Whether decorating an elaborate wedding cake, swirling frosting atop cupcakes, filling deviled eggs, or piping pâte à choux for churros, the best way to instantly upgrade your game is to use a piping bag outfitted with a decorating tip. But unless you’re a professional, it’s hard to know what to buy: There are hundreds of bags and tips sold in all different sizes, materials, and designs. We wondered if decorating sets—kits that come with pastry bags and a selection of decorating tips—make getting started any easier.
We tried five sets, priced from $11.63 to $29.95, each containing between nine and 12 pastry tips and either cloth or plastic bags. Most sets also came with a large threaded plastic nozzle called a coupler, which adheres the tip to the bag and makes it easier to switch tips in the middle of a project.
Professional and novice testers sampled every tip in each set, piping lines, flowers, leaves, swirls, stars, and borders with colorful buttercream. We also decorated cakes (including a three-tier wedding cake), piped out stiff pâte à choux for churros, swirled mounds of hot duchess potatoes, and filled curried deviled eggs.
By the end of testing, it was clear that reusable cloth bags weren’t worth the fuss. No matter how many times we washed them, reusable bags either clung to smells or looked tie-dyed from food stains—spotted pink from frosting and yellow from curried deviled egg filling (though these smells and stains didn’t leach into other fillings). Most were too floppy and drooped uncomfortably over testers’ arms as they piped. One canvas bag was too stiff and took extra effort to squeeze. We preferred disposable plastic bags, which were less floppy, easier to handle, and effortless to clean. (Gallon-sized freezer bags can be outfitted with a pastry tip in a pinch, though their wider angle makes them prone to ripping when used with thick or heavy fillings like pâte à choux and duchess potatoes.)
Unfortunately, the only set with disposable bags was also the only set lacking a coupler. While not necessary for most tasks, a coupler was helpful for decorating cakes, where we frequently switched between tips with different designs.
We asked our pro testers to sort each set’s decorating tips into three categories: essentials, nice-to-have, and weak links—tips that were too similar, weren’t sized properly, or were designs they’d never use. We were left with six essential tips: a small round writing tip, a larger round tip for bigger designs, a large open star tip, a large closed star tip, a leaf tip, and a petal tip. Surprisingly, none of the sets had all the essentials—every product was bogged down by duplicate or superfluous designs. It was also clear that the openings on most tips were either too small or too big. We preferred tips with openings between ¼ and ½ inch wide. Smaller tips clogged easily and took an expert hand to wield well. Larger tips made gloppy, messy decorations. Properly sized tips were versatile and easy to work with—perfect for cupcake swirls, fillings, and cake decorating.
While the Wilton 20-piece Beginning Buttercream Decorating Set ($12.20) made a good starter set and came close to having everything we wanted—with five of the six essential tips and a plethora of disposable plastic bags—some testers complained that its 12-inch bags were too snug, and the set still lacked a large closed star tip and a coupler. We knew we could assemble something better à la carte, so we took a trip to the craft store and bought six individual Wilton tips in the correct sizes, a twelve-pack of 16-inch bags, and a set of couplers. For just over $15.00, the test kitchen’s do-it-yourself decorating set provides everything you need for perfectly decorated pastry, with no redundant tips or extras.