Monday July 9, 2012
A Coat of Many Crumbles
Clicking around the recipe box, you’ll see I kinda have a thing for cake and buttercream. I’ve posted a lot of recipes for both, but have remained silent when it comes to actually combining the two. I’ve avoided the topic of buttercreamification because it seemed too complex to put into words, like trying to write a tutorial for tying your shoelaces. Not actually very hard, just very hard to explain.
But thanks to my pals at Oculus Studios, now I have a chance to show rather than tell. Building off the last episode of BraveTart: the Miniseries, in which a fridge full of egg yolks transform into French buttercream, I’ll follow up by using that same buttercream to crumb coat a carrot cake.
Many cake decorating tutorials emphasize the creative elements of the process, downplaying the technical aspects. That’s a shame because it means people who don’t see themselves as artsy or capable of “decorating” a cake miss out on what one might otherwise call “building a cake.” It also means people who do have an artsy flair may rush straight into decorating without laying a proper foundation.
You don’t have to have any artistic talent to make a stunning cake, but you do need a crumb coat. Crumb coating means applying a thin layer of buttercream over the outside of a cake to lock the crumbs down and prevent them from polka dotting the finished cake. A crumb coat also smooths over holes in the surface of the cake (ever lose a chunk when the cake sticks to the pan?) and fills in the gaps between the layers to make an even surface. Most importantly, it gives the cake its initial shape.
To crumb coat at home, you’ll need a turntable and a metal spatula. Heavy-duty cast iron turntables work much better than their plastic counterparts which weigh less than the cake itself, making them dangerously top heavy and prone to sliding around. My Ateco stand weighs seven pounds, so no matter how hard I spin it or push my spatula against it, it doesn’t budge. They cost about fifty bucks, so if you only bake the occasional birthday cake you may not want to run out and grab one. But if you bake cakes frequently and want to make decorating easier (much, much easier), you should consider the investment. Or ask Santa. As for the spatula, whether or not you go for a straight or offset spatula depends on what feels comfortable to you, use whichever feels more like a natural extension of your arm.
Armed with a turntable, a spatula, some cake and buttercream, crumb coating can begin!
(Update: The video may not display for some mobile users. Click Here to go directly to the video.)
How to Crumb Coat a Cake
1. Once the cake layers have cooled to room temperature, refrigerate them for 30 minutes before leveling. This makes the cakes firmer, easier to handle, and less crumby.
2. To level the cakes, use a serrated knife held parallel to the table and with the edge positioned just below where the dome of the cake meets the side. Making an incision any higher will give the cake a beveled edge rather than a squared one.
3. Don’t try to lop off the whole dome in one go. Give yourself some guidelines by making an initial cut, one inch deep, all the way around the cake. Rotate the cake as you go, rather than trying to cut from an awkward angle. Begin gently sawing toward the center. Rotate frequently to keep the cuts level with each other. (The video picks up on me cutting through the cake after I’ve already made my guideline incisions.)
4. Use a cardboard cake round to stabilize the cake. Put a square of damp paper towel underneath it to secure it to the turntable, then put a dab of buttercream on top to secure it to the cake. Even if you’re only making one cake and not a tiered one, the cake round will prevent your cake from sticking to the turntable or sagging when you transfer it elsewhere. If the cake sags, the buttercream will often crack, scrunch or slouch. Not pretty.
5. Always use soft, freshly whipped buttercream. You don’t want to fight the buttercream, you want it to glide effortlessly over the cake. If you’re using buttercream you’ve previously frozen or refrigerated make sure it has thawed completely and whip it for a few minutes to restore its smooth texture. If it looks curdled, warm it over a pot of simmering water to melt the edges, then rewhip until smooth.
6. Don’t “rock back” with your spatula. This motion picks up the very crumbs you want to lock down. Around the 33 second mark, I do a rock back so you can see some crumbs pull up. If you find yourself doing this on accident, just rock forward to push the crumbs down toward the cake.
7. Don’t skimp on buttercream. You’ll find the job easier when you have more to work with. Using a lot of buttercream doesn’t mean eating a lot of buttercream. Use as much as it takes to work comfortably and scrape off the excess when you finish.
8. Clean your spatula frequently. Whether you wipe it down with a paper towel or run it under hot water, a clean spatula goes a long way in preserving your peace of mind. If you find buttercream creeping up the spatula and onto your hands, pause to wash up. You’ll feel better and work better afterward.
9. Leave an overhang of buttercream around the edge of each layer. Later, you’ll smooth it over the sides of the cake. Don’t overdo it or you’ll have a buttercream avalanche, but do leave a generous amount draping over the edges.
10. When working on the sides, hold the spatula straight up and down. If you tilt the spatula toward or away from the cake, you’ll cause buttercream to build up at the bottom or top of the cake respectively, resulting in sloped sides.
11. Once you’ve spread buttercream over the sides, begin spinning the cake stand faster while holding the spatula stationary. The excess buttercream will pile up on the spatula and you can return the excess back to the bowl. During this stage, build a 1/2” lip of buttercream all the way around the top edge of the cake. This is the key to tidy corners!!
12. Do a little clean up by sliding the spatula underneath the cake and spinning the turntable. Discard the crumby, rogue buttercream that loads up on your spatula.
13. Finally, square the corners at the top of the cake by dragging the spatula over the lip of buttercream and toward the center. Don’t apply downward pressure, just knock down the wall of buttercream and drag it toward the center.
After you’ve cleaned up the top of the cake, resist the urge to touch things up elsewhere. The crumb coat has not set, so any further work you do will only pull up crumbs. It won’t look pretty, but it’s not supposed to. Pop your crumb coated cake into the fridge for at least thirty minutes to harden the buttercream.
Once the buttercream has firmed up, you can finish frosting the cake however you like. I’ll post another video soon showing a few ways to finish a cake that don’‘t require any special equipment. In the meantime here are my favorite buttercreams for decorating.
53 comments and counting
Jul 09, 2012 · 11:04 PM
Please do more videos like this. Watching you at work instead of just the pictures of the process or the end result is so interesting. Professional cooks have the grace and surety that only comes from doing something hundreds of times, and I never get tired of watching capable hands create things. I’m also a cook (although on the savory end), and I love your blog.
Jul 10, 2012 · 9:02 AM
A totally wonderful and inspiring tutorial, thank you so much for sharing you super talent
· Emma · sugarcane.etsy.com
Jul 10, 2012 · 9:03 AM
What a great video! I love your blog and your style of writing. I always learn something when I visit. Thanks, Stella!
· Mrs. Larkin · mrslarkins.blogspot.com/
Jul 10, 2012 · 9:11 AM
@Caitlin, I have one more video in the queue, but after that I’ll have to get my friends and their cameras back to the restaurant! What kind of videos would you like to see? Any other techniques that need demystifying?
@Hilda, thank you! We were hoping to make the video a little different from a typical tutorial, I’m so glad you still liked it!
@Emma, happy to help! Thank you for the kind words.
@Mrs. Larkin, I’m so happy to hear it, thanks you!
@Cathey, so awesome!! What kind of cake will you make??
Jul 10, 2012 · 11:19 AM
Great tutorial! I don’t make cakes for a living or even that often but I invested in the same turntable; when I do make and decorate them it’s one less thing to worry about.
· Barbara · www.creative-culinary.com
Jul 10, 2012 · 11:20 AM
Holy smokes! This is brilliant. Love the video, Stella. …and that music has an awfully familiar tone to it, too. Can’t wait to see more.
· Rosco · www.sideshowphoto.com
Jul 10, 2012 · 11:41 AM
@Sarah Jane, hey you!
@forcookssake, happy baking!! Have fun building your cake.
@prpltrmpt, thank you! Hmmm…cake excuse, eh… Well, it is Tuesday after all. What more excuse do you need?
@Barbara, seriously, with a solid turntable the cake buttercreams itself. Just spin, spin, spin and you’re done! Such a huge help.
@Rosco, hey, hey hey! Yeah, Mister John wrote it just for me. Whit couldn’t find another song that had the right flow/length and that we could have the rights to, so John literally went into the studio and banged it out in two days. #hero
Jul 10, 2012 · 3:45 PM
That rocked and now I want the turntable.
· fatpiginthemarket · www.fatpiginthemarket.com
Jul 10, 2012 · 5:08 PM
I loved the video. It’s amazing how something we THINK we all know how to do…we really don’t know how to do. Watching a professional makes a huge difference!
· thyme (sarah) · rileymadel.blogspot.com
Jul 10, 2012 · 5:13 PM
What a USEFUL video! As a geek, I applaud the appropriate use of technology…so many people are doing video for the sake of doing video.
For the last while, I have been putting a few drops of liqueur in the frosting for my crumb coat (Chambord in chocolate, for example) to thin it and add a tiny hit of flavor.
· beth @kitchenMage · blog.kitchenmage.com|/
Jul 10, 2012 · 8:12 PM
Can you recommend a turntable? I want a basic one that isn’t super $$$, and I didn’t realize how helpful it would be!
· Aly · fudgingahead.wordpress.com
Jul 11, 2012 · 1:55 AM
I’ve always been worried about applying too much buttercream when (attempting) to crumb coat because I was worried about wastage from crumbs ending up in the excess. By putting more on and taking the excess off, does this prevent the crumbs from getting caught in the buttercream you scrape back into the bowl? (I hope that makes sense).
I also think I really really need to get a turntable… if only Christmas wasn’t so far away!! Absolutely loved the video – much easier to understand that with the written instructions than trying to follow pictures. I cannot wait to see your decorating techniques, because I really suck at that!
Jul 11, 2012 · 10:11 AM
@Rosie, a little clean up goes a long way in making a pretty bottom edge on the finished cake; glad I could share!
@fatpiginthemarket, loooooooooove my turntable! I’ve had it since I was 16.
@sarah, I think the same thing when I watch other chefs do it. Seeing how someone else tackles a problem is always so helpful to me.
@beth, I always use whatever buttercream I’ll finish the cake with, so it’s always flavored in one way or another. This particular buttercream was French with white chocolate and cream cheese (naughty).
@Aly, I strongly recommend the Ateco 612. I have never found another turntable, in any price range, that’s better. You may be able to find one at a Bed Bath & Beyond and use one of those 20% off coupons, or find it cheaper online somewhere else, but here is the link to the model I’m talking about on Amazon. Trust me, you will regret buying anything else.
@Sarah, Generally, by using so much buttercream, all the excess that I do take off is crumb free. I imagine this is because I’m not “working” the buttercream back and forth, but constantly pushing it in one direction and keeping the crumbs in place. When you use less buttercream, I think you’re more likely to scrape up crumbs in addition to locking them down.
You can always scrape the buttercream into a second bowl so you don’t have to worry. Later, you can stir it with a spatula to inspect for crumbs and add it back to the mix if it’s “clean.” Hope that answers your question.
@mics, happy to share!
Jul 11, 2012 · 6:57 PM
Love the new video! This and the French Buttercream video are simply fabulous. They’re educational, but also so artistic in the way they’re filmed. So beautiful!
When I first started decorating cakes, I had no clue what a crumb coat even was. After doing some more research, I finally tried it out this year but completely bypassed your first step. It’s so logical, but I guess I was just so impatient and didn’t let my cakes cool completely. It was an utter disaster. Suffice it to say, your tips are great and I’ll definitely be following them the next time I decorate a cake. Thanks for this great post =)
· Isobel · www.eatabel.com
Jul 12, 2012 · 10:00 AM
this looks amazing!!! i wish i could bake….sigh
· ChubbyChineseGirl · www.chubbychinesegirleats.com
Jul 12, 2012 · 2:27 PM
tnank you for the tips. Your skills amazes me.
Jul 12, 2012 · 8:46 PM
@Isobel, I will pass the compliments on! I truly had nothing to do with the finished product. The guys came in, filmed me at work for a few hours, and then edited the video together a few weeks later. My husband composed/performed the music. All I did was go to work as usual, haha.
@ChubbyChineseGirl, your name makes me want to pinch your cheeks! Is that bad? I’m sure you can bake, just take it one step at a time and use lots of chocolate and you’ll be all set.
@Joy, aw, thank you so much!
Jul 15, 2012 · 3:20 PM
Awesome! You never see good frosting tutorials online. It’s so daunting to try to articulate the steps that go into the process. You’ve done a beautiful job.
I personally get by with a little help from (in addition to my trusty spatula) one of these bad boys: http://goo.gl/Nn8YY
Also you have convinced me that I need to buy cake boards.
· emily · cawfie.wordpress.com
Jul 16, 2012 · 7:27 PM
@emily, oh yeah! I love my trusty bowl scraper. Such a great little tool.
@Louise, what a clever idea, thanks for sharing!
Jul 17, 2012 · 5:10 PM
If we don’t become more skilled cooks, it’s not your fault! Excellent video and post, and music!
· Rona Roberts · www.savoringkentucky.com
Jul 18, 2012 · 8:00 AM
Fabulous video but seriously, all I could think of was “Good grief how does she stay in such perfect shape around all that?!?!?!” LOL You go girl! You’ve obviously got a secret haha. Beautiful video.
· Jemoiselle · www.vanillaexpressions.com
Jul 18, 2012 · 9:45 AM
@Stacey, ugh, square cakes are the bane of my existence! They use up almost twice as much buttercream since it takes a lot more to build all the neat corners up. The principles are the same, but harder to achieve since you can’t just spin, spin, spin. In square cakes, it’s even more important to built up a tall “lip” of buttercream at the top so you can sculpt a corner out of it. You also need to build lips at the sides of the cake too so you can get good corners there. I’ll see if I can get the boys to film me doing a square cake too!
@Rona, you sweet lady, thank you! My Mister wrote the song for me and it’s become one of my favorites.
@Jemoiselle, hahaha. It’s so hot in the kitchen most days that snacking just doesn’t hold the same appeal. I eat more when I bake at home. Also, every time your hands go near your mouth, you have to wash up. So it’s easy to resist stealing bites because I don’t want to have to stop and go wash my hands after. That being said, I do still eat a good amount in the course of “officially” tasting things, but I make sure whatever I eat at breakfast and dinner is healthy enough to compensate.
Jul 24, 2012 · 6:45 PM
i could watch this video on repeat all day long. great technique!!!
· maya · www.bazekalim.com
Jul 24, 2012 · 8:07 PM
@maya, aw, thank you so much! I think it’s the groovy music, personally….
Aug 15, 2012 · 6:08 PM
Hey Mia! You know, since I’ve started this blog I’ve met so many Lexingtonians transplanted to NYC! You guys should start a club up there, haha. Next time you’re home for the holidays, gimme a shout!
Sep 20, 2012 · 1:58 PM
hey, stella! i noticed that some of your layers have small craters in the sides, yet the finished crumb coat shows PERFECTLY straight sides!!! often times, my crumb coat will follow the contour of my cake (not always straight- or will be slightly slanted)..or i’ll try to patch the sides up with extra frosting, then end up scraping them away later, leaving unstraight sides anyway =( i have yet to try tip #9 with leaving an overhang of frosting on each layer, though…is that the key here? leave an overhang of frosting so that you can just smooth it out over the sides lightly? please enlighten me!!
Sep 20, 2012 · 4:48 PM
Hi prpltrmpt! Yeah, I actually tore those craters out on purpose; I wanted to show how much work a good crumb coat can do. The crumb coat doesn’t just contour the cake, it establishes a rough shape that you can build on after refrigerating.
The overhang is incredibly important for establishing a square edge on the top of the cake, but not so much for straightness. 99% of the time a cake has sloping sides, it’s because the spatula is being held at a slight angle. It’s really easy to do because obviously anything other than a perfect 90 degree position will cause a slant one way or another. Another factor may be the strength of your spatula; if it’s too flexible, you won’t get nice sides. The other major cause of sloping sides is the shape of the cake itself, from pans that have a slanted edge. Make sure your pans have nice, straight sides.
I hope that gives you some extra information to diagnose what’s going on with your cakes!
Sep 20, 2012 · 10:10 PM
Oops. My offset spatula (about 3-4 inch blade)is way too small for my 2 or 3 layer cakes, isn’t it?! That might explain the difficulty in getting it exactly straight. I WILL BUY A longer spatula (and check my pans’ tilt). Sorry, I should have re-read #10, because you already addressed it there!! You are really patient! Thanks. I can’t wait for your book!! BTW, when you get a free moment, are you going to post the final coat?
Oct 05, 2012 · 3:31 PM
Hi stella, Thanks for the comprehensive post. Crumb Coating a cake is not an easy task, and it’s nice to have a good tutorial near by next time i’ll attempt to decorate a cake
· Edible images · www.coolcake.com/store/editor.aspx
Oct 07, 2012 · 12:10 PM
Hi Edible images! Crumb coating just comes down to practice. After about 10 or 15 tries, pretty much anyone can be a pro! But those first few attempts can be hairy, just like trying to ride a bike for the first time. Happy baking!
Oct 25, 2012 · 10:58 AM
This video helped me soooo much when I made a birthday cake last month for a co-worker. IThe cake looked so much better because I remembered how you demonstrated how to crumb coat. Amazing how chilling it in the fridge made a HUGE difference too. Thank you, Stella!
Oct 25, 2012 · 6:43 PM
Hi Sandy! Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know how your cake turned out! I’m thrilled to hear it. A chill in the fridge does indeed make a huge difference. You’ve got some lucky coworkers!
Nov 07, 2012 · 11:11 AM
I have looked over tons of videos to help with my cake making/decorating. I must admit that this technique will work. As I watched others you used a bit and let it fall over the sides. Also I never chilled the cake before cutting[more lightbulbs for me today]. So THANK YOU kindly this is just wonderful!
Nov 08, 2012 · 9:23 AM
Hi Emmie! I’m so happy to help. I’ll be posting another cake decorating video next week, so stay tuned!
Nov 24, 2012 · 12:55 PM
Hi ATG! Thanks so much for finding me, I’m glad you liked the video! I’ll be posting a follow up very, very soon, with more info on decorating the cake after the crumb coat. Stay tuned.
Feb 23, 2013 · 3:07 PM
Hi Aimee! Yup, I crumb coat it the same way with cream cheese buttercream too. I am a huge cake and buttercream fan, so I never finish my cake with anything else. With something like ganache, a crumb coat would still be a good idea to help lock down the crumbs and give the cake that perfect, glassy finish.
Feb 23, 2013 · 9:53 PM
Ugh, no, I’m still waiting to get my copy. A friend is editing it for me, so I don’t have much say about the timeline. But it’s been foreeeeeeever.
Mar 09, 2013 · 1:42 AM
There’s something about the simplicity of the only crumb coated cake that makes it appear elegant. I don’t know where to ask this but I’m planning on decorating a cake by covering one side in white chocolate frosting and the other in dark chocolate frosting. Is this possible without mixing up the colors?
Mar 09, 2013 · 6:07 PM
Hi Maria! Absolutely. Go ahead and crumb coat the cake (in the lighter of the two colors). Then use a strip of wax paper to divide the cake in half. Frost half in one color, then remove the wax strips and refrigerate. After, use new pieces of wax paper to cover up the frosted half (to keep the lines clean) and cover the remaining half in whatever shade you like. That’s how I’d do it, anyway.
Apr 08, 2013 · 11:02 AM
This is a really great post and video Stella! My chefs in school never had us do a crumb coat so I never learned about how useful it is. After years of not doing so I finally tried it the other day during a cake decorating class I was teaching. I had all the students do a crumb coat as well. It was super easy and it made the final coat of icing much less stressful. The 30 minutes in the fridge did eat up a lot of class time but I think what we’ll do next time is practicing piping and making BC roses. If you freeze your nice roses on parchment paper then you can just pick them up! BOOM. No time lost. I’m sending my students over to watch your video so they can see how other chef works. The more exposure the better because you never know which technique will click with them! Thank you!!
· Jason S · www.TheAubergineChef.com
Apr 08, 2013 · 5:45 PM
Hey Jason! I can’t remember how we studied cakes in school, but I took a 9 month internship in a wedding cake studio prior to our cake class, so that’s really where I learned everything about cakes. By the time I got to the cake class, I was already a zen master, haha. And there’s always something to do with that down time. Thanks for sharing the video with your students!