Recipe Review

Is Smitten Kitchen’s Red Velvet Cake the Best on the Internet? I Tried It to Find Out.

published Feb 2, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

When I mentioned to friends I was working on a red velvet cake showdown, many of them raved about Deb Perelman’s recipe on Smitten Kitchen. Deb notes that her recipe is adapted from one in The Confetti Cakes Cookbook by Elisa Strauss, which was featured in 2007 by the New York Times

Deb’s recipe makes an impressive 3-layer cake with a cream cheese frosting, and I was intrigued by a few of her techniques, including the addition of a full 1/2 cup of cocoa to provide the chocolate flavor I think red velvet cake is known for, as well as her use of cake rather than all-purpose flour. Finally, this recipe calls for a full 6 tablespoons of red food coloring, which is quite a lot. Would these be the secrets to the best red velvet cake? I tried it to find out.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How to Make Smitten Kitchen’s Red Velvet Cake

You’ll start by greasing the pans in a very unique way. Add a teaspoon of butter to the pans, place them in the oven until the butter melts, then brush the melted butter over the bottom and sides before covering the bottoms with a parchment circle. Remove the pans carefully from the oven, as they are very hot. 

Next, whisk the dry ingredients (cake flour, cocoa powder, and salt) in a bowl, then beat the oil and sugar in an electric mixer. You’re instructed to add ingredients gradually throughout the recipe: Add the eggs one at a time, then the dry ingredients and buttermilk alternatively, followed by a mixture of white vinegar and baking soda. I found I needed to scrape down the bowl well every single time I added another portion of ingredients. The food coloring, which you’ll add after the eggs, needed extra mixing to make sure it fully incorporated into the oil, sugar, and egg mixture.

To make the frosting, you’ll beat together cream cheese and butter with an electric hand mixer, then add sugar and vanilla and beat until combined. The frosting was thick and did not need to be chilled, but because I was icing the cake much later, I placed it in the fridge. 

In Deb’s greatly appreciated “Icing Notes,” she explains how to ice the assembled cake with a crumb coat. Basically, to avoid getting the red crumbs all over your pristine white frosting, you spread a thin layer of frosting all around the sides and top of the cake, and chill it until the icing is solid. I placed the cake in the freezer for 10 minutes, then proceeded to cover the cake with frosting with the red cake layers already enclosed by the thin layer.

Credit: Paula Shoyer
Smitten Kitchen's Red Velvet Cake

My Honest Review of Smitten Kitchen’s Red Velvet Cake

Deb’s cake is impressively tall, with a very deep red, more like burgundy, color. My cake layers, however, were marbled rather than uniform. This could be due to the fact that I hadn’t mixed the generous amount of food coloring into the batter. Yet, I recall that when I scooped the batter into the pans, the color was a solid deep red. I would suggest mixing the coloring in for longer and at a higher speed than the recommended low speed in the recipe. With that said, the marbled look of the cake was, in my humble opinion, really beautiful and unique, so I would not necessarily qualify it as a mistake. 

As for taste, the cake has a pleasant texture with a nice crumb, possibly due to the use of cake flour. I liked that the cake had a strong chocolate flavor. The frosting itself was quite sweet, with the proportion of powdered sugar to butter/cream cheese a bit high. Overall, however, you feel like you’re basically eating cake with a hint of frosting. I missed the balance of the frosting. In terms of taste and look, this cake needed double the amount of frosting, although I do fear that it might make the overall taste of the cake too sweet.

Lastly, I didn’t love the fact that I had to use separate bowls for the dry ingredients, sugar and oil, and then for the baking soda and vinegar. I hate washing dishes, and layer cakes are already enough work!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

If You’re Making Smitten Kitchen’s Red Velvet Cake, a Few Tips

  1. Fully mix in the food coloring. I would start the mixer on low, then turn it to medium speed for a full minute. Additionally, scrape the bottom of the mixing bowl to ensure that no clumps of food coloring are stuck there.
  2. Use a stand mixer for the frosting. I used the hand mixer as directed, but next time I would use the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, as it would have been easier to mix well.
  3. Trim the cake layers before frosting. The recipe didn’t direct me to assemble the cake with the bottom sides up, so I didn’t do this for the first layer, but I quickly realized my mistake. I found the layers to be a bit domed, and wish I had trimmed them flat for easier assembly. Without trimming, there was quite a gap between the layers and not enough frosting to fill them in. 
  4. Double the frosting recipe. I found there wasn’t enough frosting to fully cover the cake or fill in the gaps on the sides. Deb states in her Icing Notes that you can double the frosting amount if you want more coverage; I would highly recommend that step.

Overall rating: 8/ 10

Have you tried Smitten Kitchen’s red velvet cake recipe? Let us know in the comments!