If your frosted cupcakes resemble blobs of spackle instead of fluffy buttercream swirls, and the birthday cake's only decoration is the candles, fear not. With a few simple techniques, you can master the art of using a pastry bag.
First, choose your weapons.
There are pastry tips for every purpose and shape imaginable: basket weave tip, star tip, petal tip, Bismark tip, hair tip, large round, small round, microscopic round, and everything in between.
Luckily, "less is more" is usually the best plan when it comes to tasteful cake decorating, lest your creation resemble something out of Goodfellas. Some star and round tips are fine to start.
In addition to your tips, you will need pastry bags, a coupler to easily interchange tips, and a spatula. Also, a cake turntable is a great asset to any cake decorating project.
Step 1: If using disposable pastry bags, cut a hole at the tip. Reusable pastry bags are generally already cut. Attach your tip of choice onto the pastry bag: Insert the coupler into the bag, attach the tip to the outside of the bag, then attach the two together with the nut.
Fold the pastry bag down about half way over your non-dominant hand. Use a spatula to scoop buttercream into the bag. Don't overfill it -- you will have less control, and the buttercream will ooze out the top of the bag. Press or shake the buttercream towards the bottom of the pastry bag. Twist the bag closed tightly, letting any air pockets escape.
Time to decorate!
The way to create a beautifully-decorated cake? Practice, practice, practice. On a piece of waxed paper, use your dominant hand to squeeze buttercream from the top of the bag, keeping it twisted and pinched closed at the top, and use your other hand to guide the tip as you pipe. Unlike a pen on paper, the pastry bag tip should never touch the cake, but hover right above as you pipe. Continue to twist the pastry bag tight as you use the buttercream, to keep the pressure and make less work for your hand to squeeze.
Create stars by holding your pastry bag fitted with an open star tip vertically hovering above the surface. (Dots can be done the same way but with a round tip.)
For scallops and shells (great for borders), hold the star-tipped bag at an angle. Squeeze the buttercream in one spot, then keep squeezing while pulling the tip quickly away and release. Start piping the next scallop where the last left off so you form a chain.
To make rosettes, use a closed-star tip (though an open-star will work as well). Start in the center, pipe a tight circle, and finish by releasing the pressure and pulling away back into the center. Try using a large star tip and icing cupcakes this way. Large round tip swirls are great for cupcakes as well.
Above all, remember: It doesn't have to be perfect. Just have fun.
What are your favorite ways to decorate cakes and cupcakes? Let us know in the comments!