Making Red Velvet Cake

There’s only one absolutely critical thing you need to remember when making red velvet cake: wear an old shirt. Other than that it’s much like making a basic yellow butter cake. The odd alchemical steps you find in many traditional recipes really aren’t necessary. Plenty of food coloring and a little cocoa is the extent of the juju.

Which is not to say that red velvet cake is indiscernible from yellow cake in the mouth. The quarter cup of cocoa does create a distinctive taste and texture, and the food coloring itself brings a few unique hints of flavor to the party. Begin by preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, assembling your ingredients and preparing two 9″ cake layer pans. Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle (beater). Stir it all on low for about 30 seconds.

Add the soft butter and stir on medium speed for about a minute.

Add one cup plus two tablespoons of the room-temperature buttermilk, and raise the speed to medium-high. Beat the batter for 90 seconds.

Next combine the yolks, the vanilla and the food coloring. I grant you, this looks a little disgusting.

Add 1/4 cup of the buttermilk and stir it all together.

Add it by thirds to the batter, beating in each addition for 20 seconds.

Be sure to do plenty of scraping.

Then scrape the batter into the prepared pans. About 21 ounces of batter per layer.

Bake until they’re firm in the center, 25-30 minutes.

Cool the layers on a rack for ten minutes, then turn them out to cool completely before using. Red velvet layers can be combined with any number of frostings. Here I’m using a standard seven-minute frosting, but “heritage” a.k.a. “boiled” a.k.a. “flour” a.k.a. “cooked flour” a.k.a. “gravy” a.k.a. “cloudburst” frosting is popular, as is cream cheese. Just so long as it’s white!

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56 Responses to Making Red Velvet Cake

  1. naomi says:

    I did grow up in the South, but maybe I’m old. I don’t remember hearing about Red Velvet Cake, or seeing it, until my twenties, and I must say, it still disturbs me. That’s one that could be brought to a work place and guarantee I’m not taking a piece. Of course, you’ve done it to perfection, but I think I’d even rather a blue one!

    • joepastry says:

      Ha! Well you know you can buy blue in 1-ounce bottles as well. There are certainly no limits on the color. It can be pretty much anything.

      Thanks for the comment, Naomi,

      - Joe

    • rainey says:

      I’m with you, naomi! I wasn’t prepared for the visual when I checked in this morning and my eyes still hurt and my stomach’s still doing loops.

      You may think blue would be better but someone did a green one for St. Pat’s Day a couple years ago and it was equally disturbing.

      Sorry, Joe. I know you did Red Velvet Cake as well as it can be done. Don’t doubt that for a second! And I know that the fans are legion but the technicolor thing just sets every alarm I have in my brain clanging. Wouldn’t it taste just as good without the dayglow effect?

      • joepastry says:

        I hear you, and yes it would. But then there’s something about the brightness…it draws me like a May fly to a bug zapper….

        - Joe

  2. Ellen says:

    I like red velvet cake well enough, but not enough to actively seek it out. My favorite odd-ball American cake is Coca-Cola cake. It’s a light chocolate cake with Coco-Cola as one of the ingredients and it’s frosted with a teeth numbingly sweet chocolate frosting with pecans on top.

    • joepastry says:

      I haven’t had that in years, but you’re right that it’s fun and amazingly sweet.

      Thanks Ellen!

      - Joe

  3. Linda says:

    The color makes me shudder but your recipe looks like a great one. Next time I can stomach it–I mean add color to a cake, I will have to try this one. I even made a red velvet cheesecake once and had to back off the red before I got queasy from all of it. I agree about the old shirt too. Same might be said for making grape jam. LOL Thanks for another great recipe, Joe!!

  4. Holly says:

    It is RED!!
    An eye opening set of posts for sure. Thanks for the information that you have packed in.
    H
    :)

  5. Melody says:

    I know this may be a bit of an odd question but do i HAVE to use buttermilk in the cake? Its not readily available where i live and I’m not too fond of spoiling milk on purpose. What’s your take on this?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Melody!

      No problem. Just replace a tablespoon of milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

      - Joe

      • Melody says:

        So just add the vinegar right away to the milk and continue the cake making process? i don’t have to let it set=spoil? :)

        • joepastry says:

          Nope! Just add the acid and you’re ready to go!

          - Joe

          • Melody says:

            Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

          • Frankly says:

            If I remember right the important part of using buttermilk is it is slightly acidic. Adding lemon or vinegar to regular milk does curdle it but gives it the Ph it needs.

            Note: I am not a chemist nor have I played on on TV.

          • joepastry says:

            That’s pretty much true, Frankly. Sometime you get a touch of curdling, but in general it does the job!

            - Joe

  6. Kitty says:

    MMmmm now if i could just find the right food coloring to use…. stuff here….. it lacks when I tried before, but I am wondering if I messed up and used half of what I needed, been meaning to try again…

  7. Brian Shaw says:

    My eyes are hurting from squinting and I can’t stop blinking. As a naturally born Yankee I never understood red cake and it has never passed my lips. But your red cake is the prettiest I have ever seen!

    • joepastry says:

      Heh, thanks Brian! Born and raised in Chicago I’m a little taken aback myself. However it’s my creation now, and I’m starting to feel paternalistic, sort of like Dr. Frankenstein.

      - Joe

      • Susan says:

        …maybe more like Dracula. :D
        If I were to use a gel/paste, do I have to adjust anything Joe?

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Susan!

          You’ll need to make some adjustments. Use about 3/4 teaspoon of gel and dissolve it in the buttermilk (all of it) before you begin to make sure it’s well dispersed.

          - Joe

  8. Sally says:

    Hi Joe,
    I’m a newbie to baking and as you might remember from my comment on the Waldorf Astoria, I don’t know much about red velvet cake but this looks lovely. (I can’t look away from the last photo. It’s the red!) Just out of curiosity, what’s the brand/name of the cocoa powder you used for this? I’m more of a chocolatier myself and was wondering if you’ve tried using different cocoa powders for different tastes.

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Sally!

      My wife is really the chocolate maven in the house. I tend not to be too discerning, though I generally pay attention to whether the cocoa is Dutched or un-Dutched. In this case I just used Hershey’s because it was handy. It’s Dutched, if only lightly. Really you can use just about any cocoa for this, since there isn’t enough acidity in a quarter cup of un-Dutched cocoa to cause trouble.

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  9. Eva says:

    I have made Red Velvet cake many times as my youngest is very fond of it. The first time it took all my might to add the entire amount of red food coloring. I thought the amount had to be wrong in the recipe.. 2 ounces! REALLY?. Well, the cake was perfectly delicious and very bright just like Joe’s. Since then, I have only used half of what is called for and I get a delightful red color that doesn’t look … well … SO red. It is more appetizing in my eyes and my youngest never complains that it is not red enough. So to all who may shy away, try it full strength on your first time. If you can’t stomach it, next time use half the red food coloring instead. It really is a fun delicious cake. Thanks Joe!

    Eva

    • joepastry says:

      Thanks, Eva! And yes, I’m sure one ounce of red food coloring does a fine job. I used two because, well…it’s traditional. Whatever that means! ;)

      - Joe

  10. Anna says:

    OK, so it’s red, really red, but the actual cake looks beautiful! It LOOKS moist and fluffy and the frosting looks creamy. I think maybe I need a piece of cake…

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Anna!

      Indeed it was. In fact I was a bit surprised at how fluffy and moist it really was. My layers crowned a little more than I wanted, because I over-mixed. The trouble was I started out with too little buttermilk. I always underestimate how absorbent cocoa powder really is. So I had to go back and re-mix, by which time I’d developed the gluten a little too much. But other than that it turned out very, very nicely. I gave it all away to the neighbors because I gave up sweets for Lent. Oh it was painful.

      More than you needed to know I’m sure. Nite nite, Anna!

      - Joe

  11. Catherine says:

    The cake looks beautiful. However, I can’t get past all of that food coloring. I know that bright red frosting tastes terrible to me – does the cake avoid that bitter aftertaste?

    • joepastry says:

      It does, though the coloring does have some effect on the flavor. It’s not bitter exactly, it’s hard to put my finger on, but it’s not unpleasant!

      - Joe

  12. April says:

    Holy moly, that is a beautiful red! I actually just made red velvet whoopie pies last week for a Southern-themed potluck (we had fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, collared greens, etc….though not *entirely* sure if we got the Southern foods accurately or if completely stereotyped it all! Apologies if we did, we’re neighbours from north of the border :) ).

    Anyway, I digress! I actually had a question about the food colouring. I tend to use gel colours rather than the liquid stuff since you only need a teensy bit to get great colour. However, I think I used maybe 1/8 of a tsp, maybe 1/4 max, and the colour turned out more of a brownish-red than the intense red you’ve got here. How much gel colouring should I have used to get the same saturation as yours?

    Also, another question – I’ve had a bad taste experience with using too much red liquid food colouring (the cake ended up having a bitter after taste) – did you find that to be the case with your cake, by any chance?

    -April

    • joepastry says:

      Hey April! Sounds like a great meal. Next time invite me, K?

      As for the conversion, yeah, a 1/4 teaspoon isn’t enough. To replace a 1-ounce bottle of liquid coloring, you’ll need to use at least 1/4 teaspoon of gel, probably more like 3/8 teaspoon, and make sure it’s well dispersed in the buttermilk, not just added to the eggs yolks as in my recipe. You’ll need to get it dissolved beforehand. That should do it!

      - Joe

  13. Antuanete says:

    Really red indeed! I think I will try first with less amount of food coloring, just to get used to such cake :) And will try to get something closer to purple red – this cake would be great dinner centerpiece in any Latvian state holidays (doesn’t our flag remind you of some cake? http://www.indexmundi.com/flags/lg-lgflag.gif)

    Speaking of mixing and baking steps – I have only one 9″ baking form; how to avoid gluten development if baking the batter in two parts? Would it be enough to put bowl in fridge, or better to make two separate batches with batter?

    • joepastry says:

      Why this isn’t the Latvian national cake by now, I don’t know. It’s a perfect match!

      Regarding the baking pan, a 1-layer version of this cake is perfectly acceptable if you want to cut the recipe in half. Since this batter has soda in it, it won’t hold well. So if you really want a two-layer cake you’ll need to make two batches. Sorry about that!

      - Joe

      • Frankly says:

        OK – this gives me an idea for a Fourth Of July cake. Red layers with a white pastry cream in between & a blue square in the upper LH corner.

        It probably would look disgusting any other day of the year but it just might work.

  14. Hello Joe

    I love the finish baked cake. The texture and surface of the cake is my fav. Please, is it thesame recipe with the one you posted sometimes ago?

    Also, I want to ask if you are aware of an emulsion used in place of extract. There is one produced by LorAnn Oils – Bakery Emulsions

    https://www.lorannoils.com/showcategory.aspx?CategoryID=10&SEName=bakery-emulsions¬ify=1#id_8344

    Have you ever experimented on it.

    What is a bakery “emulsion”?
    Emulsions are water-based, alternatives to extracts. The flavor is micro encapsulated in natural stabilizers and suspended in water. This encapsulation enables the flavor to not lose its integrity when exposed to high heat.
    Which means….Use baking emulsions instead of extracts with better results!

    When it comes to flavoring, professional bakers almost exclusively use emulsions over alcohol-based extracts.

    Emulsions have a more potent, robust flavor.
    Won’t “bake-out” when exposed to heat
    Water-based
    Gluten Free & Sugar Free

    Use emulsions to flavor:

    Cookies
    Cakes
    Sweet breads & pastries
    Frostings & glazes
    Fondants, fillings & cream centers

    If your recipe calls for 1 tsp. extract, substitute 1 tsp. emulsion.

    Infact, they have a Red Velvet Cake flavor emulsion!

    I wish I have access to these emulsions.

    Thanks for the reply

    Wale

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Wale!

      Thanks very much! I’m glad it’s working for you.

      Regarding your question, I absolutely have used emulsions and like them very much for the most part. I’ve never used a red velvet emulsion, but I know it’s out there. I’d be curious to fiddle with it! ;)

      I should probably put up a post about emulsions, because you’re not the first to ask about them. Thanks again!

      - Joe

  15. peter says:

    hi, i have heard that it is possible to use beatroot to give the cake the red flavour..however i havent got any recepie for this..

    • joepastry says:

      I’ve heard the same but have never seen a recipe for it. I’m sure it won’t deliver this level of color, but send me a picture if you get around to trying it!

      - Joe

  16. Olawale says:

    Hello,

    permit me to take you guys back on the red velvet cake. In case you are not able to “stomach” the red color, perhaps, you will like the recipe from The Brown Betty Cookbook by Norrinda Brown Hayat and Linda Hinton Brown

    Vegetable shortening
    Nonstick cooking spray with flour
    2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    2 cups granulated sugar
    1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
    3/4 teaspoon baking powder
    3/4 teaspoon baking soda
    3/4 teaspoon regular salt
    3/4 cup buttermilk
    2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
    2 large eggs
    2 large egg yolks
    1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
    1 tablespoon red food coloring (1/2 ounce)
    3/4 cup boiling water
    1 recipe Cream Cheese Buttercream (recipe follows)

    1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat three 9-inch round cake pans with vegetable shortening, line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

    2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt on low speed to blend.

    3. In a large bowl, mix the buttermilk, butter, eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and food coloring until just blended.

    4. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture in 2 batches, beating on low speed until blended. Increase the mixer speed to high and beat until smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low, slowly pour in the 3/4 cup boiling water and beat until blended. The batter will be thin.

    5. Divide the batter equally among the prepared pans and bake until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes before turning them out onto wire racks to cool completely. Remove the parchment paper.

    6. To assemble and frost the cakes, place 1 cake layer, bottom-side up, on a cake plate. Use an offset spatula to spread 1 cup of the buttercream on top. Add the second cake layer, bottom-side down, and spread 1 cup of the buttercream on top. Top with the third cake layer, bottom-side up. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream.

    I made the cake and it was so nice and the color was pleasing. Deep red to chocolate. You will love it.

    Wale

  17. Linda says:

    Just made your cake for delivery tomorrow. Can’t say the red doesn’t make me a little queasy and it certainly is messy in the kitchen but the layers look and smell wonderful. Cooling now for a frosting tonight or probably in the AM. Nice recipe….if you can stomach the color. LOL

    Thanks, Joe!

  18. Ashley says:

    Hey Joe,

    I made a half batch of your red velvet cake tonight as a tester for the big one I have to do in a couple days. The cake turned out a little dry, but I think I know the reason. When I went to pick up a red food coloring, I was told I MUST try the red velvet emulsion. It seems to work great for a little flavor and color. However, I’m missing a whole lot of moisture from those 2 ounces of food coloring when all I need is 2 Tbs of emulsion. What would you recommend to make up the moisture? Egg whites? More buttermilk? Plain old milk?

    Thanks!

    • joepastry says:

      Ah yes, that may very well have had something to do with it, Ashley. The liquid from the food color does factor in. Though please try it the other way and give me your tasting notes. I’m always interested.

      - Joe

      • Ashley says:

        The cake was made, and much moister the second time! I can’t say that was much of my doing, though. Mostly just bumbling around. I decided to increase the recipe by half to get bigger cake layers. But then ran out of cocoa powder and sugar. I subbed in some powdered sugar, and kept the liquid levels all the same, using 3 Tbs. of emulsion. Oh, did I mention that I didn’t have cake flour so made my own using all purpose and cornstarch?

        Miraculously, the cake turned out! (Though the edges got slightly burned. Never increase the amount without decreasing the oven temperature… sigh) With the edges cut down, though, the cake worked perfectly.

        The emulsion adds a certain flavor, almost fruity in nature. It’s good, but not being a huge red velvet fan in the first place, I think I’ll stick with a regular old chocolate cake. (after I buy more cocoa powder of course.)

        • joepastry says:

          Sounds like you made some very sensible substitutions, Ashley. I’m very glad it worked out better the second time. Thanks for the note!

          - Joe

  19. Juliet says:

    Hey Joe, I’m planning on baking this on Friday but serving it on Saturday. I’m going to make a cream cheese frosting. What’s the best way to store it overnight? Frosted or unfrosted? Fridge or counter? Thanks!

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Juliet!

      I’d say put the cake together, frosted and all, and store it in the fridge overnight. Take it out a few hours ahead of time to let it return to room temperature.

      Have fun!

      - Joe

  20. iloveredvelvet says:

    are you guys on crack?! Red velvet cake is yummm and the red colour with the frosting makes it absolutely beautiful. That looks amazing Joe! I’ve just made the cupcake version and was disappointment when it was more brown than red! :(

  21. Rachel says:

    Darn it Joe. Your step by step guide here omits the vanilla, which led to me doing it as well. I now have two giant and largely unflavored cake layers. Still moist and pretty tasty, but I’m going to punch up the flavors in the frosting to compensate. Please add in the vanilla to the yolk step for those who might come after.

    • joepastry says:

      Oh dang, sorry Rachel! I fixed the problem. Thanks for letting me know…I trust the cake will still be received well!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  22. julie says:

    seriously??? i just read this recipe and i cant believe how many people are weird about the red food coloring…whats the big deal..red velvet is a favorite at our house and i can’t wait to try this recipe…i might even use 4 oz of food dye, lol.

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