How to assemble and frost a layer cake: setting up for success

parchment placed on cake standIt’s a labor of love, and a chance to show your stuff. Make your layer cake gorgeous by assembling it with these simple steps.Place first layer

Patience makes perfect. Take the time to chill or freeze your baked layers before assembling the cake. The layers will be less fragile, and you’ll have more control and better results with frosting. While they’re chilling, line your serving plate with 2″ to 3″ wide strips of parchment paper.

Trim any dome from the top of the first layer so the cake is flat, then flip it over and place it on your serving plate cut side down.pipe dam illo

Pipe a rope of frosting around the outside edge of the cake layer. Refrigerate for 15 minutes so it will become firm. This “dam” keeps frosting or filling from bulging out the side of the finished cake. After the dam sets, fill the top of the 2nd cake layer illocrumb coat cake illo

Trim the next layer and place it cut side down over the first. Chill the cake again, if it isn’t cool to the touch.

Smear a very thin coat of frosting on the sides and top of the cake.

cake illo finish coat

This is called the crumb coat. It’s fine if it looks messy, and crumbs are showing through. Refrigerate the cake until you can touch the crumb coat without leaving a fingerprint, 20 to 30 minutes.decorate cake with spoon

Once the crumb coat is firm, cover the top and sides of the cake with a finish coat of frosting. Gently remove the parchment paper strips.

Decorate and embellish to your heart’s content.

This article appeared in the premier issue of Sift.

Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.


  1. krbngrl

    I baked a six layer cake yesterday and tried baking strips on the pans for the first time…OMG! They came out perfectly flat and even!!! I made my own with just strips of towels I soaked in water then wrung out and clipped with a paperclip…I couldn’t find large safety pins. I can’t believe how well it worked and I can’t believe in the 35 years I’ve been baking I never knew this!

  2. sue ciavola

    at 67 years old I had never mastered the art of frosting even the simplest of layer cakes, I knew of the crumb coat…..never had much success……..never new about the refridgeration steps…….making a cake this weekend, cant wait to try……thank you in advance.

  3. Dorothy

    We have 3 family birthdays in the next 10 days. This helpful advice will be put to use immediately! Thanks.

  4. Helen S. Fletcher

    This is a great article but as a professional baker, I discovered a way to keep cake layers flat when baking them. We used it at my bakery for years and it worked for almost every cake. The carrot cake refused to cooperate but it only had a bit of a dome. It’s all in how you prep the pan and you can find it at

    With this method you don’t have to trim the top of the cake to get it flat. It bakes flat. I thought your readers might like to know about this.

  5. avlear

    Is there a syrup I can make that when applied to a two layered cake will help the cake be more moist? I find that sometimes the cakes dry out and lose their appeal.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Avlear, some cake recipes include a flavored syrup for soaking the cake layers (such as our recipe for Caramel Cake). However, if the recipe you are using doesn’t include one, you can use our recipe for a basic Simple Syrup and then flavor to complement the cake if you like by adding 1/2 teaspoon of your favorite extract: chocolate cake with a coffee syrup, vanilla cake with a lemon syrup, white cake with an almond syrup… the possibilities are endless! Happy cake baking! Kye@KAF

    2. Efrain Vargas-Hernandez

      I used King Arthur’s Cake Enhancer to moisten my cakes and muffins. They are a big hit and worth the extra ingredient. Thank you King Arthur for the great tip of using your Cake Enhancer.

      Chef E

  6. SAJ

    If you are going to the trouble of filling a pastry bag, you might as well pipe the frosting all over, and then just smooth it with the offset spatula…

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’ve found it can be a bit tedious to pipe frosting back and forth across the cake, especially if your cake is large and your frosting tip is small! For us, an offset spatula and bit dollop of frosting is what makes the most sense, but decorating a layer cake is about making a beautiful final product with hopefully the least amount of stress on the baker. If for you that means piping frosting over the whole cake, be our guest! Happy cake baking to you! Kye@KAF


    If you dip your spatula into hot water before putting on your final icing layer with it, you can get a beautifully smooth surface. Don’t over-do the hot water, but this is an easy way to get an even, smooth icing layer on which to decorate your cake.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi, Keri! The idea is to get the smoothest, most regular surface facing up, where you can frost it. That way you have a perfect surface to work with. Have fun! Elisabeth@KAF

  8. Angel J

    I love the parchment strip trick, but I never manage to remove the strips without marring the frosting around the bottom edge. I usually cover that up with some edge piping, but is there a way to coax out the parchment cleanly so I don’t have to hide anything?

    1. PJ Hamel

      Angel, I run a very sharp knife around the bottom edge of the frosting, where it hits the parchment, before very carefully pulling out the parchment. This is usually enough to separate frosting from paper – unless the frosting is really moist/sticky. Hope this helps – PJH

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