I had never heard of or tasted red velvet cake until I came to Atlanta 10 years ago. I moved to the South just as this enigmatic cake was once again rising to popularity and red velvet was being baked as cakes, doughnuts, and even a coating for fried chicken. What followed was chasing this particular recipe around for the next 10 years. I baked a beet-colored version, and another one made crimson with concentrated pomegranate juice. I baked red velvet with and without its signature vinegar. I tried different cocoa powders and every red food dye under the sun.
This recipe is the one I bake for my family once a year. It takes its cue from bits and pieces of red velvet cake's long and storied history. The cake itself is closely based on the classic, with a hit of red dye — always an optional ingredient — to create the signature scarlet color we know today. For the frosting we're giving you two options. One is the very traditional boiled milk frosting and the other is the more recently popular cream cheese frosting. Both are delicious options — it just comes down to what you're looking for.
What Is Red Velvet Cake and Why Is It Red?
Without its coloring, red velvet is a type of cocoa cake given a touch of tang from buttermilk. The "velvet" in red velvet cake refers to the style of cake and its small, tight-crumbed texture, compliments of the vinegar and baking soda in this recipe. I have baked red velvet cake without this addition of baking soda and vinegar and found the result is a sturdier cake (not-so-velvety) with less flavor. Odd as it may be, this addition makes for a distinctly tangy cake that is anything but plain.
Modern red velvet cakes are made scarlet with red food dye. Its historical mahogany hue may have been the result of unprocessed cocoa, beet sugar, or a chemical reaction in the cake. It wasn't until Adams Extract Company began packaging a red velvet cake mix with a bottle of red dye in the 1930s that red velvet went from auburn to scarlet.
Times and trends have continued to dictate the cake's coloring. During World War II, many bakers switched from dye to beets as a result of rationing, and again red dye was often replaced during the 2000s in response to concerns about the health effects of red dye.
What About the Dye in This Recipe?
You can certainly leave the red dye out of this cake or reduce its amount as you feel comfortable. Alternative and natural dyes are available at most grocery stores these days too. But the cake will be more chestnut in color as a result.
A Little Bit of Red Velvet History
Velvet cakes have been baked since the 1800s. Red velvet has roots in Victorian cakes that were baked with almond flour, cocoa, buttermilk, and coffee, giving the cake a reddish hue. Some debate remains as to whether the cake's chemistry gave the red velvet its name or if "red" became its nickname for its use of brown sugar, which was commonly referred to as a "red sugar" before the 1920s (and most notably in the South).
Red velvet is often associated with other Southern cakes, such as hummingbird or coconut cake. Despite this reputation, modern red velvet cake was actually popularized at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and later by Adams Extract Company. Adams is notably Texas-based, which may have led to the Southern storying.
The Best Cocoa Powder for Red Velvet Cake
Natural cocoa powder is best for red velvet cake. It's acidic and most often used in baking recipes that are leavened by baking soda. Natural cocoa powder is also lighter in color, giving the cake a deeper red, rather than brick red color that Dutch-process cocoa would impart.
A deeper diver into cocoa: The Best Cocoa for Red Velvet Cake
A Choose Your Frosting Adventure
Much like the hue of the cake, red velvet frosting affections have changed with the times and trends. A boiled or roux-based frosting known as Ermine frosting was popular during the 1800s and again during World War II, because the frosting uses less butter and sugar than most frostings. Cream cheese frosting didn't become popular until the 1960s as a topping for carrot cake, when it presumably made its way onto red velvet cakes as well. My hunch as to how bakers moved from ermine frosting to cream cheese is simply that both frostings are a creamy white, with a slight grain, and a swirling finish.
- Cream cheese frosting: Today, cream cheese frosting reigns supreme. Cream cheese frosting enhances the cake's tang while coating it in an extra layer of rich flavor. So if you're looking for pure decadence or a cake similar to the ones popular in bakeshops today, go with this delightful option.
- Boiled milk or ermine frosting: Ermine frosting is a little less sweet than cream cheese frosting, but offers more stability. If you're a fan of icings, this a great option. It also happens to be the best frosting for red velvet cake if you plan to keep the cake out of the fridge for several hours or if you're in a particularly warm climate.
- Whipped cream frosting: It's also worth noting that some red velvet cake recipes call for whipped cream icing, and so it would be perfectly suitable to use that here as well. Just know that it won't keep as well as either the cream cheese or ermine frosting.
How To Make Classic Red Velvet Cake
What You Need
For the cake:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup canola or other neutral oil
2 large eggs
1 (1-ounce) bottle red food coloring
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 batch perfect cream cheese frosting or boiled milk frosting
2 (9-inch) round cake pans
Stand or electric hand mixer
Measuring cups and spoons
- Prepare the cake pans and heat the oven: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Coat 2 (9-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper rounds; set aside.
- Whisk together the dry ingredients: Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. The baking soda will be added at the end of mixing, so leave this out for now.
- Cream the sugar and oil: Place the sugar and oil in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.) Beat on medium speed until lightened in color, about 4 minutes.
- Add the eggs and food coloring: With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs one at a time and beat until fully incorporated. Add the food coloring and vanilla and beat until well-combined.
- Add the flour and buttermilk: Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Use a large spoon to add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the mixer. Mix on low speed until all the flour has been incorporated. Slowly pour in 1/2 of the buttermilk and mix until combined. Repeat scraping down the bowl, adding another 1/3 of the flour mixture, the remaining buttermilk, and finally the last 1/3 of the flour.
- Mix in the vinegar and baking soda: Combine the vinegar and baking soda in a small bowl or measuring cup; it will fizz up considerably. Add the mixture immediately to the cake batter.
- Mix the batter well: Continue mixing the batter for an additional 3 minutes after adding the baking soda mixture. This will ensure the soda is evenly distributed throughout the cake.
- Bake the cakes: Divide the batter evenly between the pans. Bake until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans and the tops spring back when touched gently, 20 to 25 minutes.
- Cool the cakes: Cool the cakes in the pans for 15 minutes on a wire cooling rack, then invert the pans to remove the cakes. Cool completely before frosting.
- Storage: The cooled, unfrosted cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Frosted cake can be loosely wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let come to room temperature before serving.
- Make ahead: Red velvet cakes can be baked and stored tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for 3 months. Thaw at room temperature for 1 hour before frosting.