Not very long ago, I wrote an ode to Swiss buttercream, the mother of all buttercreams, for taste, texture, and superior decorating capability. When I first learned to make it, years before I ever set foot in pastry school, I delighted in making neat, uniform mounds with fluted ridges using a set of metal piping tips that I'd purchased at a yard sale. I never really knew how to pipe, but I'd force the tips through a tiny hole cut into the corner of a plastic bag, load it up with buttercream, and squeeze, moving the bag in a circular motion. The cupcakes always looked good enough, and they tasted great.
When I got to pastry school, I discovered that faking it like that would no longer cut it. There were month-long sections in which we learned techniques for decorating cakes, and I discovered quickly that, much like my lefty chicken-scratch handwriting, my cake decorating skills were sloppy and illegible. My skills and sensibilities for this particular art form were so bad, that I remember whipping up a batch of buttercream and sitting at my kitchen table for hours with my piping bag and decorating tips, piping shapes for practice onto a plate, scraping the frosting off, and repeat. This exercise definitely paid off. When it comes to cake decorating, practice makes perfect.
Decorating cakes the way the pros do takes years of dedication and practice, but knowing a few cool tricks can definitely make the difference between a boring cake and a cake that looks elegant and special. With just a basic set of metal piping tips; including an open star tip, closed star tip, round tip, leaf tip, tapered petal tip, and a basket tip, there are many impressive designs that you can create to jazz up a cake. (Here's a good set of tips, nails, and coupler on Amazon, though many people also sell these for much less on ebay.) Additional equipment is not absolutely necessary, but it's also nice to have a piping bag, either the disposable plastic or the reusable kind (you can also use heavy-duty, plastic freezer storage bags in a pinch), and a plastic coupler, which allows you to switch decorating tips as you go without having to stop, empty, and refill the piping bag each time.
With just these basic decorating tips, you can make all kinds of dots and stars, shells, flowers, leaves, stripes, and a woven basket design. This tutorial just scratches the surface of the possibilities when creativity meets buttercream. Click through the slideshow to learn some of the designs, then whip up a batch of buttercream and get practicing.
Before the invention of fondant, buttercream was the cake decorator's medium of choice. With a set of decorating tips, the possibilities are endless. Click through the slideshow to learn some basic moves for professional-looking cakes.
There are two general types of piping bags, reusable and disposable. The reusable ones make good economic sense, as you can wash and reuse them, but they can be a pain to clean and disinfect. Plastic freezer storage bags can also be used for piping; just clip the corner of the bag off to use.
If you are planning to use more than one decorating tip with the same color of icing, using a plastic device called a coupler can save you from emptying and reloading new bags each time you switch tips.
Prepare the piping bag
To begin, cut off the tip of the piping bag (if using a disposable). If you are unsure how much to cut, start by cutting just a little—you can always cut more if you need to. Put the large part of the coupler inside the bag and push it through the hole so just the tip is sticking out.
Attach the decorating tip from the outside
Push the decorating tip through the small part of the coupler and then screw the two parts of the coupler together. They should be tight, otherwise, icing will ooze out while piping.
Filling the bag
Fold the top part of the piping bag halfway down over your hand and hold the bag open with your fingers. With your free hand, scoop the icing into the bag with a spatula.
Filling the bag
Squeeze the icing down into the bag, aiming to eliminate air pockets, which can interrupt piping patterns. Twist the excess bag around the top of the frosting.
To make stars, use an open star tip. Squeeze the bag evenly and count as you squeeze in order to make the stars as even as possible. Lift the bag vertically away from the icing to get nice even points on the stars.
The size of the stars and the number of points depends on the size of the tip you use.
Shells are another great decoration you can use with any open star tip. To pipe shells, begin by squeezing the icing in one spot, then continue to squeeze while pulling the tip quickly away. Double back and begin piping the next shell where the last left off, in a chain. This is a classic technique for decorating borders and bases of cakes.
Shells can be piped using any size of open star tip.
Piping strings of pearls
Use a round tip to pipe strings of pearls and dots by squeezing the icing slowly, holding the bag and decorating tip vertically. Pull the bag and tip directly up to finish each pearl.
Starting a basket weave
To pipe a basket weave, begin by piping vertical lines, leaving about 1 line's worth of space between each one.
Piping a basket weave
Pipe lines perpendicular to the parallel lines, alternating over and under. For the "unders", stop and leave a space for the original parallel line, so it appears that the original line is covering the new line.
Piping a basket weave
Piping a basket weave takes practice—try it a few times on a plate before applying this technique to a cake. It can be done with any sized basket tip, or with other shapes too. The pattern is the same.
To pipe a rosette, use a closed star tip, which gives a piping pattern with deeper waves. Pipe rosettes by making a tight circle, then swing the tip up to the top of the circle to finish.
Rosettes can be piped using a closed star tip of any size.
To pipe leaves, use a leaf piping tip. Squeeze in one place for a wider leaf base, then continue to squeeze and gently move the tip to the side, then taper off the end by continuing to move the tip while letting up on the pressure.
You can use leaf piping tips of all sizes to pipe leaf shapes. Leaf decor can be used in a chain, alone, or as accents for flowers.
Piping a rose
To pipe a rose, begin by using a round tip to pipe an upside down acorn-shaped mound of frosting on top of a decorating nail (this looks like a metal nail with a very large, flat head on top).
Piping a rose's inner petals
Hold the piping bag in one hand and the decorating nail in the other. Turn the nail slowly as you pipe a circle of frosting around the center using a tapered petal tip with the small end facing up.
More inner petals
Continue to pipe concentric circles around the center of the rose. Use the nail to slowly rotate the flower as you pipe. Angle the narrow, top part of the piping tip out slightly.
Finish with the outer petals
As you work outward, angle the top of the tip further and further out away from the rose. This will give the appearance of open petals.