How to Make the Most Luscious Red Velvet Cake


Why It Works

  • Optional food coloring produces the hallmark bold burgundy color of a classic red velvet cake—no beets, pomegranate juice, or freeze-dried fruit required.
  •  A generous amount of cocoa powder adds robust flavor as well as a rich, dark color.
  • Acidic buttermilk lends the cake a mild tanginess, and produces a tender, velvety crumb, and—as it reacts with the recipe’s baking soda—fluffy lightness.

With its signature red hue and swoops of downy white frosting, the red velvet cake is an iconic American dessert. But when commercially produced or made from a boxed mix, it has the tendency to be overbaked and bone-dry, with a saccharine flavor that lacks complexity and a garish hue that calls to mind a self-conscious teenager armed with a big bottle of hair dye. However, step into a bakery that takes its craft seriously, and you’ll find that a properly made red velvet cake can be a thing of beauty: layers of moist scarlet cake flavored with bittersweet cocoa and tangy buttermilk stacked with thick, tart, and buttery cream cheese frosting, each bite as lush as…well, velvet. Think of it more like Lucille Ball’s red hair—the vivid color serves only to enhance the charisma of a star that already has plenty going for it.

With careful attention paid to the ingredients and method used, anyone can make a red velvet cake that’s a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds. The star ingredients of red velvet cake—natural cocoa powder, buttermilk, and baking soda—help to leaven the cake, but are also responsible for the chemical reaction that first gave the cake its iconic color. A few drops of red food coloring help to further enhance the natural color of the cake, ensuring a crumb that is inarguably red. Buttermilk and brown sugar keeps the cake moist, while creaming the butter at room temperature helps to aerate the batter, resulting in a fine, tender cake. 

If the thought of assembling and decorating a layered red velvet cake feels too daunting, have no fear. We’ve included an option for cupcakes, too—which are easier to decorate and just as delicious.

Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Why the Red: The Story of Red Velvet Cake’s Origins

In her award-winning cookbook BraveTart, former Serious Eats editor Stella Parks documents the evolution of the red velvet cake and traces the origins of the dessert to the marriage of two other popular sweets from the late 1800s—the velvet cake and the devil’s cake. These recipes formally merged in name and ingredients when a recipe for “Velvet Cocoa Cake” was published in a 1911 issue of Ohio’s Elyria Chronicle. A few things distinguished this cake that live on in today’s red velvet cake. 

The most notable is the use of a mixture of natural cocoa powder and buttermilk in the batter. Unlike the Dutch-process cocoa powder most bakers rely on today, natural cocoa powder contains higher levels of anthocyanins, water-soluble pigments responsible for the reddish-purple hues in fruits and vegetables. As cookbook author and Serious Eats contributor Nik Sharma wrote in his guide to pomegranate molasses, “when mixed into an acidic solution like lime juice or vinegar, [anthocyanins] turn red.” The combination of acidic buttermilk and cocoa powder produced a batter with a reddish hue, albeit one closer to mahogany than crimson.

Soon after the introduction of the buttermilk/cocoa powder combo, maroon cakes like “Red Chocolate Cake” and “Red Devil’s Food” were showing up in newspapers and cookbooks across the country, and by the 1940s, the red velvet cake was well established in the American baking repertoire; it even appeared in the 1943 edition of Irma S. Rombauer’s iconic Joy of Cooking. And while not a red velvet cake in name, the chocolate devil’s food cake tinted red with dye in Freda DeKnight’s 1948 Date With a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes sounds just like one.

As for the “red” in the name, Stella suggests that as some recipes included proportionally more buttermilk and less chocolate, using “red” simply distinguished the cake from the “inky-black crumb of a proper devil’s food.” Many readers of those recipes, however, were disappointed when they weren’t able to create the crimson color of the cake promised by the name. 

“Presumably frustrated with results that didn’t live up to the hype,” writes Stella, “Lynn Chambers popularized doctoring buttermilk-cocoa cakes with a teaspoon of red dye in her syndicated kitchen column in 1942.” Around the same time, Texas-based Adams Extract Company began promoting their dyes with a recipe for mahogany cake colored with red dye. 

These days, red velvet cake has become one of the most iconic American desserts. Notably, it’s an essential part of many Juneteenth celebrations today, as the color red is symbolic of Black resilience and sacrifice. “I do think that’s one of the reasons why red velvet cake is now a food that people now associate with the Juneteenth holiday,” Nicole A. Taylor, author of Watermelon and Red Birds, tells GastroObscura. Though the dessert wasn’t part of the celebration in its early days, it quickly became a part of the Juneteenth table as people thought of more red foods to include in their celebrations of the holiday.

In addition to Juneteenth, red velvet cake is wonderful for Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and birthdays, but of course there’s no need to wait for a specific holiday to make this fabulous cake.

Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

The Key Techniques to Making Red Velvet Cake

The recipe that follows is the result of rounds of testing and tweaking to produce what I believe is the ideal red velvet cake: one with a luxurious, velvety crumb that’s flavored with brown sugar, buttermilk, cocoa powder, and vanilla. While not necessary, a few drops of food coloring lend the cake an undeniably vibrant shade of scarlet. I considered using more “natural” colorants like beets, pomegranate juice, and freeze-dried red fruits for the red color, but each of those options adds flavors that are not typical for a classic red velvet cake. I think it’s fine to simply lean on food coloring for that color, to the degree achieving a truly red tone is important to you; it may not be, in which case, feel free to leave the food coloring out. 

One of the keys to achieving the perfect crumb lies in the choice of cocoa powder. You’ll want to use natural cocoa powder and not Dutch processed; the higher acidity in natural cocoa reacts with the cake’s baking soda and buttermilk to properly leaven the cake. Natural cocoa is also lighter in color than Dutch processed cocoa, making it easier for the red to show through the chocolate’s brown.

The temperature of your ingredients is crucial, too. Butter is most pliable at room temperature, making it ideal for aerating your cakes when beating it with sugar until fluffy. Be careful not to overmix once your flour is added, though, as overbeating the batter will develop too much gluten and make the cake tough.

As for frosting, my personal preference is to enhance the buttermilk tang of the cake with a cream cheese frosting, but there’s a long history of topping velvet cakes with starch-thickened Ermine frosting, so I’ve included that as an option as well.

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