The best Red Velvet Cake has a unique flavor and tender, moist crumb that pairs wonderfully with a tangy, sweet cream cheese frosting. This is a classic cake recipe for a 2-layer red velvet cake that is quite possibly the best red velvet cake recipe in the world.
So, let’s have an honest conversation real quick. If red velvet cake is not your thing, I get you. I’m not even going to try to convince you otherwise.
We are a house divided on this uber-popular cake flavor. It’s my oldest daughter Clara’s favorite cake (she’s our 7-year old) and has been for a couple of years now. Paul, on the other hand, sneers at it as a mockery or bastardization of chocolate cake. Rose and I are somewhat on the fence about red velvet cake because, well, it’s cake and it’s delicious but it’s not my favorite cake (gasp!). That doesn’t mean I don’t like it though because I definitely ate both slices that I needed to cut to take these photos.
But truthfully, this easy red velvet cake recipe is not just any old cake. It results in the softest, most tender, moist, fluffy, impossibly velvety (it’s aptly named, after all) cake ever.
There are a number of reasons for this, involving the combination of butter and oil, and the chemical reactions of buttermilk, cocoa powder, baking soda and vinegar. But rather than get too deep into all that, let’s just say that making red velvet cake from scratch is 100% worth it.
Check out this New York Times article which has a great history about the original red velvet cake recipe going all the way back to the earliest known “velvet cakes” of the 1800’s and describing the developments in how red velvet cake as we know it came to be, thanks to a food dye manufacturer, WWII rationing, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and a red velvet armadillo wedding cake from the movie Steel Magnolias with Julia Roberts in the 1990’s.
I set out to find my favorite red velvet cake recipe once and for all, and this is definitely it! This recipe is definitely a keeper and I’m so glad to add it to my collection of best cake recipes ever, like my cherry chip cake, yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and devil’s food chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. Seriously, check out the comments on those posts because there have been some really amazing readers who left generous, glowing reviews.
Red velvet cake is perfect for almost any occasion, but the bold red and white colors make this the perfect cake for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. And really, since the red color is really achieved by using red food coloring, you could make a green velvet cake for St. Patrick’s Day just by using green food coloring or a blue velvet cake for baby showers or gender reveals using blue food coloring.
What does red velvet cake taste like? Is red velvet cake the same as chocolate cake?
It’s an emphatic “No!” from me. Red velvet cake is NOT the same as chocolate cake, even though it has some cocoa powder in it and slight chocolate undertones.
Nor is red velvet cake just a white cake that is dyed red.
Red velvet really does have it’s own unique flavor that is derived from the small amount of cocoa combined with butter and buttermilk. You don’t taste the vinegar, although that ingredient does factor into the sublime texture of a red velvet cake. It has an old-fashioned, from scratch flavor and quality to it that I love.
And truly, no boxed cake mix compares to a red velvet cake made from scratch.
My red velvet cake recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder instead of the 2 or even 1 tablespoons of cocoa powder that I see in most other red velvet cake recipes. It helps those cocoa notes come through a little bit more. Even with that slight adjustment, this still doesn’t taste like a chocolate cake to me.
How to make the best red velvet cake
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and prep your cake pans by lining them with circles of parchment paper in the bottoms, then spray bottoms and sides with cooking spray.
- Whisk all the dry ingredients together first – flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt – and set them aside.
- Beat butter and sugar together until light and creamy – about 3-4 minutes using a hand mixer or stand mixer. Then add the oil and beat again, scraping down the sides of the bowl. The mixture will look a little curdled, but there’s nothing to worry about.
- Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition, and vanilla. Then mix in the vinegar and food coloring.
- Alternately add 1/3 of the dry ingredients with 1/3 of the buttermilk, mixing just until combined after each addition and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl, repeating until everything has been added.
- Pour the batter evenly between the two cake pans, then bake for 30-35 minutes (for 9-inch pans) or 38-43 minutes (for 8-inch pans), or until a cake tester inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean with just a few crumbs. Be sure not to overbake.
- Cool completely before frosting with cream cheese frosting.
Tips for the best red velvet cake
Here are my best tips for making the best red velvet cake ever.
- Use cake flour, if possible. If you don’t have cake flour, you can absolutely use all-purpose flour and just sub in a little cornstarch to help improve the texture. Instead of 3 cups of cake flour, use 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour and 1/3 cup cornstarch instead. Cake flour really does result in a softer cake with the classic velvety texture that is this cake’s namesake. I went years without buying cake flour, but it really, truly does make a difference, especially in this particular cake recipe.
- Use a combination of oil and butter. Like many baked goods, when deciding on the fat to use you sometimes have to weigh flavor with texture. I find that the using some butter with some oil rather than all of one or the other gives me the best of both worlds – the added moistness from oil with the wonderful flavor from the butter.
- Red food coloring is needed for the vibrant red color. You can use either liquid or gel food coloring, but you will need more of the liquid kind (2-3 tablespoons) to get the vibrant red color that is the hallmark of red velvet cake.
- Both Dutch-process or natural cocoa powder will work for this red velvet cake recipe. I use 3 tablespoons for a slightly more noticeable chocolate taste to the cake, but 2 tablespoons is pretty standard for most red velvet cakes.
- I use distilled white vinegar but if apple cider vinegar is all you have on hand, that will work as well.
- The cake can be made in either two 8-inch or 9-inch baking pans to create two layers. I like using my 8-inch pans for nice, thick layers like you see in these photos. The baking time is different depending on which size you use (30-35 minutes for 9-inch pans and 38-43 minutes for 8-inch pans) and I’ve made notes for this in the recipe below.
- If you are having trouble crumbling your scraps to decorate the top of the cake, try using a cheese grater to get nice uniform crumbs.
What frosting goes with red velvet cake?
The two most popular frosting choices for red velvet cake are cream cheese frosting or ermine frosting. Actually, the original frosting for red velvet cake was ermine frosting (sometimes also called boiled milk frosting, heritage frosting, flour buttercream, roux frosting or any other number of names).
Ermine frosting is amazing and delicious and what I use with my black forest cake (just double the frosting recipe for this red velvet cake so you can cover the sides). Ermine frosting a light and soft frosting that is less sweet than most other frostings, and would be fantastic on this red velvet cake.
I’m including my favorite cream cheese frosting recipe to go with this red velvet cake, but if that’s not your thing, here are some other great frosting options.
- Swiss Meringue Buttercream (from my Burnt Almond Cake)
- American Buttercream
- Rainbow Chip Frosting (I’m always up for rainbow chip!)
- Whipped Cream Frosting
Can you make red velvet cake in advance?
Like most cakes, red velvet cake is a great make-ahead cake option since you can bake the cake layers in advance. Just let them cool completely, then wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and keep them in the fridge for up to a week.
Or freeze your cake layers so they last even longer! After wrapping each layer in plastic wrap, slide them into a large ziplock bag for extra protection from freezer burn and freeze for up to 2 months.
I often will make my cakes a few days ahead and refrigerate or freeze them, not just because of time constraints on days when I want to serve the cake, but also because it’s easier to frost cold cakes!
The only thing I don’t recommend making in advance is the cream cheese icing. It’s possible to make it and keep it in the fridge, but you still have to let it come to room temperature a bit and then mix it again with the mixer before using and I just don’t find the effort worth it, so I always make the frosting fresh.
Buttermilk Substitutes If You’re In a Pinch and Don’t Have Buttermilk On Hand
I really think it’s worth it to buy real, actual buttermilk for this recipe. You can always use leftover buttermilk for making buttermilk pancakes, buttermilk biscuits, marinating chicken, or making loads of other recipes.
But just in case you are in a pinch and don’t have buttermilk in your fridge when you are trying to make this red velvet cake, here are two buttermilk substitutes for you:
- Pour 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or fresh lemon juice into a 1 cup measuring cup, then add enough milk to fill the rest of the cup to the top. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes to curdle, then use just like you would use buttermilk.
- Combine 3/4 cup plain yogurt with 1/4 cup milk. Whisk together in a bowl, then use just like you would use buttermilk.
More Red Velvet Desserts
- Red Velvet Cheesecake from Recipe Girl
- Red Velvet French Toast from Cafe Delites
- Red Velvet Brownies from The Girl Who Ate Everything
- Red Velvet Whoopie Pies from Sally’s Baking Addiction
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 3 eggs, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 2-3 tablespoons liquid red food coloring
- 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
- 2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 2-3 tablespoons cream or milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
For the cake
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two 9-inch or 8-inch cake pans with circles of parchment paper in the bottoms and spray the sides. Set aside.
- Whisk the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside.
- Beat the butter and sugar together on high speed for 3-4 minutes in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment until light and creamy. Add the oil and mix again, scraping the sides of the bowl.
- Add eggs, one at a time, and vanilla, beating on medium-high speed between each addition until combined. Add vinegar and food coloring, adding as much food coloring as needed to get the desired color. If using gel food coloring, it will take less - about 1 tablespoon.
- Turn mixer to low speed and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk in 2-3 additions, mixing just until combined between each addition and scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed.
- Transfer batter to the prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes (for 9-inch pans) or 38-43 minutes (for 8-inch pans) until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean with just a few crumbs. Do not overbake. Remove from oven and cool completely.
For the frosting
- Beat the cream cheese and butter together in a large bowl using a handheld mixer until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add the powdered sugar and cream or milk and mix on low speed until incorporated, then increase speed and beat for 2 minutes. Add vanilla and salt and beat again.
- Level the cakes (if needed) so the tops are flat. Save scraps to crumble and use for decorating. Frost with cream cheese frosting and sprinkle the top of the cake with the reserved crumbs. Slice and serve.
- Cover and store at room temperature for 3-4 days or in the fridge for up to 7 days.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 12
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 593 Saturated Fat: 12g Cholesterol: 87mg Sodium: 363mg Carbohydrates: 97g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 73g Protein: 6g
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