Should I chill my cake before decorating it?

If you’re new to cake decorating, you may be wondering if you should chill your cake before decorating it or put it in the fridge before icing it. Here’s my best suggestion on when to refrigerate cakes throughout the decorating process. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t over the years, and I’m delighted to share my knowledge here.

This is a rather contentious post. It’s not as contentious as, say, political events, but it might be in the cake designing industry. In this piece, I’ll explain why I don’t normally refrigerate my cakes before decorating them. I say generally because there are occasions when I do chill them, but that is typically the exception.

I understand that many cake designers like to refrigerate their cakes throughout the decorating process, and I understand that many may disagree with me, which is OK. What I WILL say is that if you’re experiencing problems with icing ridges, buttercream bulging, or decorating your cake and returning to a catastrophe, you should try a new approach.

I’ve discovered that some cake decorators are, shall we say, protective about their techniques. I also want to clarify that I am not implying that anybody is going about it incorrectly. I’m just talking about what works for me after a lot of trial and error.

Please read all the way to the end before sending me any hate mail. (I do sometimes refrigerate my cakes; it’s not often, but it happens, and I go into more detail about my process below.)

We all have strategies that work best for us, so my recommendation is to try them all and find what works best for you. You could like cooling cakes while decorating, and if that works for you, that’s fantastic.

Some cake decorators like to adorn their cakes not just while they are chilled, but also when they are partly frozen. I will admit that I have ALWAYS had difficulty decorating them cold. When they are frosted, they seem wonderful, but as they get to room temperature to serve, buttercream bulges and icing ridges develop.

I’d want to share a few of ideas with you on why I believe this occurs.

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1. Buttercream Bulges

These are air pockets in the cake that push the buttercream out.

I believe they occur due to moisture between the cake and the buttercream. Condensation forms on the cake when it is chilled and then iced. That’s moisture in the space between the cake and the frosting. As the cake reaches room temperature, the moisture just pulls the buttercream away from the cake. I don’t have scientific evidence, but it doesn’t appear to happen when I leave my cake layers at room temperature and decorate them that way.

2. Icing Ridges

These things happen when the cake layers settle and push the filling out a little. Even if you do not overfill your cakes, this may occur. I’m sure you’ve heard of the icing dam. It’s a buttercream ring that you pipe around the edge of your cake layer and then fill it with buttercream. It is used to prevent the filling from squishing out.

Is it just me, or does this not work? I’ve even heard of people stiffening the icing used for the dam, however it still causes ridges for me. I mean, the icing dam is excellent and really necessary if you’re filling your cakes with fruit or curd filling, but if you’re simply filling it with buttercream, I skip it.

My point is that the solution to icing ridges is to allow your cake to settle. The layers must be let to rest before pushing out a little of buttercream or filling. It must do so at room temperature. If it’s cold, it’ll simply firm up and then do it later when it warms up.

Maybe you’re a cake wizard and this doesn’t happen to you, but in my experience, it really does help to remove the cake from the fridge before applying the last layer of buttercream and decorating.

Don’t get me wrong: if your frosting is too soft, you will have issues all day. You’ll have difficulties if you overfill between the cake layers, but if you know you’ve got a decent consistency buttercream, consider simply filling the cake and letting it settle before coating the exterior. (More on my technique in a moment.)

So, how does this relate to cooling cakes? So here’s the deal: After you’ve finished filling and stacking your cake layers, it’s time to let it settle. If you refrigerate it at this point, the whole cake and filling will harden up and have no time to settle. If you’re using a perishable filling or swiss meringue buttercream, you’ll need to refrigerate it beforehand. (Some say it’s safe to leave out swiss meringue for a few days, but I’ve always been a bit wary of that, so I simply refrigerate that kind of buttercream.) In any case, American buttercream does not need to be chilled.

So this is what I do: I just cover my cake with a very thin coating of buttercream after filling and stacking my cake layers (not tiers). I do this to keep the cake from drying out. I then wrap it in plastic wrap and place it in a box.

It’s now time to lay it aside for a few hours, perhaps overnight if possible. At this point, I’m not going to chill it. Remember, I don’t want it all to firm up; I want it to settle and do whatever it’s going to do now, rather than after I’ve decorated it and it cools to room temperature.

After the buttercream has cooled, I use an icing spatula to smooth down the ridges where it may have bulged out a little. I just smooth any pushed-out buttercream away before applying my final layer of buttercream or ganache. If you wished, you could cover it with fondant at that point.

So, when do I chill the cakes? As I previously said, I will refrigerate them if they include perishable filling or icing, since no one wants to get sick. I also just put them in the fridge for approximately 15 minutes before adding the fondant. If it’s particularly hot outdoors and I need the cake to be more solid for travel, I’ll refrigerate it for approximately 20 minutes before transferring it. Overall, that is the only time I chill them.

Now, I’ll reiterate that I know many individuals who chill their cakes who disagree with me, and I’m perfectly OK with it. We must all do what works best for each of us, and this is my technique. If you’re having difficulties with your cakes, you may give it a go and see how it goes.

But, there is one caveat. If you live in a hot area and don’t have air conditioning, this approach is definitely not for you; but, if you have AC and a bug-free zone, cover those cakes, box them up, and place them on your counter or table to settle before decorating. Please keep me updated on how things progress.

So, before you execute this on a large cake order, you should test it on a cake. When attempting a new approach, it is usually a good idea to make test cakes.

Never say never because there will always be times when you must violate the rules. I DO have to refrigerate the cake on occasion. I may have some kind of perishable filling or frosting. I may need to make a drip cake, in which case the buttercream must be cooled to avoid being ruined by the heated chocolate ganache.

As a result, this approach of mine is not set in stone. The best thing to do is to use your own discretion. My default is not to cool them, but if a situation arises and it becomes essential, I just go with it. And isn’t that essentially what cake decorators do? We simply go with it since your cake sometimes has a life of its own.

If you require a tried-and-true, step-by-step approach for decorating layer cakes (creating smooth straight sides with no icing bubbles, bulges, or ridge lines), The Cake Blueprint has you covered.

The Cake Blueprint contains a step-by-step video that demonstrates my process for decorating layer cakes and preventing icing blowouts and ridgelines. You will also get tutorials, tips, and printables!

Additional Resources You May Find Interesting:

  • How to Make Silky Buttercream
  • The Structure of a Decorated Cake
  • Typical Cake Decoration Issues and Solutions

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Should I put my cake in the fridge before decorating?

Should Cake Be Refrigerated? In most circumstances, refrigeration should be avoided. Unless your cake contains perishable ingredients that might spoil, such as cream icing, fresh fruit, ice cream, mascarpone, or whipped cream, it’s best served at room temperature.

Should I chill my cake before decorating?

Before You Begin

Spreading icing over heated cake layers is a recipe for a messy catastrophe. Refrigerate your cake layers for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. If you prepared the frosting ahead of time, make sure it’s at room temperature before you begin.

How long should you leave a cake before decorating?

Let 2-3 hours for your cake to cool fully before frosting it, according to our guideline. The cake should then be crumb coated and refrigerated for up to 30 minutes. After that, you’ll be free to ice to your heart’s delight.

Does refrigerating cake dry it out?

After a day in the fridge, your wonderfully moist cake, no matter how properly wrapped, will begin to dry out.

Should I refrigerate frosting before piping?

Don’t make the frosting ahead of time.

Frosting is mostly butter and sugar, so keeping it at room temperature for an extended amount of time will make it overly soft, and refrigerating it will cause the butter to seize. Always bake your cake ahead of time over the icing if you want to work ahead.

Is it better to bake a cake the day before decorating?

Can I design a cake two days ahead of time? In general, yes, as long as it is properly stored. But, make certain that it is a freshly cooked cake and that you did not prepare it days before decorating it. A cake should be served within 3-4 days after being cooked, otherwise it will be out of date.

Should I refrigerate buttercream frosting before piping?

If it’s American buttercream, place the piping bag in a zip lock bag and leave it out at room temperature, or store it in the refrigerator to keep it fresh for many days. Nevertheless, before attempting to pipe with it, let it to return to room temperature.

Can you bake a cake the night before you decorate it?

Cakes may be cooked up to two days ahead of time and kept in the fridge or at room temperature firmly wrapped in plastic wrap. Cupcakes may be cooked a day ahead of time and kept in an airtight container in the fridge or at room temperature (frosted or unfrosted).

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