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Anyone who has ever set out to create a beautifully frosted cake but ended up shredding it in the process, you should know you're not alone. When it comes to cake frosting, there are specific tips and tricks that can get you the results you're looking for. And none of these expert techniques include store-bought frosting. But even if you do pick up some Duncan Hines vanilla frosting for your mom's birthday cake, these tips can still be helpful. No one wants mom's birthday party to be ruined by…

a bad frosting job.

Frosting Ingredients

The perfect cake frosting technique starts with a good frosting recipe and using the right ingredients. If you're new to baking, you probably don't want to improvise too much. Coming up with your own substitutions without knowing how ingredients work together can turn a perfect cream cheese frosting into cream cheese sauce, or even a flavorless, overly sweet, or overly salty mess.

Here is a buttercream frosting recipe with professional tips for getting the consistency and flavoring just right. To start, be sure you have the right ingredients. Do not use substitutions unless the recipe provides options.

  • Milk
  • Vanilla
  • Softened butter (or margarine)
  • Powdered sugar (also known as confectioner's sugar)

The butter or margarine must be soft so that it mixes well with other ingredients. Note that "softened" is not the same the same as "melted." In the mixing process, sugar creates tiny air bubbles in softened butter, which is what makes the frosting creamy and light. When icing is rich, dense, and heavy, it's difficult to spread on a delicate surface like a moist cake. Butter will soften on its own when left out in room temperature. To test if it's soft enough, the butter will hold its shape, but dents when you press it with your finger. Also, the corners and edges will be slighted rounded. Generally, it takes about 30 to 60 minutes for the butter to soften in room temperature but can take longer depending on the temperature of the butter and the room.

If you don't have 30 to 60 minutes, here are some hacks for softening butter quickly:

  1. Cut the butter into small pieces. Chunks of butter will soften faster than a large stick or a tub of butter. Only leave out the amount your recipe calls for.
  2. Pound the butter with a rolling pin or a tenderizer. Keep the butter from splattering all over your countertops by wrapping it in parchment or wax paper first.
  3. Beat the butter with an electric mixer on low speed.
  4. Microwave the butter in small time increments and check on it to be sure it doesn't get too soft. Place the butter in a microwave-safe bowl, reduce power to defrost (roughly 30 percent power), and check it every 15 seconds. If the butter melts too much, we suggest nuking a new batch for 10-second increments. Do not put melted butter back in the refrigerator and attempt to soften in the microwave again.

Expert Frosting Tips

The first step in most icing recipes is mixing softened butter with the dry ingredients. It's OK to use an electric mixer for this step. Always use the least amounts of ingredients the recipe calls for. You can always add more to thin or thicken the recipe, but you can't take away ingredients. Most recipes even include instructions for correcting icing that needs thinning or thickening. If your buttercream frosting came out too thick with 1 to 2 tablespoons of milk, add more milk in small increments -- up to a teaspoon at a time. If this doesn't fix the problem, it's possible that you used too much butter or too much powdered sugar. If the frosting is too thin, you can thicken it with powdered sugar, added in small increments.

When a recipe calls for vanilla, we suggest using vanilla bean paste, which is the next step after vanilla pods. Vanilla pods can be challenging to work with and not all grocery stores will carry them. Vanilla bean paste is thicker and richer than vanilla extract and may cost a little more too, but the paste and sugar complement each other very well by enhancing sugar's sweetness. That means you may want to use less sugar in this buttercream recipe.

This frosting calls for 1/3 cup of room temperature butter. If you want a frosting that is more dense and rich, baking experts say you can use as much as 3/4 cup of butter. (Before you decide on the consistency of your frosting, you may want to read our "frosting techniques" section.) Baking with unsalted butter is perfectly fine and a great way to decrease your salt intake.

Vanilla frosting, cream cheese frosting, and buttercream frosting are some of the most popular frosting flavors. But what if you want a with pink cake and green icing? Or a black and orange Halloween cake? Is there a way to make a plain white cake frosting pop? Yes, there is. Food coloring can make your plain-Jane icing almost any color under the sun. And a color guide will help you eliminate ruining batches of frosting for coloring trial-and-error. For one brand of food coloring, it takes 6 drops of pink to get a deep, bright pink hue. A tiny drop of pink dye will turn your white icing a light shade of pink. Some colors require more than one food dye, which is where a color guide will come in handy. Make purple icing by combining pink and blue dyes. For blue icing, you can use a drop of blue dye, but for dark blue, you'll need to combine the blue dye with a drop of red. To make yellow-green (or chartreuse, to be exact), you need three dyes: yellow, blue, and brown.

Finally, suppose you want a vanilla-almond buttercream frosting? Or a chocolate buttercream frosting? You don't have to search for a new recipe to get a different flavor. A dash of almond extract will add a buttery, nutty flavor to your vanilla frosting. Grated citrus can give the frosting a touch of orange or lemon flavoring. For chocolate frosting, just add sweetened or unsweetened cocoa powder. You also have the option to add a dash of espresso powder to your recipe. There are tons of different extracts you can use to give your plain vanilla icing more depth and maturity. Check out just a few of your options:

  • Amaretto: A combination of almond and apricot
  • Anise: Subdued licorice flavors
  • Black walnut: Smoky wine aroma and flavors
  • Brandy: Oaky caramel and pear
  • Ginger: Spicy and peppery

Frosting Techniques

Even if your frosting is the perfect flavor, color, and density, you're not in the clear yet. You still need to frost your cake without digging a trench, breaking the cake it in half, or making crumbs. This is something you may want to practice on a sheet cake before attempting a tier cake or layer cake.

Some helpful tools:

Icing spatulas - A straight spatula will help you smooth sides, and an offset spatula is for frosting angles Cake turntable - Use this to spin the cake, so you don't have to lift and reposition it manually. Cake board - Makes transporting your cake from this spot to that spot so much easier. Wax or parchment paper - Well placed pieces of waxed paper can help you get cleaner edges and keep icing off of the fancy cake stand. Even the best pastry chefs have nightmares from time to time about icing littered with cake crumbs. It's pretty easy to avoid making crumbs or to repair crummy icing (can you imagine anything worse than chocolate cake crumbs mixed into your vanilla icing? Or angel food cake crumbs in your chocolate icing?). By making a "crumb coat," you create a thin cake seal and a sturdy base for adding more icing. But before moving on to the second frosting coat, give the cake a 60-minute time out in the fridge so the crumb coat can stiffen. Subsequent layers will go on quickly and smoothly after that.

If you tend to get crumbs in your frosting often, you should rethink your icing technique. You're likely using too little frosting, and when you're spreading the icing on a freshly baked moist cake, the friction causes crumbs to separate from the top of the cake. This is another reason frosting should be light and airy. It takes much less effort to spread and is much more forgiving than thick frosting.

To frost a layer a cake, you need to have a flat cake top. Thanks to gravity, cakes don't leave the oven with hills and valleys, but the top may be rounded. So when the cake is cooling, place it topside down. Now the layers will stack better and more securely. Next, you can prevent the cake from sliding by putting a dab of frosting on the cake stand and placing the bottom layer of cake on the icing.

There's a way to apply frosting in a way that minimizes chances of making a mistake. Spread frosting starting from the middle of the cake outward to the edges. After you're satisfied with the frosting on the bottom level, you're ready for the next level.

There are no rules set in stone regarding how much frosting should be on a cake. Thinking practically, it's best to err on the side of too much icing. You can always scrape off excess frosting, but separating a tier or layer cake to add more icing is way too risky. And if you have plans to decorate the cake with swirls, dips, waves, or icing flowers, wait till the very end, and you're happy with the appearance of your cake and frosting. If you need to some practice, make a little extra icing so you can try decorating on a plate.

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