Friday, January 14, 2011

How to Pipe Cupcake Swirls

Piping icing can be a pretty fussy business - delicate threads and fussy little flowers. However, once you get the hang of it I reckon icing cupcakes with a piping bag is actually quicker than spreading icing on, with the added bonus that people are usually super impressed by piped icing. Just don't tell them how easy it is. ;-)

You need some cupcakes, icing, a piping bag, a piping tip, and a spatula or spoon. The piping tip most commonly used for cupcake swirls (though you can also use a large round tip or different star tips) is the Wilton 1M, or its equivalent. It's a large piping tip, so doesn't work with a normal coupler (that's a little plastic gadget which allows you to switch piping tips with the bag full of icing).

The icing you use is up to you, but it must be reasonably firm - not too firm to squeeze through a piping tip (you'll know it if you try to use it!) but firm enough to hold its shape once it's been squeezed out. I used cream cheese icing, which can be tricky to get firm enough (room temperature butter is the key - and never spreadable cream cheese!); other good options are whipped chocolate ganache, and meringue buttercreams. It is important the icing is smooth - lumps will prevent the icing flowing smoothly (or at all, if they're big enough!).

If you have a "proper" piping bag it will usually already have a hole for couplers or tips. I mostly use disposable bags, which are heavy-duty enough that you can wash and re-use them a few times if you want. This means I have to cut a hole for the piping tip. Hold the tip against the bag to work out where you should snip, and then push the tip into the bag to see if the hole fits. It just needs to be big enough to not obstruct any of the openings on the tip - you can see my bag is a very snug fit. If the hole isn't big enough the first time just adjust it till you get it right - always better to cut too small a hole to begin with, as it's much harder to make a large hole shrink!

There are a couple of ways of filling the bag with icing. Some people prefer to sit the bag inside a cup, with the top edges folded over the cup edge. The advantage of this is your hands are more free. Personally I prefer to hold the bag, with the edges folded over my hand - I think this gives me a little more control - but how you do it is up to you. Scoop the icing in, trying to avoid getting air pockets, until the bag is up to 2/3 full - any more and it'll probably start oozing out the top over your hand.

Twist the top of the bag to hold the icing in and hold it as shown above. I'm a lefty so you may want to hold the bag in your other hand if you're not - but whatever feels right to you is fine (some piping tips come in left- and right-handed versions, for certain flower petals and things that are piped in one direction - but mostly it's not an issue - I don't have any special left-handed equipment!).

You can use your other hand to steady the bag. For cupcake swirls I usually don't, but I used to - and I still do if I'm piping fiddly things.

Before you start piping onto the cupcake squeeze a little icing back into the bowl, to check the consistency of the icing (it should hold its shape) and get rid of extra air.

To start the swirl, place the tip to one side of the cupcake, slightly above the surface. Gently and steadily squeeze the icing out until it attaches to the cake, then, continuing to pipe the icing, move the piping tip around the cupcake. I always go anti-clockwise but that's just what seems natural - it doesn't matter which way you go.

Once you've completed a loop around the outside move the piping tip in a little and lift it slightly to create the next loop. On a normal cupcake, with the 1M tip, I get about two full loops - but if you're using a smaller tip you'll go round more times, and on a mini cupcake you'll barely get one. Consistency of icing and your particular squeezing peculiarities will affect this too - doing is the best form of learning in this instance!

To finish off the swirl bring the tip into the centre, lift it very slightly, then stop squeezing completely and lift the piping bag away altogether. Stopping the pressure on the bag is the most important part (and I think the hardest bit to teach yourself to do) - but really this is a pretty low-effort activity. It takes a few tries to get the hang of it but soon you'll be churning out the fancy cupcakes!

Voila! Cupcake! Please excuse the packet of chips in the background. ;-)

I've done so many of these I could probably do them in my sleep - actually, it was quite a challenge trying to do it slowly so Mr Cake could snap the photos above. Isn't it funny how you get to the automation stage of doing things where thinking about the task throws you off completely? Have you experienced the it's-easy-if-you-don't-think-about-it thing?


  1. They look delicious! I always have trouble decorating my cupcakes- making them is no sweat, but I always seem to fail in the 'making them look pretty' department.

  2. This is exactly the kind of post that you excel at,and a good part of the reason I enjoy your blog so much.

    Good work,and cheers to Mr Cake as well for the pics.

  3. I'm a bit wobbly with a piping bag. My swirls start out gorgeously swirly, then I get the wobbles, and it all starts to look a wee bit strange :)

    Do you have a favourite cupcake recipe?

  4. Emma, thanks - it took me a lot of cupcakes to discover that mine would look better if I pipe the icing. ;-)

    Anon, awww, thank you! I've passed on your gratitude to Mr Cake, too - he is great, isn't he?

    Kaz, I get like that sometimes - usually when I'm trying too hard. ;-) I have lots of favourites - these ones are lemon yoghurt, which is pretty unbeatable for its moistness and zing, so I make these pretty often.

    Deb, thank you! Hope you found it helpful. :-)

  5. The 1M tip does work with a large coupler though, so all is not lost there! :)

    I love making cupcakes, I wish every cake order I did was cupcakes, so quick and easy!

  6. I always forget large couplers exist! And yeah, gotta love the cupcakes. :-D


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