The Best Cocoa to Use for Red Velvet Cake

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Red velvet cake isn’t always distinguished as a chocolate cake, but cocoa powder is reportedly the cause of its namesake hue. Food historians suggest that the natural cocoa of the Victorian era, partnered with buttermilk, resulted in the cake’s burnished red hue and led to it being dubbed “red velvet cake.”

For us modern home cooks, who have many options when it comes to creating a red hue with anything from beets to red food coloring, it’s actually the cocoa that causes some confusion. How do you get the most chocolatey flavor? What’s the best option to create that desired color? What’s the most classic option? We’ve got the answer.

The Best Cocoa for Red Velvet Cake Is Natural Cocoa

Natural cocoa is the best cocoa for red velvet cake for two reasons.

  • With a higher acidity, natural cocoa works with the cake’s baking soda and buttermilk to leaven the cake to a tight, tender crumb. The results are an almost melt-in-your-mouth tender cake.
  • Natural cocoa is also lighter in color, making the red velvet cake more vibrant. Natural cocoa also has the most chocolate flavor a cocoa powder can have because it is less processed.
(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

What Is Natural Cocoa?

All cocoa powder starts with fermented cocoa beans that are roasted and ground to extract their chocolate liquor (and cocoa butter). The chocolate liquor is dried and ground into powder; this product is natural cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powder has the most chocolate flavor, but can sometimes taste astringent or bitter without butter and sugar in a recipe.

Dutch-process cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans that are processed with alkaline substance before roasting, grinding, and drying. The result is a less acidic cocoa powder with a smoother sweeter flavor, but with less chocolate flavor.