Recently, I received an email from someone asking how I learned to decorate cakes (specifically asking if I learned everything from Craftsy) and if I had any advice.  My response turned fairly epic, because I wanted to be thorough… so I decided there might be other readers looking for advice!  So below is my response!

I’ve been baking all of my life.  My mom never baked, so I taught myself out of her cookbooks, and we had a friend of the family who liked to bake so I baked with her a lot.  When I was little I would make cakes for my family member’s birthdays and decorated them with the start tipped-type patterns (press a cookie cutter into the frosting and fill in with little stars)… when I got a little older I found a recipe for marshmallow fondant, learned how to make it and would decorate cakes with simple cut-outs…  When my cousin got pregnant, her sister asked me to make the shower cake “with her” and it was a pregnant belly cake.  It was the biggest project I’d done and it came out pretty good!  That’s when my cousin suggested I take my cake making a little more seriously.

I did a lot of research online, home with an infant, I had a lot of time on my hands!  There are some great resources- Cake Central, YouTube… they were my most valuable resources at first.  Craftsy has only been around for about a year and a half- maybe two years now… so yes, I was already experienced with cake decorating before I took any Craftsy classes.  I’ve taken the classes to learn specific techniques, or just to see how some of the cake decorators I admire do things.  I think there are some great classes for beginners… even if you don’t want/need to make the entire cake they demonstrate you can take away specific techniques you will use over and over again.
If you want to get into cake decorating my recommendations are:
  1. If you are not already a baker, learn to bake!  When I started decorating I used boxed mixes, you can look up “WASC” recipe for a great “doctored” recipe.  However, they changed their formulas and when I started my business I had to think about labels… I didn’t want to list a bunch of weird ingredients and chemicals, so I researched, experimented and came up with my scratch recipes.  Either way, it’s up to you, but you should have something reliable that tastes great!
  2.  Learn to get smooth buttercream…  there are videos on YouTube (I have one for how to smooth Swiss Meringue Buttercream) and tutorials all over the internet.  But, you should find a technique that suits your icing recipe and practice until you have it perfected.  It’s one of the things that will make the biggest difference in your finished cake.  You can have a cake embellished beautifully, but if the “canvas” behind it is bumpy and lumpy there is nothing you can do to hide it.  Of course, it takes time to be able to get that perfect finish, but it’s important to learn it and not rush past it to other decorating techniques.  Even if you are going to cover the cake with fondant, you need smooth buttercream because fondant will only enhance imperfections in the buttercream finish.
  3. If you want to make fondant cakes, learn to cover a cake with fondant!  And learn to smooth it properly…. again, it takes time and practice to learn.
  4.  Once you can get a nice smooth buttercream and/or fondant surface then expand on to other techniques…
  • Craftsy: I wouldn’t bother with Craftsy until you can do that, they don’t really teach it.  You can take a free class called “Modern Buttercream” that will teach you to make a recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream and teach some simple decorating tips…  Or a “Basic Fondant Techniques” class.  These would be a great way to get an idea of what Craftsy is all about. They also have some great free recipes posted!
  • Cake Central:  Cake Central has been an invaluable resource for me.  They have tons of free recipe posted, with user reviews so you can decide which ones to try.  Galleries with beautiful cakes for inspiration.  But, probably most valuable are the forums….  There are threads upon threads with tips for cake decorating.  Check out some of the “stickies” in the “How do I?” forum, for plenty of links to online tutorials.
  • YouTube: I joke with my family that you can become a surgeon from YouTube.  It is a wealth of information for just about anything you want to learn!  Even before I found Cake Central I was watching YouTube videos about cake decorating.  It’s my first stop for anything I don’t know how to do (and not just cake decorating, changing a headlight, plumbing problems, carpentry projects, etc…)
  • Pinterest:  When I started we didn’t have Pinterest, but now I think it would be really useful.  People all over “pin” ideas and tutorials for cake decorating.
  • Books & Videos:  My library didn’t have a huge selection, but a lot of others do.  Look up any book you can about cake decorating and absorb the knowledge! The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum is probably one of the most famous and most thorough resources for learning to bake.  As far as recipe books, I’m a huge fan of Cake Love” by Warren Brown.  Sharon Zambito, owner of Sugar Ed Productions produces some really great quality instructional videos.  I have not seen them, but many decorators swear by them!
  • Online Memberships:  Popping up all over are membership websites that give you access to tips, tutorials and recipes.  My Cake School is probably one of the longest running ones, and I’ve seen many new and innovative techniques come from there.  And coming soon, maybe even up already is Sharon Zambito’s new cake school SugarEd Productions Sugar Art School (I will definitely be signing up!!).
  • Experimentation:  Don’t be afraid to experiment… a lot of the techniques I learned, I had to figure out on my own.  That’s how this field stays new and refreshing.  Most of the time you will design cakes with different applications of the same techniques… but then someone will want to achieve something new and new technique is born.  One of the things I’m most proud of is my Cinderella Slipper… I really wanted it to be sugar so it wold look like glass… but I had never worked with isomalt before and I couldn’t find any tutorials.  So I experimented!  And it worked… I was even asked to make the tutorial for SugarEd Productions (Sharon emailed me herself!).
  • In Person Classes:  A lot of the “masters” travel all over to teach.  There are ICES conventions, seminars at cake shows, and even just private classes offered all over.  Find a “master” you admire and check out their website to see if they will be instructing anywhere near you.  There are also the Wilton classes offered at most crafts stores.  I’ve never taken one, but if you need to learn the basics, a lot of cake decorators start there.

If, after practice, you think you want to make your hobby a business.  First do your market research and put together a business plan so you will be fully prepared and know if you have a market for your products.  Then you will need to look into your local rules and regulations.  Some areas have cottage food laws that allow you to produce from your home.  Some areas require you to find a separate commercial kitchen to work from.  When you’re ready reach out to your local health department to find out what you need to do.

And “is it a big investment?”  Well, that’s tough… it depends on how far/involved you want to get.  Does it cost ME a lot… honestly, yes.   I’m still a new business and there are still lots of tools I don’t have.  It CAN be very costly.  But, a lot of us do our best to utilize what we already have when designing cakes.  You can start small, especially if you are just a hobby baker.  Get a set of pans, some spatulas, a turn table and some pastry tips.  I didn’t start out with the large collection of tools I have, but I buy new things as I need them.  Making custom cakes is not cheap, that is why it costs so much.  Ingredients aren’t cheap, tools aren’t cheap and most importantly the time we put into learning and decorating isn’t cheap!  That’s probably not what you were hoping to hear, but so many people don’t realize the costs and time involved in making cakes.  I don’t mean to scare you off… if you are just starting out and learning the basics it won’t cost you much.  But, if you ever set out to make cake decorating a legitimate business, be prepared that there is some investment.  On top of all of your tools, ingredients and your time you have your license fees, business insurance and overhead.  I rent my kitchen by the hour, but even if you are able to bake from home under cottage food law you have added costs for electricity, gas, water, etc…

Well, I hope that gives you an idea of how I got here, and where to start if you want to get into cake decorating!

Happy Caking 🙂