There are innumerable types of cake in the world. So many, in fact, that whole tomes have been written on the many different cakes of France alone (start with Gâteau by Aleksandra Crapanzano). Practically every country on Earth has at least one signature style of cake. That is to say, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Instead of overwhelming you with every single variety of cake you may come across, this roundup will focus on the most common cakes found in North America and Europe. (Craving even more sugar? Explore our Interactive Cake Recipe Finder.)
There are also countless methods for grouping the world’s many cakes. Professional bakers generally categorize cake using two factors: ingredients and method. Understanding variations in cake recipes, however slight, will help you differentiate denser American-style butter-based cakes from the light, meringue-based sponges you’ll find in most of Europe—and the many crossovers and exceptions that exist between them. Let’s start with these two basic types of cake:
Butter Cakes vs. Sponge Cakes
Most Euro-American cakes fit into one of two categories: butter cakes or sponge cakes. Butter cakes are made with—you guessed it—butter. But it’s not just the fat that makes the distinction; there are a few other main ingredients at play here too. Butter cake recipes almost always include one or more chemical leaveners (usually baking powder and/or baking soda; more on the leavening in sponge cakes in a minute). Classic examples of the category include American yellow cake, pound cake, upside-down cake, and more. Most involve creaming butter with sugar, then adding wet and dry ingredients, though, there are some exceptions to the order of operations (see reverse creaming).
The main component in sponge cake recipes is the eggs. Yes, butter cakes usually include eggs, too, but here they play a more critical role. Some, like angel food cake, use just the egg whites; others (such as chiffon cake) use both whites and egg yolks. To make sponge cakes, the eggs are usually whipped prior to incorporating the other ingredients. This is a sponge cake’s primary source of leavening, leading to the category’s signature light, springy texture. Often these cakes are made without the use of commercial leaveners (though some modern sponge cakes will call for a dash of baking soda or baking powder). Variations of sponge cake include delicate genoise layers stacked with various frostings and fillings and Chinese American–style bakery cakes (chunky sponge layers sandwiching fresh fruit and coated in whipped cream frosting).
Either style can be fashioned into a towering layer cake. European layer cakes typically comprise thin sponge cakes stacked with assorted fillings such as mousse, custard, or Swiss or Italian meringue buttercream. American-style layer cakes tend to rely on butter cake—often paired with American buttercream—and have fewer, thicker layers.
Each of these categories house many distinct types of cake. Let’s get into it:
Types of Butter Cake
Okay, this overarching category might be a bit of a misnomer: Butter cakes don’t all contain butter. Some of these cakes use alternative sources of fat, such as oil, cream cheese, or shortening, but they’re all made using a similar process.
Any cake recipe that begins with the step of creaming butter and sugar is a butter cake. Other components include eggs to aerate the batter, flour for structure, milk or another liquid for moisture, and baking powder or baking soda to ensure it rises in the oven. Classic American birthday cake is a butter cake—but not all butter cakes are vanilla. Cakes within this family include yellow cake, American-style coconut and chocolate cakes, and devil’s food.
Widely regarded as the American standard, yellow cake gets its color from whole eggs; sometimes extra egg yolks are added for an ultra-rich golden crumb. Our classic yellow cake recipe takes a cue from baking maven and The Cake Bible author Rose Levy Beranbaum, who pioneered the technique of reverse creaming. Mixing the butter with the dry ingredients, rather than creaming it with the sugar, prevents the development of gluten. This technique—which can be used for many different types of cake batter—results in a super-moist, super-tender cake.
White cake is a type of butter cake made with separated egg whites (no yolks), which may be whipped prior to incorporating them into the batter for extra lift. Removing yolks from the equation results in a cake with a pristine white crumb. Coconut cake is a popular white cake variant that may be flavored with coconut in various forms, including coconut milk, oil, and/or extract. The outside of coconut cake is typically coated in shredded coconut or coconut flakes, which may or may not be toasted.
Devil’s food cake (or in the case of this recipe, cupcakes) is a chocolate butter cake that typically relies on cocoa powder mixed with a boiling liquid (e.g., hot water or coffee) for its rich flavor. Jump-starting the cocoa this way “blooms” it and gives the cake more pronounced chocolate notes. As an acidic ingredient, the cocoa powder (along with brown sugar) reacts with baking soda to give rise to the cake’s layers.
Most upside-down cakes (most notably, pineapple upside-down cake) use a butter cake base. To make it, bakers line the bottom of a cake pan with a sugary topping and canned or fresh fruit before pouring over the batter. Once inverted, the caramelized fruit acts as a built-in decoration for the buttery cake.
Oil cakes follow the same principles as butter cakes, but use oil as the source of fat. Because oil is liquid at room temperature, oil cake recipes skip the step of creaming the fat and sugar; usually the oil is incorporated into the wet ingredients, which are whisked or folded into the dry ingredients. For this reason, many oil-based cakes can be made using just one bowl, no mixer required. They tend to stay fresh-tasting longer than most butter cakes, as the oil renders the crumb particularly moist. Some chocolate cake recipes and most boxed cake mixes call for oil instead of butter, putting them in this category.
Classic carrot cake is an oil cake, calling for a neutral oil like vegetable or canola. It almost always includes warm spices and shredded carrots; sometimes nuts and raisins or other fruits are added. Hummingbird cake, a classic of the American South with origins in Jamaica, is made in a similar fashion, but includes crushed pineapple, mashed banana, and pecans as mix-ins.
Red velvet cake is frequently made with oil instead of butter. At its inception, the reaction between buttermilk and the raw cocoa available at the time resulted in a ruddy hue, hence the cake’s name. These days you’ll often find the batter tinted with food coloring—or sometimes beet juice. Like carrot cake, red velvet cake is often iced with cream cheese frosting, though the most traditional pairing is ermine.
German chocolate cake (named for American baker Sam German) is an oil cake with a rich, dark chocolate sponge courtesy of melted chocolate. But its real highlight is the sticky, custard-like pecan frosting.
Pound cake gets its name from the original ratio of ingredients used to make it: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of eggs, and a pound of flour. You may see variations with names like quatre-quarts (the French term for pound cake) or 4:4 cake. While most pound cake recipes call for butter, others use multiple types of fat. Cream cheese pound cakes are particularly popular in the Southern US. Our recipe for Philly Fluff Cake, itself a pound cake variation, calls for a trifecta of butter, cream cheese, and shortening.
In some pound cake recipes, you’ll see the eggs separated and the egg whites whipped and folded into the batter; in others, you’ll find leaveners like baking soda and baking powder, bringing it well into the butter cake fold. A pound cake is usually baked in a loaf or Bundt pan. It’s served plain or topped with a simple powdered sugar icing, chocolate ganache, or dusting of powdered sugar. Many coffee cakes, sour cream cakes, Bundt cakes, and crumb cakes are variations of pound cake.
Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound CakeJanelle McComb
Types of Sponge Cake
Any recipe that contains no baking soda or baking powder but lots of whipped eggs or egg whites? That’s a sponge cake. There are several different types of sponge cake, and many of these types have regional nicknames.
Plain genoise is the base of many British and European desserts. A French term (pronounced “zhen-wahz” by the French, “jehn-oh-eeze” by Brits), the name genoise is actually a derivative of the city Genoa in Italy. There are many myths surrounding the cake’s provenance: it was invented by François Massialot, chef to a traveling French nobleman and also credited with the creation of crème brûlée; or possibly Genoese baker Giobatta Cabona while under the employ of the then-self-governing-Republic’s ambassador to Spain; among others. The versatile sponge can be baked in a round cake pan and simply frosted, but it’s pliable enough to be baked in a jelly roll pan and formed into a roulade. Often lacking mixed-in flavoring, genoise is frequently brushed with a bold syrup, a.k.a. a cake soak, after baking, which also provides extra moisture.
Plain GenoiseNick Malgieri
Be warned: Perfecting your genoise technique can be challenging. Genoise sponge contains no commercial leaveners—the rise depends solely on the aeration of the eggs—so it can easily collapse in the oven. To make genoise, whole eggs are beaten with sugar until thick and ribbony, then flour (and sometimes butter) is added. Instead of butter, which can cause the light cake to fall, legendary cookbook author and pastry chef Nick Malgieri prefers to add in a few extra egg yolks: “They not only enrich the cake, they also provide greater stability, making the batter easier to prepare,” Malgieri writes.
Want to try your hand at this classic cake? Stack light, airy genoise layers with whipped cream and berries for a large-format riff on strawberry shortcake. Or try our recipe for Black Forest Cake, which starts with layers of chocolate-flavored genoise sponge, soaked in kirsch syrup.
Chiffon cake is a fairly recent American creation: It was invented by an insurance agent who sold the recipe to General Mills, which spread the recipe through marketing materials in the 1940s and 1950s. Chiffon cake recipes usually include both whipped eggs and baking powder: The egg yolks are mixed into the wet ingredients with oil while the whites are beaten to soft peaks and folded into the batter. The result is a hybrid cake that has the tender crumb and rich flavor of a butter cake made with oil, but the light texture of a sponge cake.
Like genoise, chiffon cakes are versatile. They can be baked in standard round cake pans, sheet pans, or tube pans. They’re amenable to a variety of flavors, including citrus, sesame, and pandan. And perfecting this fancy-looking type of cake will make you feel like a total pastry professional.
Hot Milk Sponge
Former Epi staffer Genevieve Yam dubs hot milk sponge “the little black dress of desserts.” It’s just as versatile, yet much simpler to make than some of its sponge cake cousins. Simply bring the milk and butter to a boil, slowly pour the mixture into whole whipped eggs, fold in the dry ingredients, and bake. No need to separate eggs (as in chiffon) or wait for ingredients to reach room temperature (as in butter cake).
Instead of relying solely on whipped eggs for the cake’s lift (as in genoise), most hot milk sponge recipes include baking powder, providing leavening security. For all these reasons, the hot milk sponge is generally regarded as a favorite among bakers: Zoë François’s Boston Cream Pie starts with two layers of hot milk sponge, as do Yam’s Easy Chinese Bakery–Style Whipped Cream Cake and most Victoria Sponge Cakes.
Angel Food Cake
Angel food cake is made with whipped egg whites, no yolks or other leaveners. The whites are whipped with sugar (a lot of it) until firm before the flour is gently folded in, resulting in a snow-white, airy, and delicate cake, often served with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Most angel food cakes have a spongy, chewy quality as a result of their relatively high sugar content and the absence of egg yolks. There’s no butter here, so the meringue-based cake is fat-free.
In order to rise properly, angel food cake must be baked in an ungreased two-piece tube pan (not nonstick!), allowing the batter to cling to and climb the sides of the pan. Angel food cakes also need to be cooled upside-down—this delicate cake will collapse if cooled right-side-up in the pan or if removed from the pan while warm.
Angel Food CakeRick Ellis
Biscuit (always pronounced the French way, as “bees-kwee”) cakes contain both egg whites and yolks, which are whipped separately, then folded together. This creates a light batter that’s drier than genoise, but holds its shape better after mixing. For this reason, biscuit is often used for piped shapes such as ladyfingers.
Other Types of Cake
These exceptions, including cheesecakes and flourless chocolate cakes, don’t fall easily into any single category.
Cheesecake: Classically made with a cream cheese base and graham cracker crust (or in the case of Junior’s Original New York Cheesecake, a sponge cake crust), cheesecake is often baked in a water bath to insulate the delicate, creamy cake from the oven’s strong bottom heat and help it cook evenly. Technically a baked custard, we included it here because it has “cake” in the name and it’s just as crowd-pleasing at a birthday party.
Flourless chocolate cake: This gluten-free cake is rich and dense, with a fudgy, mousse-like interior and intense chocolate flavor. It’s made with just a few simple ingredients: high-quality chocolate, butter, sugar, eggs, and cocoa powder. Gourmet’s Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe has been a reader favorite since it debuted in November 1997.
No-bake or icebox cake: Requiring no baking at all, icebox cakes are typically assembled in a loaf or springform pan, then chilled or frozen before unmolding. The simplest icebox cakes are made with just two ingredients—whipped cream and store-bought wafer cookies—but this category also includes slightly more elaborate desserts, like no-bake cheesecake. These chilled desserts can have baked components: Ice cream cake, made by stacking baked cake layers (typically oil-based sponge) or cookies with ice cream, is technically a type of icebox cake (don’t forget the sprinkles).
Fruitcake: Often enjoyed during Christmas, fruitcake is a preserved cake loaded with an assortment of dried fruits, such as raisins, currants, and cherries. After baking (typically low and slow), it’s often drizzled with rum or brandy. Stored properly, the dense, fruity, boozy cake can keep for up to six months.
After all that learning, we’re ready for some easy cake. How about you?
Originally Appeared on Epicurious