What's the Difference Between Chiffon Cake and Sponge Cake?

Though similar, the difference between them is in the leavening.

Chocolate Chiffon Cake
Photo: Photographer: Antonis Achilleos, Prop Stylist: Christine Kelly Food Stylist: Ali Ramee

Over the decades, the Southern Living Test Kitchen has developed quite a few fantastic cake recipes. Among our favorites is a Strawberry-Rosé Snack Cake, which comes together in just one bowl. There's also a Glazed Donut Buttermilk Cake, also known as the perfect treat for your next book club meeting. There's even a Milky Way Cake, inspired by the classic candy bar, and its frosting is even spiked with Ovaltine Chocolate Malt drink as a delightful treat for our inner child.

While we love experimenting with new cake flavors and techniques, there are a few cake recipes that we always keep on standby. These are the tried-and-true classics, the ones that we will undoubtedly continue to make again and again. For the chocolate lover's birthday, you just can't beat a classic Chocolate-Mayonnaise Cake. And we love a no-fuss, plain-Jane yellow cake. Then there is a certain variety of light-as-a-cloud cakes that are appropriate for just about any occasion. These cakes go by many names: chiffon cake, angel food cake, sponge cake, you name it. But is there really a difference between these fluffy, light cake varieties? Well, yes, there is. And that difference is more important than you might think.

Rather than think about types of cake in terms of flavors (such as chocolate vs. vanilla), it's more helpful to categorize cakes by their ingredients and the technique used to create them. There are two main categories that most cakes fall into in terms of ingredients and technique: butter cakes and foam cakes.

Butter Cake vs. Foam Cake

Butter cakes are considered to be one of the staples in American baking and are especially loved in the South. These old-fashioned cakes are distinguished by containing (you guessed it) butter or another type of substituted fat, such as margarine or shortening. Butter cakes often start with creamed butter and sugar. Beginning with these ingredients will result in a dense and moist cake.

These cakes rise with the help of a leavening agent, such as baking powder or baking soda. Some hybrids of butter cakes are made with oil instead of butter, such as carrot cake or red velvet cake. Pound cake, another Southern favorite, is named for its signature ingredients—a pound of sugar and a pound of butter. It also falls into this category, as do many coffee cakes or Bundts. Pound cake typically contains less leavening, giving the cake the denser texture it's well known and appreciated for.

On the other hand, foam cakes contain little to no fat or leavening agents. Without butter or oil, foam cakes rely on eggs to give them their body, often resulting in a light, airy texture. Many foam cakes begin with a base of whipped egg whites, which help these cakes rise in the oven.

Chiffon Cake vs Sponge Cake
Illustration by Corinne Mucha

Sponge Cake vs. Chiffon Cake

Sponge cake falls under the category of foam cakes, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. Sponge cakes are delicate and, well, spongy. Their texture makes them perfect for creating just about any cake or cream-filled roll. Sponge cake recipes contain a lot of eggs, but no butter or leavening agents. Most importantly, they call for gently and patiently folding the dry ingredients into the whipped eggs by hand. The key is to fold in the ingredients carefully enough not to deflate the air whipped into the eggs or egg whites. The light airiness of the batter is what gives the sponge cake its spongy texture.

Chiffon cake is a hybrid between a sponge cake and a butter cake. Unlike most sponges, chiffon cake does contain both baking powder and oil; however, like a sponge cake, chiffon cakes are built on a foundation of separated, whipped egg whites and yolks. Using oil in the batter makes it easier to beat air into the batter and come out with a very fluffy cake in the end. Chiffon cakes give you the best of both worlds: the richness of a butter cake with the lightness of a sponge.

If you're new to baking sponge cakes, chiffon cake is a great place to start. Chiffon cake is slightly more forgiving than other cakes leavened entirely with egg whites, such as angel food cake, but still heavenly and light. Try our recipes for Lemon-Orange Chiffon Cake, Coconut Chiffon, Chocolate Chiffon, or Orange Chiffon Cake.

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