Icing The Cake—Baking Tips From A Pro Chef

From the lecture series: The Everyday Gourmet — Baking Pastries and Desserts

By Chef Instructor Stephen Durfee, The Culinary Institute of America

Making and applying cake frosting is not as daunting as you might think. With a few basic tips, you’ll be making bakery-quality works of art right in your own kitchen!

Cutting the Cake

Cutting the cake properly is the first step in successful cake frosting. It’s not unusual for a finished cake to form a dome. To make it level for frosting, trim the top with a long, serrated cake knife. The trimmings can be dried out and ground to make cake crumbs for another use.

To divide the cake into layers, hold the serrated knife level about one-third of the way down the cake and make a score mark around the outside by turning the cake and sawing a bit back and forth. Once you’ve gone all the way around, push the knife forward and cut toward the center; this method generates fewer crumbs. Take the top third off and repeat the process for the next layer. Sweep away any crumbs on your work surface so they don’t appear on the finished cake.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Baking Pastries and Desserts. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A turntable allows you to get an even, level distribution of buttercream for cake frosting, but you can also hold the cake in the palm of your hand. If you’re using a turntable, place a piece of cardboard on top as a base for the cake, and make sure you place the cake in the center.


To frost a cake, first even off the top by trimming with a serrated knife. Create layers by scoring around the outside of the cake, and then cutting through the center. Make each layer of frosting about half the thickness of the layer. Seal the edge of the crumb coat (on the top layer) with a palette knife, add a little more frosting for the finish coat, and decorate with a topping, such as crumbs of croquant.

Learn more about several basic techniques and methods you can expand on to make a wide range of unforgettable desserts

Frosting the Layers

Make each layer of cake frosting about half the thickness of the cake layer itself. Remember, you’re making a birthday cake, not a birthday frosting, so the emphasis should be on the cake!

When you add the second layer on top of the first, press it flat with your hand; if the cake is delicate or moist, press it with a second piece of cardboard. Use the same amount of frosting on the second layer as you did on the first.

For the finish coat, add a little more frosting across the top and sides, if necessary.

Try to get an even layer across the top without any crumbs. To form the crumb coat, hold your palette knife at an angle close to the blade and seal the edge. At this point, you may want to refrigerate the cake to give the crumb coat a chance to firm up before you apply the finish coat.

Slip your palette knife between the bottom of the cake and the cardboard to remove the cardboard and transfer the cake to a presentation plate.

French-Style Buttercream: A Luxurious Cake Frosting


  • 12 oz sugar
  • 4 oz water
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 16 oz butter softened
  • flavoring as needed vanilla extract and brandy

Cooking Instructions

French-style buttercream is an incredibly rich and luxurious frosting with a wonderful mouthfeel. Other types of buttercreams are made with egg whites only and are meringue based.

We start by making a mixture called a sabayon, a sauce consisting of egg yolks, sugar, and wine, liqueur, or brandy. First, heat sugar and water to make a syrup and then add a little bit of vanilla extract and brandy. To the syrup, add egg yolks and put the mixture over hot water on the stove.

Be careful that the flame is not so high that it starts to come up over the sides of the pan.

Cook and stir until the egg yolks start to thicken, which may take some time— 2 or 3 minutes. Look for the egg yolk mixture to “hold a ribbon,” meaning that when you pull the mixture up and drape it over itself, you will be able to see some shape in the eggs. If you can see the bottom of the bowl when you’re whisking, that’s also a good indication that the mixture is thickening.

Learn more about everything you need to know about flaky dough

As with any other cooked-egg mixture, such as the crème anglaise we made earlier, there is a danger of overcooking, so be careful that you don’t go too far.

cake frosting

Transfer the sabayon to a mixer and whip it on high speed until it cools to room temperature. Add the softened butter after the mixture has cooled; otherwise, the butter will melt, and you won’t get the volume or texture you’re looking for in the finished product. Add the butter in pieces, allowing it to blend into the sabayon.

Again, if the butter is too hard, it won’t blend in, and you’ll end up with a lumpy mixture. Wait for each piece to blend in before you add more.

Learn more about tips and tricks for wowing your dinner guests with delectable egg-based custards

Once you’ve added all the butter, turn the mixer back up to high speed to make sure that it’s thoroughly incorporated. Use the finished buttercream to frost a cake or freeze it for future use.

Common Questions About Cake Frosting

Q: Is there a difference between frosting and icing?

The main difference between frosting and icing is that frosting is usually thicker, creamier, and softer. Frosting is made with a different method than icing, which is thin and brittle and used largely on pastry and cookies, while frosting is mostly used on cakes.

Q: What are the most popular types of cake frosting?

There are a huge variety of frostings, but the most popular are buttercream, cream cheese and whipped cream frosting.

Q: Do cupcakes go best with icing or frosting?

The cupcakes you see in the store generally have a thick creamy frosting on them. Icing is used more for pastries and cookies.

Q: Should you put a cake in the refrigerator before frosting it?

Yes, even when cooled at room temperature, a properly cooked cake will be fragile. Cooling it before frosting helps thicken the fat and firm the cake up to be able to handle the pressure of frosting.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

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