Yellow Is a Flavor, Damn It

Sonic's new yellow cake shake inspires a brief investigation.

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Slice of yellow cake with chocolate icing and sprinkles
Photo: Barry Blackburn (Shutterstock)

My grandma made a mean yellow cake. She’d whip it up in the kitchen of her wacky rental with its purple walls and obscene tchotchkes. She’d then frost it heavily and tote it to Easter lunch, forcing our entire extended family to sit through her signature 10-minute prayer before we could dig in. She passed years ago, and I’ve never attempted a yellow cake of my own for fear of disgracing her legacy. And even though I’m a frequent home baker, I’ve never really known what gave yellow cake its signature buttery hue. Turns out, it’s a lot simpler than I thought.

First, it’s important to note that yellow cake holds a special significance in the Black community, as explained in this piece by Deb Freeman. It’s impossible to dive into the cake’s delicious legacy without acknowledging that fact.

Second, a brief disclaimer that this yellow cake investigation was inspired by SONIC. The chain is bringing back its signature Yellow Cake Batter Shake this week for a limited time, according to a press release sent to The Takeout. The shake includes vanilla ice cream blended with yellow cake batter, and will be available at drive-ins nationwide starting March 28. (Per the release, SONIC app users can enjoy a special preview of the shakes beginning March 21.)

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What gives yellow cake its flavor?

As a kid, I assumed that yellow cake was simply white cake with yellow food coloring thrown in. I was younger then. Foolish. The truth is that yellow cake is a far cry from a standard white cake, and its signature golden hue comes from using whole eggs and lots of butter. This distinguishes yellow cake from standard white cake, which typically relies on egg whites—no yolks, eliminating that rich yellow color. White cake also sometimes involves a combination of shortening and butter, as reported by Sheela Prakash for The Kitchn. Prakash also points out that yellow cakes allow bakers to use additional vanilla extract, since you don’t have to worry about producing a starkly white cake. More flexibility with the cake’s hue = a generally richer flavor.

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So, is “yellow” a flavor? I’d say yes. The use of egg yolks, extra butter, and more vanilla all add up to a relatively foolproof cake that’s sure to please on any occasion. Suggest otherwise, and my grandmother’s ghost might just swoop down and force you to sit through a 10-minute prayer.