Every baker and cake decorator has their preferred way to cover a cake with buttercream. Some techniques involve flipping cakes and wrangling special tools — which can be a good idea, but are often unnecessary. This technique is much more low-tech and old school. Just how I like it!
If you make cakes for sale, then it may be worth your time to investigate more complex techniques and invest in specialty tools. No matter which direction you want your caking to take — birthday cakes at home or big fancy wedding cakes for sale — it’s always important to master the basics.
I used Swiss meringue buttercream in the photos below, but the technique is the same no matter which kind of buttercream you use. Not sure what to make? Check out these great buttercream recipes:
- Learn about the different kinds of buttercream and their uses, pros and cons.
- American (or crusting) buttercream recipe
- Italian meringue buttercream recipe
- Swiss meringue buttercream recipe
- Ermine (or cooked flour) buttercream recipe
- Sugar-free buttercream recipe
How to cover a cake with buttercream
- Filled and chilled cake
- Buttercream of your choice
- Icing spatula
- Small bowl
- Bench scraper
- Cake icer tip (optional)
- Piping bag (optional)
Step 1: Prepare your workspace
Before you start frosting your cake, get yourself setup for smoothing success!
Make life easier on yourself and choose a cake stand or plate with a clean, smooth edge. Set your cake stand on top of your turntable, and slide a dampened dishtowel or non-skid plastic matting under the cake stand to prevent it from sliding around while you ice the cake.
Using a turntable makes covering a cake with buttercream infinitely easier, but it is a little bit of an investment. (Well worth it, in my honest opinion!) If you’re looking to get started using what you have on hand, check out my post on hacks for icing a cake if you don’t have a turntable.
Step 2: Crumb coat
If you’re covering a single, unfilled cake, first make sure it has cooled completely before crumb coating. If you’re working on a layer cake, make sure the cake has been thoroughly chilled to ensure that the filling is set and firm.
Start with a thin layer of frosting to fill in gaps and cover the top of the cake
Use an icing spatula (doesn’t matter if it’s straight or offset — use what feels most comfortable to you) to fill in any gaps between your cake layers with additional buttercream. Spread a thin coat of buttercream over the sides of the cake to level everything off and seal in all of the exposed cake. This layer should be very thin, just enough buttercream to make the surface uniform.
Spread a thin layer of buttercream over the top of the cake.
Remember to clean off your spatula
While working on your crumb coat layer, scrape excess buttercream from this step into a smaller, separate bowl to prevent crumbs from getting into your larger batch of buttercream. This step catches the crumbs from your cake (hence, crumb coat) to prevent them from popping up in your final finish.
Smooth the sides of the cake
Once the top has been covered, hold your bench scraper vertically against the side of the cake. Spin the turntable while holding the scraper still to give your sides a final smooth and to push excess buttercream back up over the top of the cake.
Remove the excess buttercream
To clear away the excess buttercream, hold the blade of an icing spatula (straight or offset) horizontally against the top edge of your cake. Swipe the blade over the cake from the outer edge toward the center, scraping off the excess buttercream as you go. Clean your blade in the crumb coat bowl and continue all the way around the cake until it’s smooth enough.
Your crumb coated cake should look something like mine. It’s totally imperfect and that’s totally OK!
This coat is not about perfection, it’s about prepping your cake for what’s to come. Pop the cake in the fridge to allow the crumb coat to firm up and set, at least 10-20 minutes up to overnight.
Step 3: Final coat
Choosing supplies for your final coat
You can complete this next step without a piping tip or piping bag, but I’m hear to tell you that these minor investments are worth the money if you plan on icing more than one cake in your lifetime. Getting a smooth final coat is much easier if the buttercream goes on in an even layer.
If you don’t have these tools on hand, don’t worry: Scooping up the buttercream and smearing it onto the cake will work. Just understand that it may be a more time-consuming process.
You can go halfway and use a piping bag without an icer tip. Just cutting a hole in the bag or using a more standard round tip will achieve the same end goal. The difference is that you’ll have to smooth out some gaps between the piped lines, and you’ll probably end up using more buttercream overall.
Start by piping or smearing buttercream on the cake
If you’re using a piping bag with an icer tip, position the bag so that the long, smooth side of the tip is flat against the side of the cake. Apply pressure to the bag and hold it still while you spin the turntable to allow the buttercream to coat the surface of the cake. Repeat until the sides are mostly covered.
Next, hold the tip directly over the top of the cake. Once again, hold the bag still while applying pressure to it and spin the turntable.
Again, you can do this step with just a spatula. Just make sure to get the layer of buttercream as even as possible all the way around and over the cake.
Smooth the sides of the cake with a bench scraper
Run the blade of your bench scraper under warm water and wipe it dry. Warming the blade helps the buttercream smooth out and eliminate tiny air bubbles that may have appeared.
Hold the icing spatula still against the side of the cake and spin the turntable to smooth the buttercream. Repeat the dipping and smoothing process unit the sides are fairly smooth.
Finish the top of the cake with an icing spatula
Smooth the top of the cake using an icing spatula, working from the center out toward the edges. Allow the excess buttercream to spill over the top of the cake.
Fill in the gaps
Check out the sides of your cake one more time, keeping any eye out for gaps or uneven buttercream. Fill in any gaps or thin spots with extra buttercream.
Time for the final smooth!
Warm up the blade of the bench scraper and use it to smooth the sides of the cake one more time.
Clean up the top edge of the cake the same way you did when crumb coating, working from the outer edge inward. Warm up the blade of the icing spatula same as you warmed the bench scraper to help it move more cleanly through the buttercream.
Repeat this process as many times as you need to until your cake is smooth enough for you! If it’s warm where you live or your buttercream starts to soften because you’ve been working too hard, give yourself and the cake a break. Pop the cake into the fridge and go back to it once both of you have had a chance to chill.