Must-have equipment for buttercream cakemakers
If you’re going to get into making buttercream cakes, the good news is that you don’t need very much kit at all - none of the stencils, moulds, modelling tools and so on that you’d need if you were making fondant cakes. Thing is, as the buttercream market grows, there will always be gadgets becoming available; most of which will be a waste of money.
You only need a few things, but you really do need them. The first is a heavy-duty stand mixer. I used to have the KitchenAid Artisan and thought I’d been clever when I needed something bigger and replaced it with the Kenwood Major. Big mistake. Terrible quality attachments, so light it jumped around the worktop and actually crashed onto the floor mixing American buttercream, and deafeningly noisy. So I got the massive KitchenAid Heavy Duty and love it. There are a LOT of KitchenAid haters out there, but this machine is above reproach. Mine was secondhand so it’s got a few chips but still. And get the silicone beater; it really gets to the bottom of the bowl.
Next up, piping tips. Don’t be seduced by huge sets of 45 tips on Amazon: you only need a few to create the most elaborate flowers: a Wilton 104 petal tip, 352 leaf tip, 81 small curve, hair tip, and a couple of little writing tips for stems and small flower centres. I actually buy my petal tips from a company in Korea, but the 104 is a good multitasker for roses, camellias, frills and large leaves.
If you plan to use lots of colours and create complex designs, you’ll probably have noticed that you’ll go through piping bags like there’s no tomorrow. This is an environmental fail I know, but if you use an adapter to attach your tips you may be able to limit wastage a little.
I buy millions of terrible quality disposable piping bags on eBay from various manufacturers in China. They’re ridiculously cheap, but they are quite flimsy. If you’re piping with a stiff buttercream I’d recommend doubling up, or maybe invest in some good quality savoy piping bags (which are much bigger as well, so good for filling).
If you’ve progressed from piping on cupcakes to larger cakes you’ll need to pipe your decorations on a flower nail and transfer them after a brief spell in the freezer or fridge. Get the biggest you can find, preferably without a threaded stem (which will rust immediately). Why do they have threaded stems? don’t buy plastic, it won’t last very long.
It’s sensible to stick a greaseproof paper square on your piping nail and transfer your flower on it. If you’re going to add a centre or some other detail to your flower before it’s finished and need to hang out with it for a bit, it’s good to have a piping nail block, to stand it in for a bit. My husband made me these to apologise for ruining my favourite jumper in the tumble dryer, and they’re brilliant. You can buy them, but they’re easy enough to make.
To transfer flowers, always use a flower lifter. Some makers use scissors, but these are flexible so you can really press into your base buttercream for a secure fix. They’re made by Wilton and available on Amazon, and can go in the dishy but they will get a bit bendy after a while.
A good quality turntable is essential. For smooth sides when applying buttercream to a round cake, you need to spin your cake quite fast and it needs to travel smoothly. Get a heavy one with bearings, and a non-slip foot. Tilting turntables, in my opinion, are rubbish. It’s helpful to be able to tilt your cake to work on the bottom but you can’t lock them so they just keep swinging and spinning while you’re trying to work. I’ve bought a couple of lazy susans in charity shops - one is slate so quite heavy - and they’re brilliant. Always use a non-slip mat - for decorating and transporting your cakes. don’t buy individual ones, they’re a rip off. Buy a roll of the stuff. If you’ve got loads you can give customers collecting a bit as well, they’ll appreciate it for the journey home.
It’s all about palette knife painting at the mo, as you’ve probably noticed. Good little palette knives are more difficult to find than you’d think. Don’t get plastic. You need a medium, pointed knife and a smaller rounded one. I was given mine by the incredible Kwun of Buttercream and Blossoms (sorry about the massive name drop but she’s my absolute hero). You can get similar on Amazon, but you’re better off going to an art shop in real life and having a rummage. Make sure the neck is flexible. That’s the most important thing.
Other things: smoothers , whether you use a stainless steel or flexible plastic one is personal preference. Kwun (I know, sorry) uses a playing card! I prefer the cheap plastic ones. Don’t put them in the dishy, they bend; levellers, I use a wire, which is fine for sponge cakes, but if you’ve got a major birthday coming up you could ask for the Agbay, which takes cake slicing to another level.