How to decorate a cake - piping and simple decorations

Want to create a coffee shop classic in the comfort of your own home? Follow our simple guide to beautifying your bakes.

Cake being iced with buttercream

Using buttercream 

Cupcake being iced with buttercream
Use buttercream to pipe icing swirls on cupcakes, retro rosettes on cakes and to give cakes a 'frosting'. 

To make buttercream, sieve the icing sugar into slightly softened butter (for quantities, see our Vanilla cake recipe) and beat or whisk to combine. The mixture should be fairly firm to hold its shape well but not rock hard or you won't be able to achieve a smooth finish. So chill or leave a little longer at room temperature as necessary.

Watch our video on how to ice a cake with buttercream.


Red velvet cupcakes being iced
Drop the nozzle into a piping bag. For cupcakes and rosettes a large star works well, for writing a fine round one is best. 
Fill no more than two thirds full with icing, twist and hold the end with one hand (usually your writing hand) and rest the tip of the bag in your other hand. Squeeze the icing at the top (not the middle!) of the bag to eliminate air bubbles. Do a little test squirt before starting on your cupcake or cake.

For cupcakes, hold the bag vertically and pipe a ring of icing around the edge of the cupcake. Pipe a small spiral overlapping the ring, stop pressure when the bag is in the centre of the swirl, then push the bag down and draw up sharply to finish. 

For rosettes, hold the bag in the same way, pipe a little dollop in one place, push the bag down and draw up sharply to finish. 
If the peak is too high or wispy, you can dab your finger in water and press it down a little. 

For writing icing, sieve icing sugar into a bowl and gradually beat or whisk in a few drops of water until you have a thick, smooth paste. 
To write or draw lines, hold the bag at a 45 degree angle, a little away from the surface, squeeze the icing out with a constant pressure, and let the line of icing fall naturally into place as you guide it. Try not to pull the piping bag before the icing has met the surface, as you'll get an uneven thickness. 

To make dots, hold the bag vertically with the nozzle close to the surface, squeeze a little icing out to make a dot the desired size, then to finish, stop squeezing, push down and then draw up sharply. 

Watch our video on how to decorate a cake for more piping techniques:


Covering a cake 

Cake icing being smoothie with knife
Spoon a large dollop of softened (but not runny or melty) buttercream onto the centre of the cake. Use a spatula/ palette knife to paddle the icing to the edges of the cake. 

For the sides, use the spatula/ palette knife to smear smaller amounts of icing in sections, turn the cake and repeat. 

For a smooth finish you can use a long palette knife or ruler. Hold the ruler flat at the edge of the cake furthest from you and drag it towards you. Repeat if necessary. 

For the edge take your palette knife/ or a plastic side scraper (available from cake decorating websites) in one hand at 90 degrees to the cake. Use the other hand to spin the cake. This is easiest on a turntable as you can do it in one movement. If not, you may need to do this in sections and smooth any joins with the palette knife. 

To get a feathered 'frosty' effect, simply press the flat side of a palette knife or spatula onto the cake and lift. Repeat over the entire cake.

Flowers, crystallised and fresh 

Flower shortbreads on counter
Choose your favourite edible flowers or leaves (eg. lavender, mint leaves, pansies, primroses, rose petals, violas, violets). Use them to decorate as they are or crystallise them. To crystallise, lightly whisk an egg white. Use a paintbrush to gently apply the egg white to the flower, leaf or petal. Sprinkle over caster sugar and shake off the excess. Put on a tray lined with baking parchment. Leave overnight in a warm, dry place. Store in a sealed container with layers of parchment.

Simple modelling 

Cupcakes with icing roses
Follow Jane Hornby's Simple sugar roses recipe

Especially popular with kids, sugarpaste or marzipan figures make a great addition to a themed cake. You can get lots of ideas from books or photo-sharing websites, start simple and work your way up! Check out our Rocky robin cake. Lots of you sent us pictures of yours last year and they looked great!

Sweet and chocolates 

Cupcakes topped with sugared almonds
You can use all sorts of sweets and chocolates to give different effects be it childlike, funky, glamorous or girlie. We've used lollipops, liquorice, chocolate buttons, mini marshmallows and sugared almonds to name just a few.

Fruit and nuts 

Don't underestimate the power of a plump fresh raspberry or golden brown walnut perched on top of your bakes.

Readymade decorations 

There are plenty of pre-made decorations available from supermarkets and specialist cake decorating shops. Sprinkles are great for kids' cakes, coloured sugar can add a pretty finish and sugar flowers are ideal for springtime bakes.

Let us know your cake decorating ideas and tips...

Baking masterclass promotional banner

Comments, questions and tips

Sign in or create your My Good Food account to join the discussion.
applepie16's picture
28th Jun, 2016
thanks this really helped me get the hang of piping!
15th Apr, 2016
Thank you for the lovely post, which is all about awesome cake decoration but there are some funniest mistakes in cake decoration which i want to share is This post is too funny to checkout.
18th Jan, 2015
I tried Jane Hornby's Simple sugar roses recipe, it was easy and effective. For a Bridal Shower, I made three jumbo roses in the different pink colours and three jumbo green leaves, dusted them with sparkle sugar and arranged them off-centre on a round cake iced with ivory buttercream. I made two dozen cupcakes, iced with the ivory buttercream and decorated each one with three mini roses and mini leaves, dusted with sparkle sugar. I arranged the cupcakes around the big cake on a large square silver cakeboard, and the display looked very pretty. Quick, easy and effective, and you can make the roses and leaves days before you need them.
Be the first to ask a question about this recipe...Unsure about the cooking time or want to swap an ingredient? Ask us your questions and we’ll try and help you as soon as possible. Or if you want to offer a solution to another user’s question, feel free to get involved...
Emm Pons's picture
Emm Pons
27th Sep, 2016
Dust the surface with icing then roll out the good~stuff