My collection of high-altitude tested Classic Cakes simply wouldn’t be complete without a Red Velvet Cake. Red velvet cake is a buttermilk-based cake that has a moist, fine “velvety” crumb and a flavor that subtly hints at chocolate, but not overwhelmingly so. And the sweet and tangy cream cheese buttercream is perfectly complementary to the soft cake.
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What is Red Velvet Cake
Traditionally, red velvet cake didn’t contain any food coloring. Natural, non-alkalized cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed) reacted with the acid in the buttermilk and vinegar to create a red hue and velvety texture. These days, most people help the color along with a few drops of red gel food coloring.
Red velvet isn’t meant to taste like chocolate, so it contains very little cocoa powder. I’ve found that I prefer a bit more cocoa powder in mine, and while many recipes only use two tablespoons of cocoa in the cake, I use four tablespoons. This little difference adds a really beautiful depth of flavor to the cake, as well as masks the flavor of the food coloring, but doesn’t transform it into a chocolate cake.
Even though I grew up in the South, and red velvet cake tends to be a favorite down there, I don’t remember my mom making it much, if ever. And when I did finally taste it as an adult, it was not an instant love affair. I wasn’t sure what to think of the flavor, which struck me as rather bland, although I couldn’t argue that the cream cheese frosting was delicious. It took a few years and some recipe experimentation to learn that the first red velvet cake I tasted was not a very good one, but that when done right, it’s pretty wonderful.
How to Make Red Velvet Cake
This is an easy, high altitude recipe, that requires nothing more than whisking together the liquid ingredients, sifting the dry ingredients, and whisking them all together.
- Cake Flour. You could use all-purpose flour, if you like, but I love the lightness of cake flour in this cake.
- Granulated Sugar. Adds sweetness and moisture.
- Cocoa Powder. I use Dutch processed cocoa powder, and really love the Rodelle brand. It adds a subtle cocoa flavor, but the cake does not taste strongly of chocolate.
- Salt. I use coarse Kosher salt in all my baking. The salt balances the sweetness.
- Baking Soda. Leavens the cake, reacting with the acid in the vinegar and buttermilk, causing the cake to rise.
- Eggs. Add structure and richness.
- Vegetable Oil. Moisture.
- Buttermilk. Flavor, moisture and acid.
- Vinegar. Use white distilled vinegar. The extra acid gives the leavening a little boost for a good rise in this cake.
- Vanilla Extract. Flavor.
- Red Gel Food Coloring. To make the cake red, of course. Without the food coloring, the cake will be a light tan color.
Cream Cheese Buttercream and Decorating Your Red Velvet Cake
Everyone can agree that one of the best things about red velvet cake is the cream cheese frosting. For a sheet cake, you can make it with just cream cheese and and a little powdered sugar, but that would be far too creamy and unstable to spread onto a layer cake without it sliding off. The solution for layer cakes is a cream cheese buttercream with half butter and half cream cheese, a little more powdered sugar than I usually add to my standard buttercream recipes, and plenty of vanilla. My husband gave me vanilla beans for Christmas, and I used one to flavor the buttercream for today’s cake. Aren’t those little black specks just gorgeous?
Making your cream cheese buttercream with half butter also makes it a much more stable frosting that can be piped onto your cake just as you would be able to pipe a fluffy buttercream. It seems popular to decorate red velvet cakes with crumbs of cake pressed onto the outside, but why? Maybe it’s to hint at what’s inside, but we don’t usually do this with other flavors of cake. I’m not sure why the crumb thing is a thing. I opted for some really beautiful piping on my cake, like swoops of velvet curtains swept back from the stage at the ballet.
Baking Tips for Red Velvet Cake
- As with everything I bake, my cakes are baked at high altitude (I live in Denver), and to achieve your own perfect results, you may need to make a few slight adjustments if you live at a lower altitude or sea level. Please read this post and this post for all of my baking FAQs. There are many articles online that can offer advice on how to adjust your flour, sugar and leavening for various altitudes.
- Your dairy ingredients (eggs, buttermilk, butter and cream cheese) should be at room temperature for best results.
- Cake flour is best in this cake. It makes a much lighter cake than all-purpose flour does. Use the “spoon and sweep” method to measure your flour, and be sure to sift the cake flour after measuring.
- I use Rodelle Dutch processed cocoa powder in my red velvet cake. The type of cocoa powder you use will affect both the rise and the red color of the cake.
- I used Wilton Tip 1M for the piping on the cake. Note that the buttercream recipe below is enough to frost the cake, but you’ll need a little extra if you plan to pipe it onto the cake in the design that I made. Increase the butter to 1 1/2 cups and the powdered sugar to 6 cups if you’ll be piping the buttercream onto the cake.
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Red Velvet Cake
- Stand Mixer
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
- ¼ cup Dutch processed cocoa powder (Rodelle)
- 1 tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 ⅔ cups whole buttermilk
- 1 tbsp white distilled vinegar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- red gel food coloring
- 1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 8 oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 5 cups powdered sugar
- 2 tbsp meringue powder
- ¼ tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped (or 2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste)
- 1-2 tbsp milk or cream, only if needed
- Preheat the oven to 350 F and spray the bottoms of three 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray.
- In a bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda.
- In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and a few drops of red gel food coloring.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and whisk briefly, just until combined and smooth; don’t over-mix.
- Divide the batter between the pans and bake on the middle rack in the oven for about 25-28 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean and the tops spring back when gently touched.
- Set the cakes on a wire rack, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely before frosting.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the butter and cream cheese for several minutes until smooth.
- Add the powdered sugar and meringue powder by spoonfuls, mixing on low to combine. Add the salt, vanilla and milk (if needed to slightly thin the buttercream), and whip on medium speed for 4-5 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally, until very light and fluffy.
- Be careful not to add too much milk; cream cheese buttercream is softer than all-butter buttercream, and needs to be thicker if you plan on piping it onto your cake.
- Fill and stack the cake layers with the buttercream, then frost all-over with a very thin crumb coat of buttercream; chill for 30 minutes. Frost (or pipe) the remaining buttercream onto the cake.