Y’all, this red velvet cake recipe is pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself. Follow the directions and you will end up with a moist, lightly chocolate, and deeply red cake.
Many sources say ermine frosting is the original frosting for red velvet, so that is what I have used here. If you’d like more in-depth information on it, you can read my post on ermine frosting.
Otherwise, I have included the recipe here as well.
For ease of browsing, you can find all my cake recipes in one place.
Is This Cake Just Chocolate Cake with Food Coloring?
The short answer to this question is no. There is not enough chocolate (in the form of cocoa) to make this a truly chocolate cake.
If you were to leave the red food coloring out, the cake would most likely be a pale beige color at best.
There are two schools of thought about the origins of this festive cake.
- Some people say that the original red color was caused as a reaction between the acidic cocoa powder and buttermilk with the baking soda. So in that case, red velvet is a type of chocolate cake.
- The other school of thought is that a food coloring manufacturer, Betty Adams of Adams Extracts, developed a cake recipe using red food coloring as an integral ingredient. This recipe contained cake flour and buttermilk for tenderness and just a hint of cocoa powder to keep the red color vibrant. You can find that red velvet cake, labeled as “original,” on the Adams Extract site.
The recipe is described as being frosted with either “classic white icing,” or cream cheese frosting.
Classic white icing=ermine frosting. Huzzah!
So if you really want to make a traditional version, make sure to use Adams Extracts red food coloring in your recipe!
And of course, it is totally fine to use your favorite red food coloring.
PRO TIP: Make sure you are using liquid food coloring rather than gel coloring. You need the liquid form to make sure the cake contains enough liquid.
What Makes This Recipe Work
Traditional red velvet cake, at least as it evolved in the mid-20th century, gets its red hue from food coloring rather than from a reaction between cocoa powder and vinegar.
The recipe does contain a bit of cocoa–just enough that you can taste it without it reading as a real chocolate cake.
Buttermilk not only provides some of the acid to react with the baking soda, but it also makes for a very tender cake.
For the tightest, most velvety crumb, use cake flour. Know that you can use either cake flour or all-purpose though.
PRO TIP: Use cake flour for the finest texture and most velvety crumb.
Using brown sugar deepens the flavor of the cake. You can use light or dark brown sugar here.
For an excellent discussion of this cake (and excellent all-around recipes for desserts) check out Stella Parks’s wonderful BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.
How to Make Your Cake
Please scroll down for the whole recipe which includes amounts. This section is for your convenience to make sure you have all the ingredients you need.
As with most cake recipes, you most likely have all the ingredients you will need already. Here’s a checklist for you:
- cake flour or all purpose flour: you can use either. I have made this cake both ways, and you will get excellent results either way
- American cocoa powder (not Dutch process): provides a light chocolate flavor without overpowering the delicate flavor
- baking soda: together with the vinegar, it provides the lift. Do not substitute with baking powder, which already contains an acid
- buttermilk: I use full-fat, but non-fat or low-fat will work also. You can substitute with soured milk (1 Tablespoon lemon juice in 1 cup milk), but buttermilk lasts for a ridiculously long time in the fridge, so I always keep some on hand
- red food coloring: use liquid and not gel coloring. If you do use gel, add a tablespoon of water to make sure there’s enough liquid in your cake
- vanilla: extract or paste will work here
- brown sugar: I like using brown sugar because it adds a bit more flavor than granulated sugar, but you can also use granulated
- eggs: provide structure, protein, and emulsifiers
- vegetable oil: use a neutral vegetable oil that doesn’t have much flavor on its own
- salt: I use kosher salt in this recipe. If you have table salt or fine salt, reduce the amount by about 1/3.
- vinegar: provides the acid that creates the lift in reaction with the baking soda. You can use apple cider vinegar or plain white vinegar. I’ve used both, and since you only need a small amount, you cannot taste it in the finished cake
Old-school red velvet cake is made using a modified creaming method.
Since the fat in the cake is liquid, you cannot expect to get really good aeration from beating the oil and sugar together as you would butter and sugar.
All the leavening comes from the reaction of the vinegar and buttermilk and the baking soda, which is why the vinegar is added last.
Once you mix in the vinegar, get the cake into the oven pronto so you don’t lose all the bubbles that the chemical reaction creates.
Here’s how to mix up your cake:
- Put the flour, baking soda, and cocoa powder in your sifter.
- Sift into a large bowl and give it a whisk to combine it evenly.
- Mix buttermilk, red food coloring, and oil
- Mix together oil, sugar, and salt with a hand mixer or stand mixer
- Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until opaque and thick
- Alternate adding dry ingredients and wet ingredients
- Mix in vinegar last, pan up your batter, and get it into the oven ASAP
In the collage above:
- Evenly divide the batter between prepared pans.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes.
- What the finished cake looks like. Note it should be just barely drawing away from the sides of the pan
- The cooled layers with the domes slices off. I recommend using a serrated knife for this step.
Cake Baking Tips & Tricks for Success
I have baked hundreds of cakes, both at home and the restaurant. Here are some tips I have picked up along the way to make baking about as fool-proof as possible.
- Heat your oven a good 30 minutes before you start making your batter. It takes much less time for the air in the oven to reach baking temperature than it does for the oven box itself to heat up, so give it plenty of time, well after the oven tells you it’s ready.
- Bake with parchment circles in the bottoms of your pans and spray the sides well with pan spray. This almost completely eliminates sticking. You can buy ready cut-to-size parchment circles or cut your own from rectangular sheets
- Put your pans on a half-sheet pan to go into the oven. A standard half-sheet will hold 3 6″ pans or 2 8-9″ pans. Placing them on a sheet pan keeps your oven clean in case there is an accidental spill and also makes it much easier to rotate pans and remove them from the oven
- Allow cakes to cool in pans for 10-15 minutes before turning them out on cooling racks. Make sure you flip them so they cool right side up. If you let them cool upside down and they are domed (like most baking soda-leavened cakes are), they can crack and may fall apart
Decorating This Cake
An old-fashioned cake calls for old-fashioned decorations.
Since this cake has a beautiful, deep red crumb, crumble the cake domes and use them for decoration.
As you can see in the photos, for the 6″, 3-layer “naked cake,” I used the crumbs and a stencil to create a heart on top of the cake.
For the 8″ cake that is fully frosted, I used the crumbs to completely coat the sides and then just gave the top a light dusting of crumbs.
Q & A
Absolutely. Just substitute your preferred liquid food coloring. You’ll need 1/2 ounce or 1 Tablespoon of either blue or green liquid food coloring.
No you don’t. If you want a deeply red cake without the dye, try my friends Beet Red Velvet Cake. It’s gorgeous and is naturally colored with red beets!
I have not veganized this particular cake recipe, but I have successfully veganized other standard cakes. You can substitute soured soy milk (1 1/2 tablespoons or 4 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice in 1 cup of soy milk) for the buttermilk and use flax eggs rather than chicken eggs. 1 Tablespoon finely ground flax meal and 3 Tablespoons water per egg. Stir and allow to thicken to the consistency of egg whites.
I have not tried this, but my best advice would be to substitute a cup for cup gluten free flour blend for the cake flour. You can also check with my friend Sandi from the gluten-free blog Fearless Dining. She will be happy to help you make a gluten-free version.
Whether you frost with ermine frosting or cream cheese frosting, store the cake, covered in the fridge. It will keep well for 5-6 days. Cut slices and allow to come to room temperature before serving.
Yes. Freeze the entire cake–frosting and all–on a sheet pan until the at least the frosting is completely frozen. Then you can wrap it well in both plastic wrap and foil. It will keep for up to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge. You can also freeze individual slices in the same way, or freeze the unfrosted layers in freezer bags with as much of the air pressed out as you can. Allow them to thaw and come to room temperature before frosting.
More Delicious Cake Recipes
If you love this recipe, here are some other cakes on my site you might enjoy as well.
- Rocky Road Cake–a delicious vintage-style chocolate sheet cake reimagined with rocky road frosting. Because sometimes more is more!
- Butterscotch Sheetcake–an easy sheet cake that doesn’t require eggs or milk topped with a rich butterscotch cream cheese frosting
- Eclair Cake–this cake is made with pate de choux as the base, homemade vanilla pudding as the filling and then gets topped with whipped cream and chocolate ganache. Think of it as a “slab eclair!”
If you have a question/questions about this or any other post, whether recipe or technique, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m happy to help.
You can leave a comment on the post, and I will respond within 24 hours. If you need an answer more urgently, please email me, and I will respond within about 4 hours (unless I’m sleeping) and often much more quickly than that.
Either way, I will answer as completely as I can. That’s why I’m here!
A Note About Measurements
NOTE: Most of my recipes are written by weight and not volume, even the liquids.
Even though I try to provide you with volume measurements as well, I encourage you to buy a kitchen scale for ease of measuring, accuracy, and consistency.
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For the Cake (for 3 6" layers)
- 11.5 oz all purpose or cake flour, (2 1/2 cups)
- 2 Tablespoons non-alkalized cocoa powder, (such as Nestle or Hershey's)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 8 oz (1 cup) buttermilk
- 1/2 oz red food coloring, (liquid, not gel or paste)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 10.5 oz (1 1/2 cups) light brown sugar
- 10.5 oz neutral vegetable oil, (1 1/2 cups)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
For the Ermine Frosting
- 8 oz (1 cup) whole milk
- 7 oz (1 cup) granulated sugar
- 4 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 10 oz (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- a couple of shakes of chocolate bitters, (optional but lovely)
For the Cake
- Set a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 350F.
- Spray 3 6" cake pans with pan spray. Line the bottoms with parchment circles, and place them on a baking tray. Set aside.
- Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda. Set aside.
- Stir the buttermilk, food coloring, and vanilla together. Set aside.
- With a hand mixer or in the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the sugar, oil, and salt. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and beat until emulsified. The mixture will thicken and be opaque.
- Alternate adding the dry ingredients in three additions with the wet ingredients, mixing just until combined and scraping the bowl as necessary.
- Mix in the vinegar.
- Divide evenly among the three prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes, rotating the pan after about 25 minutes, until well-risen and slightly domed and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly on the tops.
- Run a thin spatula around the inside of each pan. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cake racks to cool completely.
For the Ermine Frosting
- In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, flour, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly.
- Allow to boil for 15-30 seconds and then pour through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Cool to room temperature.
- Stir in the vanilla and optional bitters into the milk-sugar mixture once it has cooled.
- Cut the butter into 1-2 Tablespoon pieces. If the butter seems too firm, flatten each piece to allow them to soften faster.
- Using the whip attachment, whip the butter into the cooled base a piece at a time, waiting until one piece is completely incorporated before adding the next. Once all the butter is added, whip on high speed for a few minutes (5-7 or so) until the frosting is smooth and fluffy. If it's still not coming together in a glorious fluffy mass, refrigerate the bowl for a few minutes and then whip again.
To Assemble the Cake
- Slice the domes off the cakes and crumble into crumbs.
- Smear a dab of icing in the center of your cake plate, and place one layer on top.
- Spread evenly with about 1/2 cup frosting.
- Place another layer on top, spread another 1/2 cup of frosting on that layer and top with the final layer, bottom side up. Make sure the cake is level and the layers are stacked evenly, and then refrigerate for 30 minutes or so. This will keep your layers from sliding while you frost the rest.
- Spread a thin layer of frosting around the sides so you can see the cake through the frosting. Spread a thicker layer of frosting on the top of the cake.
- Use the cake crumbs to decorate however you'd like, either pressing them around the sides or using them in a stencil to make a design on top like I did.
Since the fat in this cake is oil, it will not get hard in the fridge. The butter in the frosting will get hard though, so if you refrigerate it, slice and then wait 30 minutes or so before serving so the frosting can soften up.
If you need to freeze the cake, I would suggest freezing the layers before frosting. Ermine is really best when made and then spread on your cake immediately. Since it is a bit temperamental, I wouldn't recommend freezing the frosted cake since the texture of the frosting might suffer.
Wrap each completely cooled cake layer in a double layer of plastic wrap and then foil. If you make 6" cakes like I did, you can put the double wrapped layer in a gallon sized freezer bag instead.
The cake should be fine for 6-8 weeks frozen.
Red velvet cake will be fine at room temperature for 2-3 days. If you want to, you may refrigerate the cake. The nice thing about red velvet is, because it doesn't contain butter, it will stay soft in the fridge.
Still, I'd allow slices to come to room temperature for a good 20 minutes or so before serving so that the butter in the ermine frosting has a chance to soften.
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Nutrition InformationYield 8 Serving Size 1/8 3-layer, 6" cake
Amount Per Serving Calories 782Saturated Fat 37gCholesterol 86mgSodium 458mgCarbohydrates 77gFiber 1gSugar 51gProtein 7g
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And there it is, gang. A beautiful, tender red cake with perfect white frosting. For my money, it doesn’t get more old school or more Southern than that.
Thanks so much for spending some time with me today. Take care, and have a lovely day.