YOU NEED TO KNOW: How to Stack a Layer Cake
Have you ever spotted a beautiful cake on Instagram, television, or a website and thought to yourself, “Ugh, I wish I could learn how to do this”? Well consider me your genie in a bottle, because today I’m going to be sharing a few simple pointers to teach you how to stack a layer cake. This is not some super advanced tutorial. This is a quick guide for eager beginners or anyone wanting to polish the skills they already have under their belt. In addition, I’m DYING to answer all of your questions so that I can update this post to include the things you’re interested in learning about, so please feel free to chime in with anything you’ve found to be helpful in your learning experiences. If you’re ready and hungry, let’s dive in!
What Is A Layer Cake?
This feels like a silly question to answer, but let’s be plain as day. A layer cake is any kind of cake with stacked layers! On it’s most basic level, cake is a single layer with frosting, glaze, or some other garnish on it’s top, but a layer cake typically consist of 2 or more layers of cake stacked with schmears of frosting and/or filling. For the purpose of this post we’re going to stick with a 3-layer cake. That was simple, right?
What Do I Need to Make a Layer Cake?
There’s a few basic components required for every cake as well as a few special tools that will make stacking cakes simple for beginners. I have a few of my favorites listed that you can find above on the “Shop” page of my site.
For starters, you’ll need the following:
Cake Layers (or a single thick layer of cake that you plan to slice in half)
Filling (if desired)
Offset Spatula (I prefer a small one)
If you’re ready to go to the next level, here’s a few more items to consider purchasing:
Piping Set or Freezer-Safe Ziploc Bag
If you plan on being serious about learning how to stack a layer cake you may also consider purchasing a cake turntable. When I first started baking, I purchased an inexpensive model from Wilton that I adored for many years. Some time later, I upgraded to an Ateco model that I continue to use today. No need in purchasing anything fancy- just buy what works. A turntable is the single most useful tool for decorating cakes and can make a world of difference in the final outcome of your product.
How To Stack A Layer Cake ?
Let’s take this slow. Heck, I’m going to throw in some numbered steps so we don’t miss a single thing, okay? WE CAN DO THIS! Here we go.
1. Prepare the cake layers.
We can stack basically any cake recipe, but we always want to work with cooled layers. A cake straight from the oven will not stack well. I like to chill my layers in the freezer for a bit to make them extra easy to work with- it helps keep all the crumbs stuck to the cake instead of all over my spatula. Once cooled (or semi-frozen!) use a large, sharp serrated knife to trim the domes off of your cake. We want the layers to be flat. So if your cake looks more like a hill than an ice skating rink, trim it off. Get down at eye-level to the cake and carefully cut off the top. Remember to go slow and not take too much off! You can always trim off more but you can reattach cake if you butcher off too much.
2. Prepare the frosting and filling.
Again, we need cooled frostings and fillings. Pick your poison when it comes to frosting variety, but keep it simple if you’re new to the game. American buttercream is typically easiest to whip up. Frosting consistency is really important here. Too thick or hard and the frosting will stick to the cake and rip off little bits of it as you go. Too thin and the frosting will squish out the sides. I like a frosting that will scoop onto your finger or an offset spatula without falling off but will droop over BARELY when dolloped. No big droops!
With American buttercream, you can typically add water or milk a tablespoon at a time until the frosting thins out to the appropriate consistency. Likewise, you can typically add additional powdered sugar a bit at a time to thicken it up. If your buttercream gets too warm, throw it in the fridge to thicken it up! After all, butter and fat is hard at chilled temps.
3. Prepare your cake board.
This is optional. I love to work with a cake board because I typically am frosting a cake on my turntable. I use a piece of packing tape or a non-slip pad to get my board to stick to the turntable. Place it directly in the center and smooth a small dollop of frosting on the board. This will help to make your first layer adhere to the board. If you’re not using a cake board you can add the frosting dollop straight to the flat serving plate that you’re making it on. The cake turntable and board make a difference here, but you can do it either way.
4. Begin frosting your cake.
Place the first layer of cake on the cake board with the frosting on it. If you’re not using a filling, go ahead and dollop enough frosting to generously cover the entire cake. For most cake layers about 1″ thick, I like about 1/4″ thickness of buttercream on top. Go ahead and plop some frosting on your cake and grab your offset spatula in your dominant hand. With the spatula parallel to the cake top, begin pushing the frosting around to cover the cake, being sure to not actually touch the cake with your spatula at all.
I like to use a subtle rocking motion as opposed to digging the edge of the spatula into the buttercream or cake. Continue this process, adding buttercream as needed, until the buttercream barely hangs over the side of the cake. Then, rotate the spatula barely to dig in a slight edge and twist your turntable like a record player. Keep your hand level and the edge on your spatula tilted slightly so that you can level the frosting top. We started with leveled cakes and we need our frosting leveled too as we stack!
Alternatively, if you plan to use a filling: Fill a piping bag fitted with a large round tip or a large ziploc bag with some frosting. Pipe a “dam” border around the perimeter of the unfrosted cake. Make sure your dam walls are high enough and connected to contain all of the filling. If the filling squishes out the top or underneath, it can make frosting your cake neatly near impossible! Once the dam is complete, spoon in your filling and continue the steps as listed below.
5. Repeat this process with additional cake layers.
For the cake shown in photos, I repeated the process twice as there are three layers. As your stack your cake layers, be sure to press down gently to allow the cake to adhere and line them up as best as you can. If you find your cakes are wiggling or slipping because of loose buttercream, pop it in the fridge to allow the frosting to set up. You’ll wind up with a wonky cake if you try to frost a slippery fellow. Extra time, but worth it.
6. Crumb coat.
A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting that traps in any cake crumbs. To start, use your offset spatula to push the frosting overhang on the top layer down onto the sides of the cake. This process takes some practice and is hard to get right the first several times. Use additional frosting from the overhang on the lower layers to cover the sides of the cake and add any additional frosting from the bowl as needed.
For our crumb coat, we just want a thin coat of frosting to trap the crumbs, so just do your best to smooth it out. Use your spatula to cover the cake entirely and scrape any extra frosting (sans crumbs!) back into your bowl. Once the cake is coated, pop it in the fridge for the frosting to firm up. The length of time here is dependent on how cold your cake layers were to begin with, so just check your cake occasionally until firm.
7. Finish frosting your cake.
Some people prefer to use a bench scraper here, but I almost always prefer my offset spatula. For a naked cake, smear just a thin layer of frosting all over the cake and smooth out the edges as able. For a more opaque layer of frosting, go ahead and dollop a hefty scoop on top and smooth it onto the top with angled offset spatula. Spread more on the sides of the cake and use a bench scraper or the spatula to smooth and decorate. This is an exercise that takes a lot of practice, so cut yourself some slack the first 15 times you do this, okay? If all else fails, go for messy, rustic frosting and claim you did it on purpose. Cool? Once finished, store the cake as indicated in your recipe or serve immediately!
A Few More Tips On How to Stack A Layer Cake :
I’ve had to learn a lot the hard way. Here’s a few pointers from mistakes I’ve made far too often:
1. Don’t add too much filling to your cake.
Jam, curd, or other running fillings cake easily spill out the top of a dam or squish underneath. Be sure your dam has adhered to the cake layer it is on top of and don’t overfill it! Let your dam be about 1/8″ higher than the filling and add your next cake layer gently.
2. Master the cake to frosting ratio.
Some recipes will produce extra thick layers of cake that are intended to be torted (or trimmed into layers). Use a large serrated knife here to slice through your cake layer and cut it into appropriately thick layers. Most of my recipes produce cakes that are 1 to 1’1/4″ thick, so about 1/4″ of frosting is appropriate here. If you wind up with thicker layers, consider torting or adding additional frosting between layers. For thinner layers, consider less frosting.
3. Don’t overwork your frosting.
This is hard to do. I get it. The more your attempt to smooth and perfect a finished frosted cake, the more likely you are to overwork or deflate your frosting. This can change the color, texture, and mouthfeel of the frosting. Do your best to not overwork and keep in mind that pristine cakes come with practice.
4. Transfer with care!
I like to slide a large offset spatula under the cake board to help shimmy it off the turntable. I usually need to do this when popping the cake in the fridge or when transferring it to its serving plate. They make cake lifters specifically for this purpose, but I don’t actually have one. I find a large offset spatula works fine. Do what feels right!
5. Make sure your frosting is the right consistency.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you notice your frosting is difficult to work with, go ahead and fix it before you get too far into the frosting process! The messiest cakes I’ve ever made were when I didn’t take the time to address my frosting consistency. See above for quick tips.
6. Decorating layer cakes is an entirely different topic.
Admittedly, I’m not terrific at decorating cakes, so I usually like to stick with basics: flowers, sprinkles, or large piped dollops of frosting. For cake decorating inspiration, I recommend checking out Tessa Huff’s site. She decorates beautiful and attainably intricate cakes. This is a great place to start.
A Few Last Minute Tips on How to Stack a Layer Cake:
You can’t learn how to stack a layer cake if you don’t have a good baked cake. Here’s a few tips that have helped me:
1. Use room temperature ingredients.
The ingredients in most cake recipes will emulsify together better when not at extreme temperatures. So what do you do when you forget to set your ingredients out in advance? Set your eggs in a cup of warm water to quickly bring to room temperature and feel free to nuke milk in the microwave at a low temperature in 10 second intervals till it’s no longer ice cold. As for the butter: consider slicing it into tablespoon pads and resting at room temperature while you set out the rest of your ingredients, or, nuke in the microwave for 8 seconds per side of butter.
2. Use parchment paper to line the bottoms of your pan.
Yes, it can be a pain to cut out rounds of parchment, but I use it every time. Why? Because the only thing more annoying that cutting out parchment rounds is baking a beautiful cake only to have chunks of it remain stuck to the innards of your pan. If you’re feeling really aggressive, you can purchase pre-cut rounds of parchment online and they make life so much easier. Just do it.
3. Do not overmix.
If you read a recipe that says “mix just until combined”, do just that. Overmixing your batter will cause your cake to be chewy and dense… not usually what we’re going for.
4. Make sure your baking powder and soda are fresh.
If you open your cabinet and the baking soda says it expired in 2009, throw it out. I’m talking to you, Mom.
5. If you don’t keep buttermilk on hand, don’t fret!
I sometimes will use 1 tablespoon of white vinegar for every scant cup of milk when I need a quick substitute for real buttermilk. Works like a charm.
6. Don’t overbake!
Toothpicks cost like, $1 at the store. And I’m pretty sure you can steal them from hostess stands at most chain restaurants. So keep some on hand and when the cake looks just barely firm in the middle and is no longer jiggling in the pan, test it. Moist crumbs should come out. If it’s not done, set the timer for one minute and try again. And in the midst of all that checking, try not to open and close the oven too much. You’ll end up with a cake crater big enough to put your face in. On second thought, this isn’t such a terrible outcome so do whatever you want. No judgement here.
7. Allow to cool a bit in the pan before flipping out on to a cooling rack.
A Few Favorites to Start With:
Here’s a few links to my favorite cakes and frostings! Mix and match however feels right. I’ll be sharing a yummy layer cake recipe for you guys to practice with next week, so STAY TUNED. Happy baking and don’t forget to send me all of your questions!
Chocolate Cake Recipe
White Cake Recipe (Just Omit the Chocolate Chips!)
Cream Cheese Buttercream