A skilled workman still needs tools. And it’s the same for baking. Years of experience helps to produce the most delicious and beautiful cakes, but even the best bakers need some basic good quality equipment. And the brilliant news for home bakers is that those quality basics are readily available, and relatively inexpensive, for you too. You really can have the same kit as the professionals and they will last you for years and be useful time and again.
Of course there’s some baking equipment that isn’t small or cheap (hello, stand mixer and digital scales) but when it comes to decorating here’s our top 10 items that won’t bust the budget or take up too much space. We reckon every kitchen should have at least one or two things from this list and they’ll help take your homemade cakes to the next level.
They just make life so much easier. Not only can they help you decorate quicker as you’re not pausing to shuffle the cake around, you can get a much smoother and more level/consistent finish on your cake, giving them a much more professional look. It might feel a little awkward at first due to the height and movement, using both hands simultaneously. But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it and once you do you’ll be amazed how much quicker you are (and wondering why you didn’t get one sooner!).
For the best results, crumb coat your cake first. It’s like using a primer before you paint the walls or put on your make-up. Slather on the buttercream and scrape off until you’ve got an even surface where all the cake’s pores are sealed. Then you can get going on your proper decorating layers. Used with a cake scraper, a palette knife or a spatula you’ll have a beautiful smooth finish in no time.
And an added bonus is that the turntable can double up as a cake stand too - have a read of this blog post about how you can dress it up to impress.
Such a simple piece of equipment, and yet so effective (and useful). If you’re after a razor sharp finish you’ll need one of these. Personally, we reckon the plastic is better than the metal as it is lighter on the wrist. Metal ones however are great for colder months as you can warm them up in hot water and smooth buttercream that stiffens up in lower temperatures.
For most cakes a medium 5 or 6 inch scraper will be enough - ones that are much taller can be harder to handle and easily give you a leaning cake. The simple straight edged ones can be used for plain, or even stripey buttercream edges (piped on first), but if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious you can also get them with grooves and other patterns to leave a bit more texture on your cake. For the sleekest of finishes they’re best used with a turntable.
Angled Palette Knife
Also sometimes referred to as being cranked, having the angle can help you get a more even pressure, and therefore surface, when spreading buttercream or fillings. Overall it works just like a cake scraper, but it handles slightly differently given its shape and width.
So whilst they’re interchangeable in some situations, if you can stretch to having both in your decorating kit then do. You can get them in lots of different sizes but for most situations a medium will be what you need.
Piping Nozzle Set
Good piping can elevate the most basic looking of cakes to something beautiful and like a pro would produce. Each member of our bakery team has their own set of 12, which may seem a lot but means they’re all ready for anything and once you know what each one can do you really do have endless possibilities to mix and match for fantastic effects.
Good piping does take some practice as each nozzle requires different pressures (and that’ll also vary depending on what you’re piping) but a set like this really will last for years and see you lots of different cake styles.
If a set of 12 does seem too many for you here’s our shortlist of favourites:
For Cupcakes, tight swirls and rope borders - Jem Medium 2ES fine star nozzle
For piping blossoms or fluffy open swirls - Jem Medium 2J curved star nozzle
For buttercream roses, ruffles or swags - Jem Medium Petal Nozzle (No. 116)
For leaves and multi-dimensional swags - Jem Medium No. 70
Of course piping nozzles are no good without the piping bags. One big one will help you pipe buttercream on to your cake before smoothing over. But make up a few and you can alternate colours to create a stripe effect, like you can see on our rainbow striped cake, or use different nozzles for more intricate piping details. Our Regency Wedding cake is a great example of mixing a few different styles together for great impact.
If you’re an every-so-often baker then the disposable piping bags are probably best, but go for biodegradable as you’ll still go through quite a few between practicing and the decorating itself. If you’re decorating a bit more regularly than catering quality large piping bags are worth the investment, and you can reuse them too which keeps costs low and is much better for the environment (just soak in some warm soapy water, then rinse and air dry).
Before decorating your cake do make sure you practice with your piping bag and nozzle first to get a feel of what you’re working with. Simply put some baking parchment down on the bench and give it a try until you’re happy your technique is consistent.
If we’re honest a rubber spatula isn’t just a key decorating tool, it’s one every kitchen should have. Whether it’s for mixing, folding, spooning, or scraping the sides/bottom, the rubber spatula is your tool, and for decorating it’s pretty essential. One of the best things about the Hero Sponge and Swiss Meringue Buttercream is how good they are at taking different colours and flavours (you can see just how many varieties there are on their recipe pages) and when it comes to mixing them together a rubber spatula will help you get the colour/flavour mixed in evenly and then get the maximum amount of mixture into your cake tin or piping bag.
One word of warning though, they’re not all heat resistant so make sure you check which you’d like (heat resistant is better for everyday kitchen use) and once you know buy a couple just in case.
Sometimes it’s just quicker and easier to whisk things by hand and a decent comfortable hand whisk will make it much less of an effort. Recipes like the Hero Sponge can easily be done by hand, and it makes for a great kitchen staple too.
Electric Hand Whisk
Sometimes for speed you do need a little more oomph than you can get whisking by hand, and when you don’t have the budget or space for a stand mixer an electric hand whisk is perfect. Personally we’d recommend Dualit or Kenwood who are established brands. Often they pack up pretty neatly so they won’t take up much cupboard space but will be easy to grab when you’re mixing up your frosting, Swiss meringue buttercream or your macarons.
Regardless of what recipe or method you use your cake is unlikely to be perfectly flat and the best way of getting rid of the dome is either a bread knife (if you’ve got a VERY steady hand) or a cake leveller. A cake leveller is a similar idea to a cheese wire, except you can adjust its height up and down the handle for whatever your height of cake.
To use it properly, let your cake cool completely and place it on a flat surface. Then, having adjusted the leveller to the height you need, hold it 90 degrees to the surface and with one hand on the top of the cake, gently slice through the cake in a zig zag motion from one side to the other. Take it steady and watch out for your hands (and anybody else’s) as you go.
Microwave safe mixing bowls
Pyrex is our favoured type, but any sort of microwave safe bowl is useful to have to hand. It’s not just great for mixing the cake batter, but being able to go in the microwave means you can melt chocolate in it, make ganache or even use it to warm up buttercream ever so slightly before re-whipping it (you knew you could do that with buttercream, didn’t you?). They’re another example of items that are generally useful around the kitchen, and actually if you can have a few different sizes that’s even better.
These really are our go-to tools in the bakery, and at home, and soon you’ll start to wonder how you ever did without them. It will take some practice but the more you practice the better you’ll get and you’ll have professional looking cakes in no time! And if you’re looking for tried-and-tested recipes so you can focus on your decorating skills don’t forget our ever popular Hero Sponge variations and Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipes are available to buy and download, plus there’s a selection of other recipes and tips here on the blog and our fake bakes to inspire you too!