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It’s the final installment of my three-part series on cupcakes! Are you excited? I’m excited.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Butterscotch Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

We baked great cupcakes in Cupcakes 101, learned frosting techniques in Cupcakes 102, and now we’re on to the main event – the decorations! Decorating cupcakes is SO SUPER FUN, and the decoration will determine the level of “oohs” and “aahs” you get when people first see your cupcakes. The cake itself will wow them as soon as they take a bite, but it’s whatever creation you’ve placed on top that will initially grab their attention.

I chose not to include any decorations involving fondant, gum paste, or modeling chocolate, because those techniques can be complicated and time-consuming. Also, most home cooks don’t have those techniques in their repertoires. My goal with this list was to offer quick, easy-to-make cupcake toppers that will wow a crowd without sucking up all of your free time.

Here are 14 of my favorite ways to top a cupcake with a “wow” factor!

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

Pictured: Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
(Download these printable cupcake tags for free here!)

 

1. Candy

Candy is a quick and simple topping, but it still gives your cupcakes some character. Here, I’ve sliced mini reese’s cups in half and placed them at an angle. Other great candy toppers include M&Ms, Jelly Beans, or pieces of larger chocolate bars.

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

Pictured: Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream 

 

2. Flags or Printed Tags

Tags are my new favorite way to top a cupcake! It’s cute and easy. Customize your own tags for a special event, or download the tags I created for these photos (for FREE!) by clicking here: Life As A Strawberry Cupcake Flags Printable.

Simply cut around the tag shapes, tape them to some toothpicks, and pop them onto your cupcakes for a whimsical and artsy feel.

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream
(Download these free printable cupcake tags for free here!)

 

3. Chocolate “Drawings”

Melt some chocolate over a double boiler and put it in a piping bag fitted with a small round tip (you could also use a ziploc bag and cut a small piece off one corner). Make sure the chocolate is still warm! Pipe your designs or drawings directly on to a piece of wax paper, then let the chocolate set. If you’d like, add some sprinkles to the melted chocolate after you’ve drawn your design for a fun effect! I used white chocolate in the photos below.

I like to let my chocolate cool on the counter for several hours, but if you’re in a hurry, pop it in the fridge for half an hour or so! When chocolate has hardened, gently peel your designs off of the wax paper and push them into your cupcake’s frosting.

  14 Ways to Top a Cupcake Like a Pro Pictured: Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream

 

Do you have a drawing you’d like to recreate in chocolate? Just lay a piece of wax paper directly over the image and trace it with your melted chocolate. If you’d like to create a curved chocolate piece, like the butterfly below, trace the figure in chocolate and fold the waxed paper into the spine of a book while it dries.

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream 

 

4. Fresh Fruit

Fresh fruit is such a lovely way to top a cupcake. To slice a strawberry like you see in the photos here, lay it on a cutting board and slice several thin slices ALMOST all the way to the stem. Don’t slice all the way to the stem or the berry won’t hold together. When you’ve sliced the berry, pull the pieces out in a sideways fan and place directly on the cupcake. Use any fruit you’d like – berries of any kind are always a hit in my house.

I love using fruit that’s a component in the cupcake recipe, too: if you’re making applesauce cupcakes, garnish with a slice of apple. Making lemon-y cupcakes? Garnish with a slice of citrus!

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Pumpkin Ale Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

 

A word of caution with any fruit (berries especially), though: don’t put it on top of a cupcake until you’re ready to eat. If a berry or other juicy fruit is in contact with the sugary frosting for too long, it will react with the sugar and begin to macerate, or soften and release some juice. The last thing you want is a sticky cupcake covered in fruit mush! Place fruit at the last possible moment to ensure a crisp, fresh bite.

 

14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Pumpkin Ale Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

 

5. Ganache

Ganache is a great choice if you’re decorating a large number of cupcakes. You can spoon it quickly on top of frosting and not have to worry if it gets a little messy – it will just look artsy. To make a simple chocolate ganache, bring 1/4 cup of milk to a simmer, then remove it from the heat and pour it over 1 cup of room temperature semi-sweet chocolate chips. For a mint chocolate ganache, add 1/4 teaspoon of mint extract as well, or switch it up and make a Chocolate Butterscotch Ganache. Stir the mixture until the milk has melted all of the chocolate and you’re left with a smooth, glossy sauce. Let it cool on the counter for a few minutes so it will thicken – a thicker ganache gives you a bit more control over where it lands when you pour it over a cupcake. You can dip the tops of cupcakes directly into the bowl of ganache for a smooth, glossy finish, or spoon a bit over frosted cupcakes (as seen below) for a fun drizzle-y effect.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Frost a Cupcake Like a Pro  Pictured: Mint Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream and Mint Chocolate Ganache

 

6. Sugar Cages

Caramel sugar cages look super fancy and complicated and intimidating. But I’ll tell you a secret: they aren’t that tough!  You just need the right setup. Whisk 1/2 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar together in a non-stick saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep an eye on it – you don’t want the caramel to overcook because it will taste bitter. While the caramel heats up, spray a few large wooden spoons with non-stick cooking spray and pin them to a counter or stovetop with a heavy pan. You could also tape them down, but that takes a lot of effort. I also put a layer of paper towels on the floor under the handles to catch any rogue caramel that falls. Here’s what my setup usually looks like:

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

When the caramel hits 340 degrees Fahrenheit (check this with a candy thermometer!) and has turned a light golden color, it’s ready! Remove it from the heat and let cool until it’s reached the consistency of thick corn syrup, about 5 minutes. Then take one spoonful of caramel at a time and drizzle it quickly back and forth over the spoon handles. The caramel should fall in light strands, and it will solidify pretty quickly as it falls.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

Spoon 4 or 5 spoonfuls of caramel across the spoon handles, then set the caramel aside and cup your hands at the lowest point of the caramel strands. Gently pull the strands together with your hands into a ball and gather as much of the caramel together as you’d like for one cupcake topper, then pull the nest off of the strands and set it aside to cool. It’s important to collect the nests while the caramel is still warm – if it cools too much, it will snap into smithereens as you gather it into a nest. You want the caramel to gently bend into shape, not break!

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Isn’t Kyle an awesome hand model?

 

You’ll be able to get 1 or 2 nests out of 4-5 spoonfuls of caramel drizzle. When you’ve collected all the caramel from one round of drizzling, repeat the process! If your caramel cools too much, you can heat it up briefly on the stovetop until it’s back to the original consistency. When you’re ready to decorate the cupcakes, gently press a nest into the cupcake’s fresh frosting for an ethereal topper that is sure to impress. PS – this was Kyle’s favorite out of all the cupcake toppings I made him taste test.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Butterscotch Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

 

You can also use this caramel recipe for the pulled caramel ribbons (instructions are #13 on this list!)

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Butterscotch Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

 

7. Cookies

I love cookies! And I love cupcakes. So naturally, I combine the two of them whenever I can. Use a whole cookie as a topper or slice them in half for a different shape. I used Thin Mints here (YAY THIN MINTS) and also used a bit of mint ganache on top.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Mint Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Fudge Frosting and Mint Chocolate Ganache

 

8. Chocolate Covered Krispy Towers

These are so cool. And they are SO EASY! I think I might be in love.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

Melt 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate over a double boiler, then stir in 1 cup of rice krispy cereal. Spread it out in a thin layer on a piece of wax paper. Try to make sure that you have “branches” that are solidly connected, so that your towers will hold their shape when you break them apart later. Let the chocolate sit on the counter for a few hours to harden or pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes or so, until chocolate has set.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

When chocolate has set, gently break it into 1 to 2 inch tall “towers.” Sink these towers into fresh frosting and voila! You’ve got a pretty spiffy cupcake.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

9. Chocolate Shavings

This is another simple topping trick that will give your cupcakes a serious “WOW” factor with very little effort. To make chocolate shavings, grate cold chocolate with a microplane while you hold it directly over a cupcake. If you want more pronounced swirls, run a vegetable peeler down the side of a room-temperature chocolate bar to produce beautiful chocolate curls! This photo used the vegetable peeler technique, though I peeled the chocolate in short strokes for small curls (rather than long strokes for larger curls). I love using a microplane for large batches of cupcakes because I can line them all up and grate chocolate over them all very quickly. If I’m doing a smaller batch and want them to be a little fancier, I’ll use the vegetable peeler method to get some thick curls of chocolate.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Mint Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream

 

10. Drizzle-y-ness

Chocolate drizzle is another quick but beautiful way to enhance the appearance of your cupcakes. I like to use a variety of topping choices: here, I’ve melted some peanut butter chips and some semi-sweet chocolate chips for two contrasting colors of drizzle. Use any kind of chocolate you’d like, or experiment with butterscotch or peanut butter chips for a bit of pizzaz. I like to use two kinds of drizzle, and I melt about 1/2 cup of each flavor over a double boiler (in separate bowls), then spoon the still-warm chocolate (or peanut butter or butterscotch) into ziploc bags, cut a small corner off, and drizzle each flavor in opposite directions over the cupcake to achieve an artsy look.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Butterscotch Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

 

 11. Mini “Cupcakes”

These toppings are so fun and whimsical. To create a “mini” cupcake, unwrap a Reese’s cup (or a mini Reese’s cup, which I used for these photos!) and frost it with a pastry bag and piping tip just like you did the real cupcakes. Add some sprinkles to the real cupcakes and the mini Reese’s cupcakes, and set each Reese’s cup on top of your frosting at an angle. How cute, right?

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Pictured: Chocolate Greek Yogurt Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream

 

12. Chocolate Bubble Wrap

I know I have a lot of favorite cupcake toppings…but here’s another one. This is a new addition to my cupcake arsenal, and I am LOVING it. It’s so unique and I love using both white and dark chocolate to create a marble-like product.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

To make the chocolate bubble wrap, melt 1 cup each of semi-sweet and white chocolate in separate bowls over a double boiler. Spread the white chocolate over a piece of bubble-side-up bubble wrap and pop it in the freezer for five minutes to let it set a bit. Pull it out of the freezer and spread the semi-sweet chocolate right on top of the white chocolate, then let it set on the counter for a few hours or stick it in the fridge for about 45 minutes.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

When the chocolate has set, peel the bubble wrap off of it and break it into chunks, then top each cupcake with a piece of chocolate bubble wrap!

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

But seriously…this is super cool, right? (And also delicious….because it’s CHOCOLATE).

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

13. Pulled Caramel Ribbons

Caramel ribbons take a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of them they’re quick to make and they look SUPER fancy. Plus, the hard caramel tastes like a delicious lollipop. WIN.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

As with the sugar nests above, whisk 1/2 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar together in a nonstick skillet and simmer until the mixture has reached 340-360 degrees Fahrenheit. But this time, remove the caramel from the heat and pour it onto a nonstick baking sheet (I love to use my Silpat for this).

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

Let the sugar cool for a minute or two until you can stand to touch the Silapt around it. It will be HOT, so if you don’t have a lot of pain tolerance in your fingertips I recommend using rubber kitchen gloves to work with the sugar. Sugar burns are VERY VERY PAINFUL, so be extremely careful whenever you’re working with sugar. To prepare the sugar for pulling, fold the Silpat in half and then pull it back to its normal orientation. The sugar will stick together as it cools.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

Keep folding and unfolding the Silpat over the sugar to work the sugar into a large lump, like so:

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro Please ignore my weird-looking hands. Thanks.

 

When you’ve formed your sugar lump, snip off a thick piece and carefully pull it from each side to form a smooth ribbon.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

As you pull the ribbons, the sugar will start to harden, so you have to work quickly. Twist the ribbon as you go and use scissors to snip off 1″ or 2″ sections. Set the twisted pieces aside and continue working piece by piece from the larger lump. If the sugar gets too hard to work with, put the sugar lump in the oven at 250 degrees for 3-4 minutes until it is pliable again.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

When you’ve pulled all of your sugar ribbons, stick one or two pieces into the center of each frosted cupcake. Ta-da! You’re practically a professional cupcake-er. Cupcake decorator? Baker? Whatever. You’re awesome.

 

 Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

14. More Cupcake!

And now the grand finale! Well, it’s not really that grand. It’s super simple, but this method still delivers some oomph to your finished cupcakes. I’ve had many days when I’ve made a huge assortment of cupcakes, frosted them, gone to put on a finishing touch, and OH WAIT! I’m out of EVERYTHING. Whenever that happens, I slice up a few of my cupcakes and carve out fun shapes to top the rest of the batch. Use small cookie cutters or carve freehand with a paring knife for best results. To prepare your canvas, slice an unfrosted cupcake into 3 or 4 layers, like so:

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

And then cut out some shapes. Throw those cupcake shapes on top of frosted cupcakes for a quick and simple upgrade to a professional-looking cupcake.

 

Cupcakes 103: 14 Ways to Decorate Cupcakes Like a Pro

 

Still looking for cupcake decoration ideas? Here are some other techniques I use on the regular:

Chocolate Covered Pretzels
Sprinkles! Of course.
Fondant
Modeling Chocolate
Gum Paste
Lollipops

 

I hope this post has inspired you to go cupcake crazy! Professional-looking cupcakes aren’t hard to master if you put in the time and effort. Have another favorite way to top a cupcake? Leave a comment to share your technique! And don’t forget to read Cupcakes 101 and Cupcakes 102 from earlier this week. Happy cupcake-ing, everyone!

{ 26 comments }

Leave a Comment

  • JayBee April 17, 2014, 3:03 PM

    I came across you’re blog today while looking for cupcake tips. I read the other the two cupcake posts but thought of not reading this because I thought I would it probably be filled up with stuff that a beginner like me couldn’t do. But I was so wrong! This post is AMAZINGGG!! I’m gonna try out each of these! You are so talented ^_^

    Reply
  • Hong Mai March 24, 2014, 2:07 AM

    Dear Jessie,

    I came across your blog when looking for tips to perfect my cupcakes and I’m now opening tons of tabs to read all your posts. Your blog is so great! I can see a funny, lovely and creative girl through your words. And the pictures are all stunning!! I learnt a lots here!

    Thank you and please keep on posting!! :)

    Reply
    • Jessie April 1, 2014, 9:28 PM

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you found the blog and am happy to know you’re enjoying it!

      Reply
  • Sylvia March 17, 2014, 7:18 PM

    Am into cupcakes now and your articles has really inspired me. This is exactly what i was looking for in baking cupcakes. Hope to start a small business selling cupcakes soon.

    Reply
  • allie :D February 27, 2014, 6:57 PM

    i love the caramel ribbons! i am hoping to own my own bakery and i will defenitly use them on my cupcakes. they r so easy to make and all of my friens loved them. they have asked me to bake more!!! i hope that you post more decorating ideas.

    Reply
  • CoCo January 26, 2014, 7:23 AM

    Great info, thank you. I’m looking for a red velvet icing with cream cheese that I can pipe on cupcakes.

    Also, do you have some similiar info for muffins?

    Reply
    • Jessie February 8, 2014, 12:13 PM

      I don’t have my own red velvet icing recipes, but cream-cheese based frostings are usually popular for red velvet cake. If you want the frosting itself to be reminiscent of red velvet, you could add a bit of cocoa and red food coloring – that’s a popular way to get the red velvet color in the cake, although it can also be done with beets. There’s a neat looking beet frosting recipe here that might be worth a try.

      As far as muffins go, a lot of the info in my 10 Tips to Bake Cupcakes post is actually very similar – don’t overmix the batter, don’t open the oven too soon, etc. You could definitely apply this same info. to any muffin recipe.

      Reply
    • Liz February 20, 2014, 11:10 PM

      my favorite to put on red velvet:

      8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
      1 tsp vanilla extract
      1 cup confectioners sugar (or more/less to taste)
      1 cup heavy whipping cream

      Cream the cream cheese with the vanilla and sugar until until light and fluffy. When you reach desired sweetness add the cream and whip until you have stiff peaks.
      I use it all the time to pipe on red velvet.

      Reply
      • Liz February 20, 2014, 11:31 PM

        Sorry. I just realized that it’s 2 cups of heavy whipping cream not 1. It yields enough for about 24 cupcakes.

        Reply
  • Jen January 13, 2014, 8:40 AM

    Thank you for sharing your talents

    Reply
  • Deena January 4, 2014, 3:16 PM

    I have been ready your blog all day here bored at work. I recently realized that I should have started baking many years ago, as I absolutely love every moment of it! I enjoy your writings so much and love all the fun and creative ideas! Thanks so much!!!

    Reply
    • Jessie January 7, 2014, 11:12 PM

      You totally made my day. Thank you so much!

      Reply
  • beb November 26, 2013, 9:17 PM

    great tutorial! so glad I came to this site. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. God bless you and keep posting more ideas :)

    Reply
  • Carla Arriola November 11, 2013, 12:45 PM

    how do you make a delicious fondant people will love? fondant seems to be really great to work with for decorating but people say they dint like the taste

    Reply
    • Jessie November 13, 2013, 8:09 PM

      I used to have the same problem with fondant – it tasted so plastic-y when I used store-bought or made it with gelatin. I’ve been making my own for 2 or 3 years now with this recipe: 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup light corn syrup, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, 1 lb. powdered sugar. You can knead it by hand or use the dough hook in a mixer. It tastes a LOT better than the fondant I was used to before, but it’s very sweet so use it sparingly! Also, since it uses butter, it will melt more quickly, so you have to work fast. I store it in the fridge or freezer until I’m ready to use it and keep plenty of powdered sugar on hand while I roll or shape it so that it won’t get sticky. It’s gotten great reviews, though! Maybe I’ll post a fondant tutorial next :)

      Reply
  • Nicole September 24, 2013, 7:10 PM

    Great ideas! I especially like the bubble wrap idea.

    Reply
  • Lana September 10, 2013, 2:02 PM

    Great tutorial. Thanks a lot for sharing it with us.

    Reply
  • Shauna September 6, 2013, 3:51 AM

    Hey Jessie
    Love your Cupcake info series…thanks so much for posting it

    Reply
  • Lynn Daum August 21, 2013, 10:54 AM

    Great ideas and so simple. Very interested in ur site.

    Reply
  • Lauren August 17, 2013, 5:21 PM

    These are great tutorials. When I look on blogs, I feel so intimidated by all the crazy designs and elaborate details. Your blog makes me feel like I can actually make pretty cupcakes! I love the caramel cage tutorial, that actually doesn’t seem impossible like I thought. Thanks for sharing your secrets with us.

    Reply
  • Kale August 17, 2013, 3:56 PM

    Fantastic tutorial series – thanks so much! I’ve been experimenting with cupcakes a lot lately, making goodies for treat club at work, & look forward to taking things up a level with your techniques. I see some caramel nests in my future… : )

    Reply
  • Queenie August 17, 2013, 3:45 PM

    Wow… what a great job creating these ideas. I shall create some of your 14 ways of toppings very soon. Nice photo’s and loved how you explained everything in detail in every post. Thanks Jessie!

    Reply
  • Rhonda August 17, 2013, 11:23 AM

    I love these ideas! You make it all look and sound so easy, way to go. Plus the photos are awesome-are they for purchase on etsy yet?

    Reply
  • S August 17, 2013, 12:17 AM

    I just want to say thank you for posting this series, and how much I have learned from it. Though cupcake isn’t new for me, I haven’t really ventured out in making them in a creative nor beautiful way.

    I’m going to now. Because you make it undaunting and now I feel like unleashing the girly side of me from just looking at your beautiful photos.

    Reply
    • Jessie August 28, 2013, 12:25 PM

      Thank you! I’m so glad you found this series helpful! I had a lot of fun putting it together :)

      Reply