to hold up to multiple layers.
2. Do you need to chill cake layers before frosting?
I like to chill my cake layers for up to an hour in the fridge before frosting. Cake, with its delicate crumb, can be fragile as you spread frosting on it; chilling firms it up and makes it more forgiving when you frost it. (Chilling the cake after you apply the crumb coating helps as well for the same reason.)
I’ve also frosted plenty of cakes without chilling the cake layers! As long as you have a completely cooled cake and your kitchen is cool, you’ll be fine frosting the cake as is without chilling it.
3. How much frosting do you need for a cake?
I usually recommend at least 4 to 5 cups of frosting for a two-layer cake and 5 to 6 cups of frosting for a three-layer cake. I also always make a little bit extra just in case. It’s better to make a little extra frosting and have it for decorating than to run out of frosting halfway through and have to make more.
Keep in mind that most extra frosting can be frozen in a resealable ziptop bag if you wish. If I am traveling with the cake, I often bring that spare frosting with me, as a “repair kit” in case of emergency. You never know what could happen in transit!
How to Frost a Layer Cake
Dollop the cake plate or stand with frosting:
Start by placing a dollop of frosting on the cake plate or stand, then place the first layer of cake on top of the frosting, upside down. You want the bottom of the cake, which is the flattest part of the cake, facing up.
The frosting will help “glue” the cake to the plate, making sure it won’t move around as you frost.
Place strips of parchment around the bottom of the cake (optional):
Tuck strips of parchment or wax paper under the cake to protect the plate or stand from crumbs and frosting drips.
TIP: If you usually cut parchment cake rounds from a rectangular piece of parchment, save the trimmed parchment for this exact purpose! The cake-shaped hole you cut out means you can pop that parchment right over and around the cake. It makes cleanup a snap!
Spread frosting over the top of the cake, then add layers and repeat:
Spread about 3/4 to 1 cup frosting on top of the cake bottom, spreading it all the way to the edges. Place a layer of cake, bottom side down, on top of the frosting and then repeat this process if you are doing a three-layer cake.
Pick the flattest cake layer you have for the center cake or trim the cake if it has a dome to make a flat cake layer.
Apply a crumb coating:
The purpose of a “crumb coating” is to seal the cake, trapping any stray crumbs, ensuring the final cake looks its best. If you have ever painted before, think of the crumb coating as a primer coat or an undercoat for your cake!
Once you’ve stacked your desired layers of cake (with frosting in between), apply a crumb coating. Spread a thin coating of frosting all over the top and sides of the cake, pressing the knife or spatula slowly against the cake, then scrape most of the frosting away, scraping away any crumbs as well.
Clean the spatula or knife that you use and discard the frosting filled with crumbs (or save it to make cake pops/truffles). You don’t want to leave excess frosting on the cake, you just want to coat the cake, so the second frosting coat goes on easily.
Chill the cake for 15 to 30 minutes (optional):
Place the cake in the fridge for 15 to 30 minutes to firm up the crumb layer. Firming up the crumb layer of frosting is great if you have a warm kitchen or you plan on doing intricate decorations. If you have a cool kitchen or you’re just going for a more homemade cake with swoops and waves, you can skip this step.
Apply the remaining frosting:
After chilling or once you’re ready, frost the cake with the remaining frosting, decorating it in any manner that you like. My go-to is to use the offset spatula or the back of a spoon to create swoops and waves in the frosting. It’s a classic look that is easy to achieve and is enjoyed by everyone. (Check out my favorite ways to decorate a cake with just a spoon.)
Carefully remove the strips of parchment paper and stand back and admire how gorgeous your cake is. Time to dive in!