Whether you’re trying to treat your family to an after-dinner showstopper or you want to impress total strangers on social media, it’s hard to go wrong with a very pretty cake. The Great British Bake Off and cake influencers have convinced everyone that a colorful buttercream stunner is the peak of baking artistry. Luckily for the aspiring cake wiz, a few specialized tools are all that stand between you and glory.
“You don’t need a ton of stuff to make a pretty cake,” says Zoë François, pastry chef, author of Zoë Bakes Cakes, and soon-to-be TV host of Zoë Bakes on the Magnolia Network. “I think practice is really the thing. Just make a lot of cakes.”
You’ll hear something similar from chef-owner Michelle Hernandez, who turns out dazzling cakes at Le Dix-Sept Patisserie in San Francisco’s Mission District. “I don’t think you should start off going all the way to buying fondant or gum paste or too many things you may never use again,” Hernandez says. “You need to find out what works for you. Just start with the basics and then build from there.”
You may already have the necessities to bake a cake like a stand mixer, heavy-gauge round pans, and maybe a bundt pan. Some cooking tools can also serve double duty: tweezers for primping, a mandoline for slicing decorative fruit, a Silpat for baking garnishes, 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 mug cake to multi-layered beauty.
As you enter the world of specialty baking tools, hold off on the paint brushes and sculpting tools. You can always build up your collection later. Instead, here are the items François and Hernandez suggest to help you get your cakes off the ground and onto the Gram.
There’s no shortage of love on the internet for the offset spatula, aka palette knife. It’s the perfect tool for applying a base layer of buttercream, and it can be used to carve designs or paint on colored icings. The standard version with a rounded tip works for most tasks, though Hernandez also suggests blades in various shapes for carving 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 who is new to smoothing out icing, it will be easier for them to start out with a smaller palette knife,” she says. “They’re going to want to learn the motion of their hand, how to make swirls and everything.” Matfer Bourgeat offset spataula, $14 at Amazon
Piping buttercream might be the most glamorous part of cake decorating, so it’s important to arm yourself with a functional pastry bag and proper piping tips.
Pastry bags come in several 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”). A16-inch bag is the Goldilocks size for beginners, not so small it needs to be refilled constantly but not so large it feels unwieldy. Look for featherweight material, which responds easily to pressure. Hernandez also recommends a 16-inch bag to start, but notes that larger cakes call for a larger bag. Wilton 16-inch featherweight piping bag, $5 at Amazon
Don’t be tempted by tip sets, which tend to include with options that end up gathering dust in a drawer. Instead, buy round, star, and rose tips in a few sizes. With those, “you can really do anything I’ve ever done on Instagram,” François says. The round tip provides a smooth finish. With the star tip you can create shell borders, stars, and rosettes. A rose tip can be used for many flowers, not just its namesake. If you do want to do roses specifically, François says you’ll also need a flower nail, which makes it easy to make individual flowers by piping petals onto the nail as it rotates between your fingers, preventing you from risking the look of your whole cake by applying decoration directly. Ateco round tip, $1 at Webstaurant Store | Ateco star tip, $1 at Webstaurant Store | Wilton petal tip, $5 at Amazon
It can be infuriating to try to smooth out buttercream when your cake is sitting on a regular plate. No matter how delicately you rotate, the frosting will show the telltale fits and starts of an amateur operation. What you need is a cake turner.
“Even if you’re starting out and you have a tiny budget, this is one place I would splurge. Any cake turner is better than none,” François says. While a lazy Susan will do in a pinch, professional cake turners are weighted in the base, allowing them to spin smoothly forever without throwing your cake off like a bucking bronco. Ateco revolving cake stand, $57 at Amazon
Nylon dough scraper
Bakers will often use a metal bench scraper in conjunction with a cake turner, holding the scraper to the side of the cake as it spins to create a perfectly clean edge in the buttercream. Hernandez recommends a flexible nylon version from France, sometimes called a “racle tout.” The flat edge can be used like a bench scraper, while the round edge is ideal for digging out bowls. “It’s not very common here, but I have not found anything comparable in the U.S.,” Hernandez says. “This is the number one tool people should have in their kitchens, for cake decorating or not.” Matfer Bourgeat nylon dough scraper, $12 at Amazon
Gel-based food dye
Just as with cookie decorating, you’ll need gel-based food dye to create vibrant cakes. Avoid the water-based dyes found in little tubes at the supermarket, which are so weak they’ll produce pastels in place of bold, saturated tones. Natural dye is great too, but don’t expect exact results. For her recent cookbook, François played around with beet-based red dye, which reacts to acid, for a red velvet cake. It came out purple. Liqua-Gel food coloring kit, $22 Chefmaster
A few extras
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 instant flair without much extra work.
If you came to this list looking for cake hacks, meet the decorating comb. Scraped across the sides of a cake like a bench scraper, a comb produces even, raised textures in buttercream. Each edge of the three-sided comb makes a different pattern. It’s the fastest way to take your frosting job from basic to fancy. Ateco aluminum decorating and icing comb, $1 at Webstaurant store
Ruler and level
Hernandez constructs cakes like an architect. A ruler helps you avoid eyeballing how high a cake is, while a level ensures each layer is even before stacking on the next. Don’t bother overpaying at Sur la Table for these everyday items, though. The options from hardware stores like Home Depot or arts supply stores like Blick will do just fine.
“A lot of the time it’s going to be cheaper,” Hernandez says, but “it’s not going to say ‘this is 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 work, don’t ruin the look of your cake with a subpar serving dish. You can always grab a pack of decorative cake boards, but François 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