Would you believe me if I told you that once upon a time it took me hours to frost a smooth buttercream cake? It was mainly due to my perfectionism, but also because I didn’t know as much as I do now about frosting techniques. I remember agonizing over every flaw and just smoothing the cake over and over again until I reached a point where I was okay with the finish. These days, I’ve got the frosting process down to about 15 minutes and I can’t wait to share my best tips with you so you can eliminate some of the anxiety that seems to come along with cake decorating.
I’ve got an older video on my YouTube channel that shows some of these smooth buttercream frosting techniques, but I’ve learned even more since then and wanted to shoot a new video with voiceover and more info. This way, you’re more up to speed on my current processes and have something more detailed to reference as you frost your future cakes. Give it a watch before you read all about these frosting tips and techniques below!
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What Kind of Buttercream Works Best?
I use this American Buttercream recipe for everything I do – filling, crumb coating, frosting cakes, piping cupcakes, and beyond. I’ve purposefully tweaked it to be the best consistency for frosting cakes and to make it less sweet than your average American Buttercream. That said, there are a variety of other buttercreams out there and I know everyone has their preferences.
The good news is, no matter what kind of buttercream you’re used to using, these techniques will work just fine for frosting a cake. So whether you prefer Swiss Meringue, Italian Meringue, German Buttercream, stabilized whipped cream, or anything else that’s meant for frosting a cake, you can follow these tips and techniques for best results. They’ll work with all of my frosting recipes (which are all American) but feel free to use your own personal fave and follow along with this post.
3 Tools You Need
The techniques I’m about to share work wonderfully as long as you have the right tools. Here are the ones I’ve come to swear by for every cake I make:
A Cake Turntable: I have an older model of this Wilton turntable that I’ve been using for over a decade. The one I use is currently unavailable on Amazon, but I’ve tried the newer version and I can attest it works just the same. Both have a non-slip center so your cake won’t budge as you’re smoothing buttercream, and both have the smooth rotation you need for achieving a smooth finish.
An Angled Spatula: This 9” Wilton spatula is ideal for applying frosting to the cake and also achieving a smooth, level finish on top. The angle in it gives you more grace as you smooth than a straight spatula would – aka it’s just easier to create those sharp edges around the top (in my opinion).
An Icing Smoother: I don’t know if this Norpro Bench Scraper that I use is technically an icing smoother, but it’s the best I’ve found for the task. It’s easy to hold at a 90-degree angle for getting super straight edges, plus it’s made of stainless steel so it’s easy to clean and apply a small amount of heat if necessary. I’ve tried a lot of icing smoothers in my day, but I always go back to this one.
Start With a Chilled, Crumb Coated Cake
Having a solid foundation for your final layer of frosting is essential, and there’s nothing more solid than a crumb coated cake that’s been chilled for at least 30 minutes.
Crumb coating helps shape the cake’s foundation and reduces the chances that crumbs will end up in your final layer of buttercream. Chilling the crumb coated cake makes all that buttercream firm up so that the layers and fillings don’t shift while you’re frosting on top of them.
Step 1: Frost the Top of the Cake
With your chilled, crumb coated cake on the turntable, use your angled spatula to add a few scoops of buttercream to the top of the cake. Rotate the turntable as you smooth the buttercream down flat.
Holding the angled spatula as parallel to the cake as you can while you rotate the turntable will help you achieve a level finish. Keep smoothing and rotating until your buttercream reaches over the cake’s edge slightly.
If you need to add more buttercream to the top as you go, feel free! But don’t worry too much about getting the top perfect at this point. We’ll be revisiting the top of the cake during Step 3, so the most important goal in this current step is to make sure the frosting is level and reaches over the edge.
Step 2: Frost the Sides of the Cake
Next, use your angled spatula to apply about ¼ inch layer of buttercream all around the sides of the cake. I like to start at the bottom of the cake and work my way to the top.
When the sides are covered, hold your icing smoother at a 90-degree angle parallel with the cake as you rotate the turntable. The tighter you can angle the icing smoother with the sides of the cake, the easier it will be to smooth the cake.
You may find that you need to fill in some gaps in the buttercream after smoothing a few times. If so, just apply more buttercream in those areas and continue smoothing with your icing smoother.
At this point, it’s super helpful to hold your hand directly in front of the cake on the turntable and smooth as you rotate a full 360 degrees. This ensures that you begin and end your smoothing in the same place, reducing the changes of multiple “seams” around the sides of the cake.
Another helpful tip with this step is to gently heat your icing smoother (if it’s made of stainless steel) by running it under hot water, drying completely, and letting it cool slightly before smoothing the cake. This works like an iron running over any wrinkles in your cake finish, but you have to be careful not to get the icing smoother hot enough to melt your buttercream.
Keep going until you’re happy with the finish. If you just can’t seem to get to a place where you’re happy with the sides though, feel free to give this step a rest and move onto Steps 3 and 4. Trust me, moving through to Step 4 will help you get smooth sides quicker than spending too much time agonizing over Step 2!
Step 3: Create Sharp Edges
You’ll notice that Step 2 left you with a buttercream crown around the top edge of the cake. This is what you want, as it’s essential for creating sharp edges.
Using your angled spatula, swipe the outer edges of the buttercream crown toward the center of the cake. You’ll want to make sure you keep your angled spatula as level as possible as you go around the entire top.
Once you’ve got all the edges looking nice and sharp, you’re ready to move on in your decorating process unless you’ve decided that you want the sides of the cake to be smoother. In that case, move on to Step 4.
Step 4 (Optional): Chill and Repeat
If you went through all the previous steps and still feel like your cake could be smoother, the best thing you can do is pop the cake in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. This is much better than agonizing over your cake finish and over-smoothing it. By placing the cake in the refrigerator, you’re allowing the finish to firm up and provide a really sturdy foundation for a final (super thin, super smooth) coat of buttercream.
After refrigerating your cake, repeat Steps 1 through 3, but this time apply a very thin coat of buttercream all over the cake. This coat will fill in any wrinkles and gaps, and since the buttercream layer beneath is so solid, you’re able to apply more pressure and get a smooth finish in a more failproof way.
Once you’re happy with the smooth cake finish, you can move on to the next steps in your decorating process. I’ll be applying sprinkles to the sides of this cake in an upcoming Cake Basics post, so stay tuned for my methods on that! And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to post them below.
Want more Cake Basics? Head here to see all of the posts and learn the methods of caking I’ve come to love over the years. I’m cheering you on every step of the way!
This is amazing thank you. It is reassuring to know that the process takes a pro like you a while as I always feel like it becomes an icing obsession. As always thank you for sharing 🙂
Yes, Chesca! I totally feel you on the icing obsession! It takes a lot of practice but after awhile you’ll get quicker 🙂
Thank you so much, Whitney, for the excellent video. I have all the tools you use, except I have the Ateco cake stand and a different scraper. I like the scraper you use, so I ordered it today from Amazon. Love your videos and tutorials. Attempting another one of your magnificent cake creations today..wish me luck!!!
Hope you are doing well!! Bet you are excited!!!!
Yay! So happy this video is helpful and I’m excited for you to try the icing scraper!
Alphonso Cooper says
How much icing do you use to cover a 6in and 8 in. Love your work!
Hi Alphonso! Thanks so much for your kind words 🙂 to cover a 6in cake + an 8 inch cake (once they’ve been filled and crumb coated), I would use a double batch of this vanilla buttercream recipe: https://sugarandsparrow.com/vanilla-buttercream-recipe
Linda Deross says
Thank you for the professional tips. You make it look so simple and using the right tools make a big difference.
Thank you so much, Linda! Happy to help!
Pamela Namakando says
Hi excellent video very helpful, what size of cake board did you use
Thanks so much, Pamela! I used a 6 inch cake circle for this 6 inch cake. You’ll want to use the same size cake circle for whatever size cake you’re building on top of it.
Nice, I really learned a lot from your tips
Yay, that makes me so happy!!
Nicole Knapp says
Thank you for this! I get really frustrated when I’m trying to smooth my icing and it sort of drags and ruins the cake and I have to go back and try again. Your tips are very helpful.
So happy to hear that these tips are helpful, Nicole!
Jane Evans says
Got my daughters birthday coming up and will definitely be using your tips..Jane
Yay, Jane! Excited for you to make a cake for your daughter’s birthday and hope these tips help!
Valerie Lynne Foster Dillard says
please tell me how to get thos perfect cake layers from start to finish please
Hi Valerie! I have an entire Cake Basics series that walks you through everything you need to know: https://sugarandsparrow.com/category/cakebasics/
What’s the process to have the buttercream on the cake in different coloured stripes? I want to make a cake for a birthday but can’t find any info on that…
Hi Christine! I have a tutorial for striped buttercream here: https://sugarandsparrow.com/striped-buttercream-cake-tutorial/ hope that helps!
I get frustrated each time I try this,I bought all necessary equipments ( except a turntableand still cant get it right) but ur explanation makes it so simple,will they again,luv u
Hi Gbemi, the turntable is actually super important for this technique, so if you do want a smooth buttercream cake I recommend investing in one. It’s nearly impossible to get a smooth buttercream finish without it!
This is so helpful. What are your tips for moving the cake from turntable to plate/cake stand?
Hi Amy! I’m actually working on a tutorial for that topic and hoping to get it out soon as part of my Cake Basics series! Here’s how I do it: I make sure the cake is chilled for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator (or until the buttercream is firm), then heat up an angled metal spatula under hot water and run it around the bottom edge of the cake to make a clean separation between the frosting and the turntable. Then I slide the spatula underneath the cake to lift it and balance it on the spatula and my hands while I move it to the cake stand. Since the buttercream is so cold it doesn’t end up messing up the cake finish to hold the cake for a second. Hope that helps!
So helpful, thank you! Love your work.
Yay, Amy! So happy to hear this post is helpful!
Envision Droplets says
can we use one of those rubber spatulas?
Hi there! I have never tried this technique with a rubber spatula before, but you are more than welcome to experiment!
What temperature is the buttercream you use? Do you cool it at the same time as your cake for the crumb coat or leave it at room temperature? Thank you
Hi Jenna! I always use room temperature buttercream for decorating cakes. I leave it covered at room temperature in between coats. The only time it gets chilled is after applying it to the cake 🙂 Hope that helps!
How would we get smooth icing on a shaped cake? I’m making one this week that is shaped like a number three, so would it be harder to get smooth icing?
Hi Nat! I’ve actually never smoothed a shaped cake before, so I don’t have a go-to technique. I would look around on YouTube and see if there are videos that show different techniques for smoothing a number or letter cake and go from there. Hope that helps!
Thanks so much. Question: I only have a hand mixer but no paddle attachment. Can I just use the stainless steel attachments it came with?
Hi Diane! Sure, those will totally work.
Hi! This recipe is just awesome!!! Loved it! The buttercream came soo perfect! I am a new baker and the tips on your page are just amazing. Thank you!!!!
Also, hellow from Portland too!!!
Yay, Shabina! That makes me so happy to hear that my blog has been helpful. Thanks for taking the time to let me know 🙂 And so fun that you’re from Portland too!
I am making a 6 inch 3 layer cake… crumb coat and frosting…I also am planning on decorating with some icing tips… should I make 2 1/2 times the recipe for the American buttercream? That is a great buttercream. Also after I frost the cake do I decorate immediately or does the cake need to go in the fridge for some time?
hello whitney ,
how many times and for how long do you refrigerate your cake in the fridge?
Hi Sabrine! I refrigerate for about 30 minutes after crumb coating the cake, then for about 20-30 minutes after each frosting layer. I usually only apply 1-2 layers of frosting after the crumb coat. Hope that helps!
Thank you so much for posting this! These are very helpful tips
Of course! So happy to help, Elli!
Maria Sher says
Thank you so much for the tips. I am always having trouble with smoothing my cake and now I know its because of the thick buttercream.
Love your work its easy to follow.
Yay! So happy to help, Maria!
Thank you – this is so informative and helpful!
Happy to help, Helena!
Jane Gregory says
Just lately my buttercream seems very ‘holey’ when I smooth it. I always mix it on low to finish it off & mix by hand afterwards to get rid of some of the air bubbles. I can’t understand what I am doing wrong! Do you think the buttercream could be too soft/not soft enough? I have been icing cakes for a long time now and just don’t know what’s going on. Help!
Hi Jane! It sounds like your buttercream has air bubbles in it. Something that I’ve found that helps with that is: after mixing up the buttercream, put it in an airtight container at room temp for about 30 min or longer. Then, add the buttercream back into your stand mixer and mix it on low/stir speed for about a minute. For some reason it gets rid of all of the air bubbles! Give it a try next time and see if that works.
Do you use medium or thin consistency buttercream for your fillings?
Hi Rebecca! I use medium consistency for filling a cake. If it’s too thin it can end up oozing out the sides in the stacking process. Here’s some more info on how I fill and stack cakes: https://sugarandsparrow.com/fill-and-stack-cake-layers/
What colour and brand did you use to colour the buttercream?
Hi Mandy! For this cake I used a little bit of AmeriColor Turquoise: https://amzn.to/3f4BUBx
Hi Whitney! I love the looks of your cakes, it is so clean!
Have you ever get big air bubbles between the cake and the buttercream? I am having some lately, and I can’t find why!
Any advice that you have would be great!
Thanks so much for the kind words about my cakes, Isabel! And ah yes, air bubbles. They can be so frustrating! The only time I have had them happen is when a cake goes from the cold refrigerator to a very warm environment and heats too quickly. Basically any air trapped inside the cake or frosting (inevitable) expands too quickly when the environment is too warm and results in an air bubble. The only thing you can really do to prevent them is to make sure you gently let your cake come to room temp before introducing it to warmer environments. If air bubbles still happen, you can poke them with a toothpick and press the air out with a spatula to flatten the buttercream. Hope that helps!
sarah macartney says
Hi! How many sponges/ cake tins needed for a cake this size? Thank you
Hi Sarah! I used three 6 inch layers (my tins are 2 inches tall) for this size. So happy these tips are helpful!
Nabila Atwas says
Thank you so much for these tips. My worry is when using the Italian meringue buttercream.
do you have to chill the cake after you crumb coat it? will coating the final layer wont be affected by the temp of the chilled cake? like affecting the texture of the buttercream when final coating the cake? This has happened to me before and I don’t know how to avoid this, or do I need to bring a chilled cake (that has been chilled for not more than 30 min) to a room temp before working on a final coat?
Hi Nabila! I’ve never used Italian meringue buttercream before so I can’t say for sure. I use American buttercream for everything I do. The purpose of chilling the cake after crumb coating is to lock in the crumbs and the shape of the cake. This way the layers don’t slide around while you’re applying your final layer of frosting. If this technique doesn’t work for Italian meringue buttercream though, you’ll need to revise your process accordingly. I’ll let you know if I ever end up trying that frosting in the future so I can speak to it better!
Thank you for all of the tips! When do you add the coloring to tint the buttercream? Do you adjust the amount of milk you add depending on how much food color you add so it doesn’t affect the consistency of the buttercream? I will probably use a soft gel paste. Maybe this is obvious question…I find if you are tinting it a darker colour, it can make the buttercream more runny.
Hi Shawna! You can add the color gel right after you make the buttercream. If you’re using soft gel paste, there should be no need to adjust the amount of milk – those are designed to be added to buttercream without affecting the consistency. What color are you planning on making? If it is a dark color, it’s best to start with a darker buttercream (like chocolate) so you don’t have to add too much color gel.
Maria Colomer says
This is a very helpful post and video. I do have one question. Have you ever had Your buttercream on your cake crack? I have had this happen a few times after frosting decorating and chilling a cake once it was pulled out and come to room temperature. Any advice?
Hi Sarah! What kind of buttercream are you using when that happens? I always use American buttercream and have never had issues with cracking!