Tortes are Central European in origin. The word torte is derived from the German word Torte (which has a somewhat different meaning), which was derived from the Italian word torta, which was used to describe a round cake or bread.

The most well-known of the typical tortes include the Austrian Sacher torte and Linzertorte and the many-layered Hungarian Dobos torte. But other well-known European confections are also tortes, such as the French Gâteau St. Honoré. Tortes are commonly baked in a Springform pan.

An element common to most tortes is sweet icing. (Exceptions include several French tortes, such as Gâteau Mercédès and Gâteau Alcazar.) When the cake is layered, a thick covering of icing is placed between the layers, and there is almost always icing on the tops and sides of the torte. A number of European tortes do not have layers.

In America, wedding cakes are sometimes called tortes, and their creation has developed into quite a complicated technique of its own.