Difference Between Cake and Pastry

What is Cake? What is Pastry? What’s the difference? These are some long-standing questions in the baking world, doesn’t matter if you’re the baker or the consumer. You would think as a baker I should know better than anyone else, but even I have had to do some research. 

Like all things, when you break down the problem, it actually becomes quite straightforward. There are three main differences between cake and pastry – Ingredients, presentation, and occasions.

I’m Angie, I’m a self-taught baker who’s been baking for over 10 years. I specialize in cakes and have my own little cake business up and running. In this article, we will discuss the differences between cake and pastry and I will share with you all my findings and everything I know about the topic.

Let’s get baking!

Ingredients

Cake and pastries are made with similar ingredients which is why people often get them confused. But when you really analyze it, there are a few big differences. 

When we talk about pastries, we think of croissants, pies, pretzels, etc. What do these baked goods have in common? Well, they are all dough-based which makes them tougher and more stiff compared to what we normally think of when talking about cake. 

Cake is made with batter, not dough. Some of the classic attributes of cake are its sponginess and tenderness. Cake shouldn’t require much chewing. 

Unlike common pastries, which rely on a higher gluten flour for structure and texture, cake is made with low gluten flour so as to achieve its airiness and lightness. 

Now when I say “gluten”, the real difference is in protein. Cake flour usually contains about 7-9% protein compared to pastry flour which usually contains 8-10%. 

Moisture is also another defining characteristic of cake. Nobody likes a dry cake, but dry pastries are relatively common. You can see the difference in ingredients that contribute to the moisture levels in these two types of baked goods. 

There’s usually a higher percentage of liquid ingredients in cakes compared to that in pastries. But what you may not have thought was a crucial factor is sugar. 

When sugar is exposed to heat, it melts and therefore is considered a liquid ingredient. You can imagine just how much it helps to moisten cake seeing that most cakes are a lot sweeter than most pastries. 

Both cake and pastry rise, but chemical leaveners such as baking powder and baking soda are usually used to increase the volume of cake while most pastries rise from yeast and the steam created when butter melts in the oven. 

Presentation

Cakes and pastries are usually presented quite differently. There are certain shapes commonly expected for cakes. The most common shapes for cakes are round, rectangular, or in the form of cupcakes. They’re generally frosted and decorated with icing. 

Pastries on the other hand can take many different forms. There’s no particular shape associated with pastries nor are there specific ways to decorate them. Pastries tend to look more rustic and are generally not decorated as intricately as cakes. 

Occasions

If you’re like me, I bet you also like to pick up some pastries on the way home or on the way to work as a quick and comforting treat to snack on or have your coffee with. Your pastry can be messy, sticky, it won’t matter because they’re meant to be.

Cakes are a whole different story. Yes, you can get your casually cut slice of cake from your neighborhood cafe. But surely you expect a nicely decorated cake with a cute message on top for your special day? 

We tend to associate cakes with celebrations. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, you name it. Cakes are to be shared and enjoyed with your loved ones. The bigger, the bolder, the better!

FAQs

The following are some commonly asked questions about cake and pastry. I’ve answered them below. 

What is the difference between pastry and cake flour?

As mentioned earlier, the difference between pastry and cake flour lies in the protein/gluten content. Pastry flour is higher in gluten which makes tougher and more structured pastries compared to cake flour which makes softer and more tender cakes. 

Can you use cake flour to make pastry?

It’s possible to use cake flour to make pastries but you will end up with something with a pretty different texture. Instead, I recommend trying a pastry flour substitute. To do so, you can mix ½ cup of all-purpose flour with ½ cup of cake flour for every cup of pastry flour you need.

Are pastry and cake good for health?

As much as I try to convince myself that they are so I can eat as much as I want to – nutritionally speaking, pastry and cake are not your best buddies. 

They are heavy in refined carbohydrates, calorie-dense, and are cooked under high heat which has been linked to increased risk of cancer and other diseases. 

That said, occasional and responsible snacking will certainly not hurt and if you know me you’ll know I am a big advocate for treating yourselves. 

What are the main types of pastry?

Puff pastry, choux pastry, hot water crust pastry, shortcrust pastry, suet crust pastry, filo pastry are some common types of pastry. 

What can I use if I don’t have cake flour?

Don’t worry if you run out of cake flour, you can always easily make your own substitute. For an easy cake flour substitute, check out the cake flour substitute section of my article Is Self-rising Flour the Same as Cake Flour

Final Thoughts

Learned something? Good, next time when people give you pastry instead of cake for your birthday, show them this article. 

I’m joking, it’s not that serious. Plus, every culture does things differently and there are always blurred lines. A King’s cake, both the French and the American type, seems more like a pastry to me if anything but here we are. 

Have you ever gotten pastry and cake confused? Tell us that story and how you finally were able to tell the difference!

About Angie
I am a self-taught baker. I’ve been baking for over 10 years and started my own home baking business as a side hustle. I was born in Hong Kong and spent a pretty big chunk of my life in Canada. If you’re ever looking for me, I am probably there whisking vigorously away in the kitchen.

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