Let’s talk about tools.
When I started home decorating, just for family, I didn’t buy anything fancy. I slowly added to my tools as I decided what would be most useful. So I will talk about what tools I use now, plus alternatives I used before investing in something specialized.
Mixers: Let’s jump in at the deep end. One thing I loved about the Craftsy class that got me started on this journey, called “Startup Library: Cake Decorating”, was that the teacher used a hand-held electric mixer for the whole thing. So if you are a home baker looking to up your game for the half-dozen cakes you make each year, you rock that hand mixer!
However, I realized very quickly that if I were to make cakes professionally, even a couple per month, I would want a stand mixer. It saves arm strength, allows multi tasking, and is just way more powerful. A few things, like making my own fondant, would not really be feasible without a stand mixer.
My husband is the best at deal hunting, and found mine on a Black Friday sale for less than 500$ CAD. That’s a steal. I grew up with Kitchen Aid; I love that brand and find it very reliable. I have no experience with others to recommend them or not. It’s totally by accident that my mixers match!
Scale: I have become a big fan of the kitchen scale. Whenever I can, I weigh my ingredients. Partly because it’s so much more accurate than using a scoop. That’s the “official” reason. But honestly, I love that I don’t have to hunt through my drawers for a scoop, make sure I have a clean one for each ingredient, level off my flour, and then clean the scoop. Blah blah blah. Speed and efficiency, guys! This was one of my first investments.
Ordinary tools: lots of the stuff you need, you probably have hanging around your kitchen already. At least I did; I don’t know what your kitchen is like. Things like measuring spoons, bowls, a rubber spatula, a whisk, cooling racks, a glass or metal bowl with a small pot to use as a double boiler (for Swiss meringue buttercream), and a bread knife (for trimming cakes). I keep around a disposable plastic knife for helping loosen cakes from pans.
Of course you will make liberal use of your oven, with support from your stove and microwave. I eventually bought a simple oven thermometer to make sure my oven was working the way I want it to.
How about cake specific tools?
There’s cake pans, of course. I started out with two 8” round pans, and two 13×9” pans I had already for casseroles, which can get you really far. I slowly expanded my collection in the following order: 2 6” round pans (I wish I had 4), 2 more 8” pans for a total of 4, 2 10” round pans, and 2 12” round pans. The latter I have only used a couple of times. I also got a set of oval pans that someone was destashing, but I’ve never used them. Really, just think about the size and shape of cakes that you like to make, and invest in enough that you can put a whole batch of cake batter in the oven at once.
Most of the cake specific tools are decorating tools. The bench scraper is quite important for getting a sharp buttercream coat, though if you have a wide acrylic ruler or something, you could hack it (just clean it really well). The offset spatula is awfully useful; I mostly just use the medium sized one, though the short one is handy too. I got a set of piping tips, pretty basic, that have done me fine.
I don’t know what their proper names are. The ones I use most are the the little circle (for writing and pearls), the big circle (for all sorts of stuff), various stars (for rosettes and swirls), and the flat ones with teeth (for basket weave and shells). I use the rose bud tip for piping flowers, though I took a hammer to it to flatten it out to a better shape, and various leaf tips. To the basic set I added a jumbo tip set, mostly for the grass tip, though I get some use out of the big star tips too. If you’re going to be doing a lot of roses you could get a set of rose nails, though I find I don’t need them much. (I hacked a rose nail out of a bottle top, some silly putty, and a pencil that worked for a long time.)
Turntable: a nice turntable is a bit of an investment, but is just so nice if you’re doing a lot of decorating. Before I got one of these, I used a small plastic lazy Susan I had sitting around the house. This worked OK, though it had a small lip at the edge that made it harder to use. I managed, though. (Sorry I can’t find it to photograph it.)
If you’re playing with fondant or gum paste, there is absolutely no end to the specialty tools available for decorating. I try to keep my collection fairly minimal. I have a fairly unusual relationship with fondant decorating anyways. I’ll explain that to you toward the end of this series, at which point the below will make more sense. Here is my small tool collection, with a description of how useful I find each one.
I have two sets of cutters – circle cutters of various sizes, and small geometric shape cutters. These cover my bases very well for all kinds of creative cutting; I use them lots. On my wish list is a set of letter cutters. A rolling pin for rolling fondant; a smaller one with spacers is also on my wish list. I have a tiny set of fondant tools that I frankly don’t use that often. The ball tool is useful for smoothing connections between two shapes. The stitch tool I have used exactly once. The knife one I use most often, though I’d probably be better served by a nice Exacto knife. And of course a fondant smoother, mostly useful if you’re covering cakes with fondant, which I almost never do, but it’s also handy if you’re putting a ton of shapes on a cake and want them looking nice.
This isn’t for fondant, but a pair of tweezers can be surprisingly helpful for those times you’re feeling fussy about sprinkles. I also bought a pvc cutter for cutting dowels for stacking. More on that later. You might have a tool already that works for this.
Finally, for cleanliness and food safety, I always wear a hair covering. Rather than buy hair nets, I have made and collected a variety of bandanna-like cloths. My favourites are actually old flannel baby blankets I got at the thrift store. Any kid helping me has to wear one too: Dooner’s favourites are cut from this LOL cloth that a friend of mine found!
It’s also handy to have disposable gloves. I don’t use them all the time, but definitely for coloring fondant. If I am ever a little sick when I’m baking or decorating, I wear both gloves and a mask. It should go without saying that I wash my hands all the time! This might seem weird but I don’t wear aprons that much. I should; instead I just walk around with buttercream on my pants!
That about covers what I use. I’ve accumulated these tools slowly, and changed several times how I store them. What other tools do you like to have? Especially that you use a lot?