Remember when vanilla was so … vanilla? No longer. Once the outdoor warmth hits, many of us crave something lighter than the dense, fudgy, nutty chocolate depths we turn to in winter. Vanilla is nuanced. It's versatile. And it takes two main forms when it comes to cake: white and yellow. So what really is the difference between the two?
Eggs. Those shelled ovals make almost all the difference between white and yellow cakes. White cake uses only, or almost all, egg whites. Yellow cakes get their color and more custardy flavor from using whole eggs, including the yolks.
Let's have it confirmed by Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of many revered baking cookbooks, including The Cake Bible, which won two James Beard Awards in Baking and Desserts, and Book of the Year, 1989. In that aptly named book, Rose mentions that the her White Velvet Cake is “identical to All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake except that each 2 egg yolks are replaced by 1 1/2 whites.”
Also: White cake tends to call for cake flour, which includes corn starch, while yellow cake requires bleached all-purpose flour. And white cake has a thin, liquidy batter while yellow cake has a thicker batter, notes Julie Wallace, author of "What is the Difference Between White Cake and Yellow Cake," on texannewyorker.com.
Andie Mitchell, author of the Eating in the Middle cookbook, is one of many bakers to extol the virtues of both yellow and white cakes, with their subtle, and not-so-subtle distinctions. "The thing is, there’s such a gentle texture, a light and lovely subtlety between white and yellow cake. But once your tongue meets this kind of sweet cream distinction, you’ll never be able to forget," she writes in "The Very Best White and Yellow Cakes" on andiemitchell.com. "Both are rounded and rich in a smooth, creamy way. They should be moist. Soft and tender. Scented like a vanilla bean whipped with butter," Mitchell says.
True, the flavors of both cakes are similar: Vanilla. The difference is the color and texture. White cakes are more delicate, cloud-like, and spongy, often used as wedding cakes, Wallace says. Mitchell agrees. They both believe white cakes pair well with whipped white frosting.
Yellow cakes are more prevalent in all other uses, as they're moister, denser, and sturdier, bakers say. These sunny cakes hold up well with chocolate frosting or other, louder flavors, but also stand alone deliciously with just their vanilla flavor.
Try some of our white and yellow cake recipes:
This is a bit of a labor-intensive, four-layer cake, but it's really special. Reserve this recipe for a particularly momentous birthday, anniversary, or other special occasion. True to white-cake tradition, it uses egg whites for the batter and cake flour. And it's ethereal. Get our white cake with lemon-lime curd filling and whipped cream frosting recipe.
These cupcakes are a hybrid of both yellow and white cake varieties, using cake flour like you do for white cakes, but two egg whites and two whole eggs, so there's a little yellow, custardy quality in there too. You can top these babies with all manner of frostings. This shows a salted caramel frosting. Get our vanilla bean cupcakes recipe.
Great for all seasons, most holidays, and other celebrations, this cake requires eight egg whites for the batter, but regular all-purpose flour instead of cake flour. So much coconutty goodness. Get our Christmas coconut cake recipe.
This cake does call for cake flour, but it ups the custard factor with whole eggs plus egg yolks. Then there are all those additions: chocolate chips, caramel sauce, and bananas. Get our moist yellow butter cake recipe.
Header image: AndieMitchell.com.