I've only just started baking cakes (only just signed up too!) and want to be able to do all the fancy swirly icing but I'm not very good with a piping bag...I know there's alternatives like icing syringes but which would you all recommend for a beginner?
try parchment -- try different textures, different bags
piping is piping though
it's like learing to ride a bike or cursive writing
it's technique--you need this
A/agree with k8memphis.
Local craft store will carry the Wilton piping practice board.
You don't need a practise board.
But you do have to make sure your icing is the correct consistency for piping. Read these and watch the videos.
Stick a piece of bakers parchment onto a cookie sheet and start piping. Use a full cup of icing and make swirls using a Wilton 1M (Ateco 846) tip.
When you are done, scrape off that icing and put it back into the bag. Do this again every day until you can make perfect swirls. Use the same icing over and over--just don't use it on a cake...
Then you go on to flowers the same way. Start with flat flowers like violets and wild roses. Learn to move and control the tip and bag pressure until you can make a decent flat flower. Then you can go on to 3D roses and other complex flowers.
Same exercise for writing--using soft icing.
Way more than half a lifetime ago, I tried piping with a syringe that came in a set with a screw-drive cookie press. I tried it exactly once, then went with a disposable piping bag, and never once looked back.
Piping syringes, guns, and whatnot are a pain in the butt to clean, given the number of moving parts. By contrast, even a reusable piping bag has only one moving part, and it can be turned inside out. With a syringe or a gun, you need to be able to push on the plunger; with a piping bag, you just need to squeeze.
Strange: unless I mix it really stiff, mine always seems to slump and spread out. What could I be doing wrong?
Watch you tube tutorials... They helped me so much.. they show you how to hold the bag and how to move it.
Best tips for a new beginner is the 1M and the 2D! You'll get that fantastic swirl you're looking for :) and it's SUPER EASY!!!!