Red velvet cake is a southern staple through and through. With gorgeous layers of bright-red cakes stacked with stark white frosting, this cake makes an entrance. The cake is so iconic that you can now find delicious red velvet recipe spinoffs like cinnamon rolls and whoopie pies. But what is red velvet cake? And how do you make a traditional red velvet cake recipe that you’d be proud to bring into any southern home? Let’s dive in.
What is red velvet cake?
Red velvet cake is a type of layered cake. The cake has a distinctive bright-red hue, and it’s frosted with a contrasting snow-white icing. Red velvet cake wasn’t always shockingly red, though. During the time of its creation, bakers loved adding cocoa powder to their creations for the velvety texture it imparted (another nod to red velvet’s namesake). The reaction between the non-Dutch processed cocoa and a tenderizing acid, like buttermilk, in the cake would develop a subtle red color. And so it was that red velvet cake was born.
What flavor is red velvet cake?
Red velvet cake has a balanced sweet-tart taste with faint notes of cocoa. Thanks to the acid from vinegar and buttermilk in the batter, the cake itself has a light, tender crumb. The baked cake layers are typically finished with a gorgeously thick, dense and sweet vanilla frosting.
Red Velvet Cake Recipe Ingredients
- Red food coloring: There are lots of different types of food coloring out there, but we recommend a traditional liquid dye for this red velvet cake recipe.
- White vinegar: White vinegar helps the baking soda leaven the cake so it rises nice and tall.
- Cake flour: Cake flour imparts a light, delicate crumb in the cake for a lovely, springy texture.
- Baking cocoa: Our Test Kitchen pros set out to find the best cocoa powder for baking and concluded that Hershey’s Cocoa was the best and easiest to find.
- Buttermilk: Buttermilk adds a tangy and rich flavor to red velvet cake, making the texture tender and moist. It’s an essential ingredient!
- Cornstarch: A bit of cornstarch prevents the frosting from caking.
- Confectioners’ sugar: Confectioners’ sugar sweetens the frosting, creating the perfect vanilla frosting for this red velvet cake recipe.
Step 1: Beat together the wet ingredients
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, five to seven minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Step 2: Add the remaining wet ingredients
Beat in the food coloring, vinegar and vanilla.
Editor’s Tip: Turn the mixer off when adding the food coloring so it doesn’t splash everywhere. Once the food coloring is poured in, gently turn the mixer onto the low speed, and make sure the food coloring is completely incorporated before turning the mixer any higher.
Step 3: Add the dry mixture and buttermilk
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating just until combined after each addition.
Step 4: Bake
Pour the batter into two greased and floured 9-inch round baking pans. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool the layers at room temperature for 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans, and transfer to wire racks. Let cool completely to room temperature.
Step 5: Prepare the cakes
Trim 1/4 inch off the top of each cake layer. Finely crumble the remaining trimmings onto a baking sheet. Let the crumbs stand at room temperature while making the frosting.
Editor’s Tip: Don’t be daunted about leveling the cakes! Let us show you how to level a cake without a leveler like a pro.
Step 6: Create the frosting
In a small saucepan, stir together the water and cornstarch over medium heat. Stir until thickened and opaque, two to three minutes. Cool the mixture to room temperature. In a separate bowl, use a hand mixer or stand mixer to beat the butter and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in the cornstarch mixture. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar. Beat the frosting until light and fluffy.
Step 7: Assemble the cake
Place one cake layer on the center of the serving platter. Dollop some of the frosting onto the center of the cake layer and, using a mini offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly all the way to the sides of the cake. Place the second cake layer on top (cut side down), making sure the cake is lined up perfectly edge to edge with the cake layer underneath.
At this point, feel free to either frost a crumb coat and finish with a final frosting layer, or go ahead and evenly frost the entire outside of the cake. Press the reserved cake crumbs into the side of the cake for extra decoration.
Editor’s Tip: We get it, frosting a cake is hard! Let us teach you how to frost a cake the easy way. With time, practice and patience, you’ll get the hang of it.
- Make a cream cheese frosting: Many people love their red velvet cake with a cream cheese frosting instead of a vanilla frosting. If you go this route, pick up one of the best cream cheese brands according to our seasoned Test kitchen pros for the ultimate rich frosting.
- Finish with a garnish: We love to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on top of the finished cake for an effect of light snow dusting. You could also pipe designs onto the cake with any leftover frosting.
- Bake in a different pan: Our guide to baking pan conversions is our secret weapon for baking with multiple pans. Did you know you could bake this cake in a 13×9-inch pan?
How to Store Red Velvet Cake
To store, cover the cake, and keep it in the fridge for up to four days. You can also keep it at room temperature for up to two days as long as you haven’t already frosted it.
Can you make red velvet cake ahead of time?
Yes, you can make red velvet cake ahead of time! One way is to make and assemble the entire cake the day before serving and store it in the fridge. You can also bake the cake layers, let them cool to room temperature, wrap them tightly in storage wrap, and keep them in the freezer for up to three months. We don’t recommend making the frosting beforehand; whip it up only when you’re ready to frost the cake.
Can you freeze red velvet cake?
Yes, you can freeze red velvet cake. Store the cake in an airtight container for up to three months. Alternatively, freeze the cake unwrapped for one to two hours in the freezer, then wrap the cake in storage wrap, and store in the freezer .
To thaw, place the cake in the fridge overnight. Right before serving, bring the cake to room temperature for an hour on the counter.
Red Velvet Cake Recipe Tips
Is red velvet cake chocolate cake?
No, red velvet cake is not chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is heavily flavored with cocoa powder and/or baking chocolate. A red velvet cake recipe usually contains a mere 2 tablespoons or so of cocoa powder, just enough to give the cake a velvety texture and flavor. Chocolate cake is usually heavy and rich, while red velvet’s acidic ingredients make it light and fluffy.
What makes red velvet cake red?
Two bottles of red food coloring make our red velvet cake recipe red. However, when red velvet cake was first created, it only had a subtle red color thanks to the chemical reaction between the acidic ingredients and the non-Dutch processed cocoa. Cocoa was heavily rationed during World War II, so bakers turned to beet juice to make their red velvet cakes red. The beet juice imparted a far more concentrated red color that became iconic for red velvet cake, which is when red food coloring was introduced into the modernized recipe.