What’s the Difference Between White, Yellow, and Vanilla Cake?

updated Dec 10, 2022
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(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

When you go to bake a chocolate cake, it’s pretty easy to find what you’re looking for, right? Sure, there are some that are flourless and fudgy, and others that are tender and fluffy, but they’re all labeled “chocolate.”

The opposite end of the spectrum isn’t so simple. There’s a whole lot of terminology to describe what seems to be the same thing.

But are white, yellow, and vanilla cake actually the same across the board? Not quite. The differences can come down to the part of the egg that’s being used.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

To get a straight answer, I chatted with Susan Reid, food editor of King Arthur Flour’s Sift Magazine. Luckily she was able to clear things up.

What Is White Cake?

“White cakes depend on egg whites only, and sometimes combine shortening and butter to get a more pure white color to the cake layer,” says Reid. This is considered a classic wedding cake because of its sophisticated, pure look.

In fact, Reid commented that “sometimes people will use a clear vanilla to keep the cake as white-looking as possible.” It’s also the cake of choice for Funfetti, as the white color of the crumb allows the colorful specks of sprinkles to really pop.

“These tend to be finely grained and a little less tender because they don’t have the fat and emulsifiers from the egg yolks as part of their formulas,” says Reid.

Get the Recipe: Funfetti Birthday Cake

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

What Is Yellow Cake?

On the opposite side of the coin is yellow cake, which has a golden-yellow hue, thanks to using whole eggs — yolks and whites — and solely butter instead of a combination of shortening and butter. “This creates a golden color that you probably remember proudly wearing some chocolate frosting,” says Reid.

Yellow cakes tend to be a little easier to make, and since you’re using whole eggs instead of just the whites, you don’t have to worry about what to do with the leftover egg yolks. “And you can add plenty of vanilla, because you don’t need to be concerned about it tinting the batter,” notes Reid.

Get the Recipe: Yellow Butter Cake

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

What Is Vanilla Cake?

This is where things get a little confusing, because you see, both white and yellow cakes are actually vanilla cake. When you do come across a recipe that’s specifically called vanilla cake and not white or yellow cake, look closely at the ingredients: If it contains only egg whites, it’s a white cake, and if it contains whole eggs, it’s a yellow cake.