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How to make perfect cupcakes for any occasion

Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson shares her sweet tips behind perfecting a beloved treat.
Cupcakes with different toppings
Make adorable cupcakes every time by sticking to the recipe.ingwervanille / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Celebrating a summer birthday or just toasting to summer in general? Then it's time to brush up on those cupcake-making skills.

When it comes to cupcakes, Candace Nelson definitely knows her stuff. As the founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes, she pioneered the cupcake-only bakery, launched the first "cupcake ATM" vending machine and wrote the New York Times best-selling book, "The Sprinkles Baking Book." Nelson is also a permanent judge on Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," which is now in its ninth season.

While Sprinkles has more than two dozen bakeries around the country, not everyone can pop in when a hankering for a drool-worthy confection hits. That's why TODAY Food went straight to the source to explore how to make amazing cupcakes every time, whatever the flavor, frosting or occasion.

Choose a flavor that fits

Chocolate, vanilla, red velvet or rainbow? The options of cupcake flavors and frostings are endless and Nelson bakes everything from banana split to vegan red velvet. She also concocts plenty of seasonal treats like summery pink lemonade cupcake and, of course, plenty of pumpkin spice in the fall.

Whatever the occasion, Nelson said that starting off with your favorite flavor is always a win-win. If you're relatively new to baking, there's no need to push the envelope with tricky spices. Once you've mastered the basic mix, try spicing it up with ingredients tailored to whatever is in season.

"Bake what you love! I am a self-professed chocoholic. Lucky for me, chocolate is always in season," Nelson told TODAY. "But beyond that I love using seasonal ingredients. I am endlessly inspired by my local farmers market, currently bursting with ruby strawberries and the beginning of stone fruits."

Make the cake

Aside from "a bit of baker's intuition" and using quality ingredients, Nelson specified that using precise measurements and sticking to the right baking time are both key.

1. Measure: Measure the flour correctly by scooping it into the measuring cup with a spoon and leveling it off with a flat edge, like the back of a knife. Do not pack the flour into the cup as you'll end up with too much. Whenever you're baking, never just eyeball it as less-than-precise measurements will likely throw your entire recipe out of whack.

2. Don't mix too much: Mix the batter just until the flour is integrated and no more. Overmixing activates the gluten in the batter, which will result in a tough cake.

Candace Nelson told TODAY how mixing, measuring and bake times need to be precise for cupcakes to turn out picture-perfect.
Candace Nelson told TODAY how mixing, measuring and bake times need to be precise for cupcakes to turn out picture-perfect.Candace Nelson/Sprinkles Cupcakes

3. Line the cupcake tin: Cupcake liners come in an array of colors, shapes and themes. If using light colored papers, Nelson recommended doubling up the wrappers as just one wrapper often sticks to the cupcake and becomes translucent.

4. Spoon out the batter: Again, don't just eyeball it. Scoop the same amount of batter into each baking cup so each cupcake bakes at the same time. Nelson uses a spring-release ice cream scoop, or "disher," for scooping.

5. Bake time and temperature: Baking time is key and, if you're not familiar with your oven, it's important to take some time to figure out its quirks — some ovens are naturally hotter and may cook your cupcakes a little bit faster. Climate and altitude also cause some variation in how cupcakes turn out. If you have a convection oven, Nelson recommended reducing the recipe temperature by about 25 degrees. Even as an experienced baker, Nelson uses recipe baking times as a guide. Don't be shy to take the cupcakes out and check that they're light and tender to touch and don't have any excess batter when poked with a knife or toothpick.

Mix up a luscious frosting

"Whether you're a cake connoisseur or a frosting fiend, we can all agree that frosting is what makes a cupcake a cupcake," Nelson told TODAY.

To avoid clumpy, watery frostings, follow Nelson's simple tips.

Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson prefers a dense frosting with a smooth, ice cream-like texture.
Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson prefers a dense frosting with a smooth, ice cream-like texture.Candace Nelson/Sprinkles Cupcakes

1. For the smoothest texture: Sift the confectioners' sugar. It might seem like yet another slightly annoying step but in the end, it will be worth it when that frosting is free of lumps.

2. Use right the type of butter: Use fresh, unsalted butter to control the amount of salt. Butter should be slightly cooler than room temperature. Using fine grain sea salt, rather than courser salts, will ensure it dissolves easily. Nobody wants to bite into any crunchy flakes (unless they're on the top with some dark chocolate and caramel).

3. Use a high-quality vanilla extract: Since frosting has so few ingredients, the quality of each ingredient is important. Nelson likes to use Nielsen-Massey vanilla, for example.

4. Create the right texture: If possible, use a stand mixer for maximum control and steady power. Hand mixers work, too. Maintain a medium-low mixing speed and break up the butter by beating it until just smooth. This speed will prevent excess air from being incorporated into the frosting, which results in a "a dense frosting with an ice cream-like texture. For lighter, fluffier textures, Nelson advises beating the frosting faster and longer.

5. Don't wait too long to frost: Always let the cupcakes cool before frosting them (unless you want a goopy, melted mess), but don't wait too long. Frosting the cupcakes after they've baked helps seal in the flavor and freshness of the soft cake.

"I frost cupcakes with an offset spatula, to create the signature Sprinkles swirl. I add a heavy dollop of frosting to the top and scrape away excess while rotating the spatula and cupcake in opposite directions," Nelson said. "If you use this technique, be sure to hold the base of the cupcake lightly — it is delicate!"

Unicorn Cupcakes


Since "a simple swoosh of frosting" and a few sprinkles can make anyone "feel like a kid again," Nelson told TODAY there's no pressure to get elaborate here, despite the endless temptation from food-themed Instagram posts. However, if decorating is half the fun for you and your family, Nelson dished on a few easy ways to turn a plain cupcake into something fanciful.

1. Use a piping bag: Nelson uses piping bags and tips to swirl her frosting into bakery-quality mounds. Use a large start tip to pipe around the perimeter of the cupcake and keep squeezing out the frosting until it's in a nice heap.

Cupcake Decorating
Using a pastry bag is an easy way to make a cupcake look professionally done.DNY59 / Getty Images

2. Try fondant: This pliable decorating material is like edible Play-Doh. Nelson recommend purchasing white fondant and using food coloring gels to achieve a custom shade. Once the color is to your liking, you can mold or cut your fondant into shapes. Fondant cutters look like mini cookie cutters and come in all shapes — flowers, letters, numbers, just to name a few.

3. Go natural: Flowers from the garden or organic (edible!) flowers from the market make lovely toppers. Delicately cut slices of fruit, a dusting of cocoa powder or chocolate shavings are also easy ways to give cupcakes an extra-special gourmet feel that will steal the show at any party.

"I've always said that cupcakes are the little black dress of the pastry world. They are so versatile and can be endlessly customized to enhance any occasion," said Nelson. "Happy baking!"