Whether you’re trying to please your family after dinner or want to impress complete strangers on social media, it’s hard to go wrong with a really cute cake. The Great British Cake and cake influencers have convinced everyone that colorful buttercream is the pinnacle of the art of baking. Luckily for the aspiring cake magician, a few specialist tools are all that stands between you and the glory.
“You don’t need a ton of tips to make a pretty cake,” explains Zoë François, pastry chef, author of Zoë bakes cakes, and soon to be TV host of Zoe cooks on the Magnolia network. “I think practice is really the thing. Just bake a lot of cakes.
You’ll hear something similar from chef-owner Michelle Hernandez, who bakes dazzling cakes at Pastry shop Le Dix-Sept in the mission district of San Francisco. “I don’t think you should start by buying fondant or gum paste or too many things that you can’t ever use again,” Hernandez says. “You have to find out what works for you. Just start with the basics, then build from there.
You may already have the necessities for baking a cake like a stand mixer, heavy gauge round pans, and maybe a cake pan. Some kitchen utensils can also be used for dual use: tweezers for priming, a mandolin to slice decorative fruit, a Silpat for baking toppings, an infrared thermometer to measure buttercream as you work it to the perfect consistency. But there are still a few dedicated tools that will take you from slapdash cup cake to multi-layered beauty.
When entering the world of specialty cooking tools, be aware of the paint brushes and sculpting tools. You can always build your collection later. Instead, here are the articles Francois and Hernandez suggest to help you get your cakes off the ground and on the Gram.
There is no shortage of love on the internet for the offset spatula, aka palette knife. It is the perfect tool for applying a base coat of buttercream, and it can be used to sculpt designs Where paint on colored glazes. The standard version with a rounded tip works for most tasks, although Hernandez also suggests blades of different shapes for sculpting and painting designs.
Hernandez recommends starting with a small 6 inch blade, as opposed to the 8-10 inch palette knives you might see on TV. “For someone new to smoothing icing, it will be easier to start with a smaller palette knife,” she says. “They’re going to want to learn the movement of their hand, how to whirl and everything.” Matfer Bourgeat Offset Spatula, $ 14 at Amazon
Buttercream filling is perhaps the most glamorous part of cake decorating, so it’s important to arm yourself with a working piping bag and proper piping tips.
Pastry bags come in many sizes and materials, including disposable plastic and reusable options like nylon and canvas. François suggests opting for a reusable bag (“We don’t need more plastic in the world”). A 16 inch bag is Goldilocks size for beginners, not so small that it needs to be constantly stocked, but not so large that it feels unwieldy. Look for a lightweight material that easily responds to pressure. Hernandez also recommends a 16-inch bag to start with, but notes that large cakes require a bigger bag. Lightweight Wilton 16 inch pastry bag, $ 5 at Amazon
Don’t be tempted by bit sets, which tend to be included with options that end up gathering dust in a drawer. Instead, buy round, star, and pink tips in a few sizes. With these, “you can really do everything I’ve ever done on Instagram,” Francois says. The round tip provides a smooth finish. With the star tip, you can create borders of seashells, stars and rosettes. A rose tip can be used for many flowers, not just its namesake. If you want to make roses specifically, Francois says you’ll need a flower nail as well, which makes it easier to make individual flowers by placing petals on the nail as it spins between your fingers, saving you from having to risking the appearance of your cake set by directly applying the decoration. Ateco round tip, $ 1 at Webstaurant Store | Ateco star tip, $ 1 at the Webstaurant store | Wilton’s Petal Tip, $ 5 at Amazon
It can be maddening to try to smooth the buttercream when your cake is placed on a regular plate. No matter how delicately you rotate, the icing will show off the jumps and starts indicative of an amateur operation. What you need is a cake turner.
“Even if you are just starting out and you’re on a tight budget, this is a place I would splurge. Any pastry chef is better than nothing, ”says François. While a lazy Susan will do in a pinch, professional cake turners are weighted into the base, allowing them to turn smoothly forever without tossing your cake like a bucking bronco. Ateco Rotating Cake Stand, $ 57 at Amazon
Nylon paste scraper
Bakers often use a metal bench scraper in conjunction with a cake turner, holding the scraper to the side of the cake as it rotates to create a perfectly clean edge in the buttercream. Hernandez recommends a soft nylon version from France, sometimes referred to as a “scraper”. The flat edge can be used as a bench scraper, while the round edge is great for hollowing out bowls. “It’s not very common here, but I haven’t found anything like it in the United States,” Hernandez says. “This is the number one tool people should have in their kitchen, for decorating cakes or not.” Matfer Bourgeat Nylon Dough Scraper, $ 12 at Amazon
Gel-based food coloring
Much like decorating cookies, you’ll need gel-based food coloring to create vivid cakes. Avoid the water-based dyes found in small tubes at the supermarket, which are so weak that they will produce pastels instead of the bold, saturated tones. Natural dye is also great, but don’t expect exact results. For her recent cookbook, Françoise played with the beetroot-based red dye, which reacts to acid, for a red velvet cake. It came out purple. Liqua-Gel Food Coloring Kit, $ 22 Chefmaster
You can go pretty far by outfitting your kitchen with all of the above, but a few additional purchases can improve the structural integrity of your cakes and add an instant touch without much extra work.
If you’ve come to this list looking for cake tips, meet the decorating comb. Scraped down the sides of a cake like a bench scraper, a comb produces even, raised textures in the buttercream. Each edge of the three-sided comb makes a different pattern. This is the fastest way to take your basic icing job into a fancy one. Ateco Aluminum Decorating and Icing Comb, $ 1 at Webstaurant Store
Rule and level
Hernandez builds cakes like an architect. A ruler helps you avoid looking at the height of a cake, while a level ensures each layer is even before stacking on the next. Don’t bother paying too much at Sur la Table for these everyday items, however. Options from hardware stores like Home Depot or art supply stores like Blick will do just fine.
“Most of the time it will be cheaper,” Hernandez says, but “that’s not going to say ‘it’s also good for cakes’ because it’s for building a house.” Look for food grade materials like stainless steel and avoid wood. Blick Aluminum Triangles, from $ 6 at Blick | Empire Polycast Torpedo Level, $ 3 at Home Depot
After all that hard work, don’t spoil the look of your cake with a mediocre serving dish. You can always grab a bunch of decorative cake boards, but Francois prefers a simple cake stand, something understated that will let the cake – and all your hard work – shine. BIA Cordon Bleu porcelain cake stand, $ 36 at Amazon