You don't have to have a major sweet tooth to be over-the-moon excited about your wedding cake. After all, the tiered treat plays an important role in your big day. Not only will it stand tall and be photographed dozens of times, but all of your guests will likely surround you and cheer you on as you feed each other your first "married" slice. It's an exciting and special—not to mention delicious—part of your celebration. But few newly engaged couples realize just how expensive a wedding cake is—and can be. And when they get a quote from a baker, many brides and grooms experience major sticker shock. Why is a wedding cake so expensive?
From the high-quality ingredients and complex flavors to the time it takes to create custom cake designs (not to mention the price of delivering a dessert that can weigh as much as 50 pounds), there are many factors that contribute to the price of a wedding cake, says Liz Berman, owner of The Sleepy Baker in Natick, Massachusetts. Is your dessert really worth the price you're hearing? The short answer: Yes. Here, the longer answer, as told by wedding cake bakers from around the country.
First and foremost, remember that part of what you're paying for is peace of mind. You might be able to get a more affordable price from a baker who has less experience creating wedding cakes, but there are benefits of hiring a pro with years of big-day desserts under their belts. "You're not just paying for flour and sugar—you're paying for time, artistry, skill, expertise, advice and the ability to provide and transport a cake that looks good, tastes good and is created in a licensed and insured facility," says explains Janette Stenstrom, owner or All Things Cake in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "It's not fun to think about what could happen should your guests get sick from a cake made by a friend, or if the cake isn't transported properly and never makes it to the reception."
But it's not just experience you're paying for, either. What's inside the cake is a factor, too. Just like when you go to the supermarket and decide on which quality groceries to get for your meals—be it organic, all-natural, or pasture-raised—the same consideration and cost inflation goes into selecting ingredients for your cake. "Fresh fruits or curds, mousse, alcohol, ganache—all of those ingredients are more expensive," says Berman. "Additionally, any ingredient that is rare, out of season, or liquor-infused might drive up the cost of a cake." Even vanilla is more expensive than other types of flavoring, as Arlene Murray, owner and cake artist at Polkadot Cupcake Shop, in Nutley, New Jersey, explains. Over the last few years, it's been incredible hard to find quality vanilla extract and vanilla beans at reasonable prices due to adverse weather wiping out the crop in Madagascar. "Vanilla beans that were once averaging about $11/lb in 2011 hit $193/lb in 2016, which (you guessed it!) causes your cake designer to raise their prices to compensate."
Just like anything you buy, from clothing to houses and even cars, your wedding cake is going to cost more when it's designed just for you and not mass produced. One example of this is hand-piping. "Royal or buttercream icing is often piped to mimic a specific pattern from the wedding invitation or an accent on the bride's dress," explains Stenstrom. Ombré is another technique that can cost a bit more. "Each color represented in the ombré pattern must be mixed individually and added to the cake," she says. Additionally, metallic accents are very popular right now, but their cost can vary, Stenstrom adds. "Just as the prices of quality ingredients can fluctuate, so can edible gold and silver leaf, which is passed on to the couple."
Then you might be thinking, "If an embellished cake is more expensive, why don't I just choose one that's less detail-oriented to save some money?" Sure, you may see a savings by selecting a less intricate wedding cake, but it's not always that black and white. Especially because what you consider "simple" may still be fairly labor intensive. "Many wedding cakes that are perceived as simple have a clean, sophisticated, and monochromatic look to them," says Stenstrom. "This look is achieved with skill, time and artistry, which can cost more." Clean lines, perfectly smooth fondant or buttercream, and sugar flowers that match the icing perfectly all are examples of techniques that can appear "simple," but actually require additional time and skill.
In recent years, fake cakes or those with faux tiers have become more popular. Essentially, a baker will decorate a "dummy" cake (usually made of styrofoam) with one real tier that the couple can cut into, or else create an entirely fake cake that's for decoration only. After photos, the cake is wheeled back into the kitchen and guests are served slices from sheet cakes. Yes, dummy cakes give the couple the option of having a huge, gorgeous treat for less than the usual cost of a traditional wedding cake, but once you factor in the sheet cakes for serving, will the bride and groom see that much of a savings? While a faux cake may help you save on wasted cake, Murray says that a dummy treat typically won't save you money—especially if you're going big on the design. "Remember, the majority of the cost of your wedding cake is due to the design and the time and supplies it takes to execute," she says. "Subtracting the cost of the actual edible cake won't make a significant difference with an over the top, super custom design."
At the end of the day it's important to remember that weddings are expensive for a reason. Nearly every purchase is custom-made, and the wedding cake is no exception. As Stenstrom puts it, "Wedding cakes are not just flour and sugar, they are complex creatures that can require hours of time to create. They can also require knowledge in the science of baking, engineering, art, and design, all while being both beautiful and delicious." While there are plenty of less expensive options for your wedding cake, the best plan of action is to set up appointments with various vendors well in advance of your big day to weigh all your options.