Angel food cake, aka angel cake, is a type of unshortened cake known as a sponge cake.1 It originated in the US and was first popularized in the late 19th century.2,3 It differs from other cakes in quite a few ways, so folks often want to know if it qualifies as vegan.
Is it vegan? No, standard angel food cake is not considered vegan. While it contains no butter (a common animal-derived ingredient in cakes and pastries), it gets its characteristic structure via egg whites with a whipping agent.
Sponge cakes or foam cakes include sponge cake itself as well as angel food and meringue, and some of the fancier cakes like dacquoise, roulade, and génoise.1
To clarify, sponge cake is a specific cake, but the term is also used to refer to a number of aerated cakes that differ in their preparation and ingredients. Angel food cake is made with beaten egg whites, while actual sponge cake is made with whole eggs, which contribute to its characteristic rich, yellow color.1
Aerated spongy cakes, in general, are problematic for vegans as they’re made with beaten egg or egg whites. They contain little to no fat—mainly, just sugar, flour, and egg.
The light, fluffy, delicate structure of angel food and other sponge cakes rely heavily on steam and air from foamed eggs to act as the main leavening agent.
What we’ll do here, is cover the main non-vegan ingredient found in commercial angel food cake, its functions, and what can be used to replace it—i.e. so you’ll know what to look for when searching for vegan-friendly specialty products or when browsing vegan variants of the traditional recipe.
Egg White: The Standard Non-Vegan Ingredient in Angel Food Cake
Most food products contain a number of non-vegan ingredients, but with angel food cake, egg white is really the only ingredient you’ll likely have to contend with.
Eggs are added to baked goods due to their unique ability to contribute a number of useful properties:4
- Thicken or emulsify
They have quite a range of functions which is why they’re so ubiquitous in baked food products like cakes and pastries.5
We’ll touch on some of the main functions here.
Lecithin is a compound found abundantly in egg yolks. It’s a natural emulsifying agent meaning that it attracts both water and fat molecules helping ingredients to mix.6
This helps thicken and stabilize ingredients.4
The emulsifiers, along with any fat in the mixture also helps delay staling and improve shelf-life.7
Binding of Ingredients
Eggs have a high protein and water content which makes them excellent binders. Albumen is the water and protein content of eggs and is synonymous with egg white. Albumin (with an “i”), on the other hand, is the actual protein that surrounds the yolk.
When cooked, the heat coagulates the protein, allowing the proteins to act as an adhesive, binding other ingredients that are present to the surface of the cooked material. This provides structural strength to the end products.8
Eggs contribute to the leavening process because the water content turns to steam when heated. This function can be achieved by the use of water from any other source, so eggs are not hard to replace here.
To take full advantage of this form of leavening, the baking has to be done at sufficiently high temperatures in order to flash the water to steam, at which point the batter should be able to hold the steam in until set.
This is the main function of eggs in angel food cake. In food preparation, there’s what’s known as a meringue method and creaming method both of which involve beating sugar into a medium—eggs in the former and cream or butter in the latter.
The meringue method involves mixing sugar with a beaten egg (or just egg whites), which creates an egg foam you can then fold into the batter.
This method adds volume to the mixture because of the air that’s incorporated.9
Vegan Alternative to Egg White
Any viable alternative to egg white should suffice to serve all of the above functions.
Aquafaba is probably the most common plant-based replacement for whipped egg whites. Aquafaba is simply the juice from chickpeas. It may sound gross in baked goods, but most people find it to have a relatively neutral taste.
It’s a great replacement for egg white because it has a high water and protein content which makes it suitable for aeration with sugar and a whipping agent. Simply blend aquafaba with sugar using an egg beater.
A Note on the Vegan Status of Whipping Agents
These are additives that are used to help produce a voluminous egg white mixture.
They usually come in the form of cream of tartar or sodium lauryl sulfate.
These ingredients increase the capacity of eggs to be whipped into a foam and can increase the volume of the mixture upwards of to six or eight times the original volume.10
Cream of tartar or potassium bitartrate is a byproduct of winemaking and is processed from tartaric acid. Tartaric acid is a crystalline, white organic acid that occurs naturally in the plant kingdom and can be derived from fruits like grapes, bananas, citrus, and tamarinds.11
So, cream of tartar is 100% vegan.
Sodium lauryl sulfate is a detergent and surfactant used widely in food products as well as personal care items like shampoos, soaps, and toothpaste. It’s produced using dodecyl alcohol, which is obtained industrially via plant oils like palm kernel and coconut oil.
So, it too is plant-based.
Vegan Angel Food Cakes on the Market
Unfortunately, I have yet to run across any commercial vegan angel food cakes. But, this is bound to change because new plant-based alternatives for common baked goods are surfacing left and right.
This wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I thought perhaps all of the common brands of cake mix (Betty Crocker, etc.) would actually be mostly flour and other dry ingredients and that the consumers would have to add the egg white. This would have been great, as all you’d have to do is purchase the mix and use aquafaba in place of egg whites.
But, this assumption turned out to be false. I’ve browsed numerous brands and every mix I’ve seen thus far comes with powdered egg.
Again, it’s just a matter of time before vegan alternatives hit the market. Hopefully, with the info in this article you’ll know what to look for.
So, that wraps it up for angel food cake. Just know that the cake is off-limits unless you find a specialty product marketed toward vegans or make your own using a modified recipe.
Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Are Cinnamon Rolls Vegan?
- Are Bagels Really Vegan? The Bottom Line
- Are Macarons and Macaroons Vegan?
- Are Croissants Vegan?
- Is Lard Vegan?
- Is Pita Bread Vegan? What About Pita Chips?
- Are English Muffins Vegan?
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- Davidson, Alan, and Tom Jaine. The Oxford companion to food. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006. 805. Print. Retrieved August 9, 2010.
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- Anton M, and G Gandemer. Composition, solubility, and emulsifying properties of granules and plasma of egg yolk. Journal of Food Science 62(3):484–487, 1997.
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- Duarte, A.M. et al. (2012). Acta Horticulturae (933): 601–606.