Red velvet cake is an eye-catching brick-red colored cake flavored with subtle chocolate and a hint of vanilla with a pleasant tanginess.While it’s an American classic that dates back almost 100 years, it wasn’t until recently that the cake rose to fame. Now it’s a popular flavor for everything from cupcakes to cookies.
Red velvet is flavored with both cocoa powder and vanilla extract, but it’s not just a simple compromise between chocolate and vanilla. It has its own characteristic red velvet flavor because of the tart buttermilk and vinegar. The acidity in these ingredients also gives the cake an extra lift for a fluffy, soft texture, like velvet. Older recipes used to use a classic ermine frosting but this recipe instead uses rich cream cheese frosting to emphasize the sweet and tangy flavor of red velvet cake.
Red velvet cake is a classic way to mark all kinds of special occasions, from birthdays to Valentine’s Day. It may take a couple hours, but when red velvet cake is served, everyone knows it’s a party. Plus, there are plenty of ways to work ahead and break the baking project into manageable parts if you’re short on time.
Why is Red Velvet Cake so Red?
Red velvet cake originally had a reddish-brown color from the reaction that occurs between natural (non-Dutched) cocoa powder and the acid in buttermilk and vinegar. This reaction reveals the anthocyanins, a color compound found naturally in raw cocoa powder. But the cake would have been more of a reddish-brown mahogany color rather than the bright red that’s characteristic of the cake today.
Nowadays, we intensify the red by using red food coloring. I recommended using gel food coloring because it incorporates into the batter better and colors more efficiently. In most grocery stores, you can find gel food coloring that works well for this kind of cake batter, such as Betty Crocker Gel Food Color.
If you use liquid food coloring instead, increase the amount in the recipe to two tablespoons since it’s not as concentrated. A professional-grade gel is even more concentrated than the gels at the grocery store, so if using, add it into the batter one dab at a time and test the color.
How to Get Even, Flat Layers
The easiest way to get even layers is to use a kitchen scale to precisely divide the batter between cake pans. If you don't have a kitchen scale, simply divide the batter by eye and use the same type of cake pan for each layer, so it's easier to see if they're even. The problem with specifying a volume measurement for how much batter to pour into each pan is that the volume of the batter will differ based on the specific ingredients you use, how long you cream the butter and sugar, the effectiveness of your baking soda, and how long you mix the batter. It will differ every time.
Baking flat cake layers comes from a combination of the recipe and the pan you’re using. At Simply Recipes, we recommend the non-stick pans from USA Pan or Fat Daddio’s anodized aluminum round cake pans. Anodized aluminum or the non-stick pans from USA Pan allows your cake layers to rise evenly up the sides of the pan. Make sure to grease the sides of the pan well; otherwise, the edges of the cake will stick to the pan, preventing them from rising, and the middle of the cake will dome.
If the cake does dome, all is not lost. You can use a long, serrated bread knife to trim off the dome and make a flat layer. Save the trimmings to decorate the outside of the cake with red velvet crumbs or use them to make cake pops with any leftover frosting.
The Best Cream Cheese for Frosting
Softened blocks of full-fat cream cheese are the best for making frosting. Compared to the bricks, low-fat cream cheese or the kind sold in plastic tubs have a higher moisture content and make a runny frosting.
Cream cheese frosting can sometimes be a little finicky. Here are a few tips:
- To prevent the frosting from getting runny, the butter should be room temperature, and the cream cheese should be soft but still feel cool to the touch.
- It's also important not to beat the frosting for too long as that will soften it more. If the frosting does end up too soft, place it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
- If it’s still too runny, add more powdered sugar, about 1/2 cup (113g) at a time until you reach the desired consistency.
Tips for Frosting a Layer Cake
Frosting a cake can sometimes be a challenge. Professional cake decorators make it look so easy, but they have thousands of hours of practice. A few quick tips for how to frost a cake can set you up for success.
- Make sure the cakes have cooled completely before frosting. If they’re warm at all, you risk melting the frosting and having your cake layers slide around while you’re trying to work.
- I suggest investing in a large offset spatula. An offset spatula gives you the most control and is perfectly designed for spreading frosting and shaping smooth, straight sides. You can, of course, use a large butter knife, a spoon, or the straight edge of a rubber spatula.
- Use a crumb coat. A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting that seals the cake and traps any loose crumbs, so the final layer of frosting doesn't have any red specks of crumbs in the outer layer of white frosting. Chill the cake in the fridge so the crumb coat can set before adding the final layer of frosting.
- If you're having difficulty getting smooth sides, decorate the cake with a swirl, swoops, or waves instead. You could also sprinkle the cake with cake crumbs, sprinkles, chocolate chips, or colored sanding sugar. It’s a great way to decorate away any obvious mistakes and make them look beautifully intentional.
How to Make this Cake Ahead of Time
If you’re looking to save some time and work ahead, the cake and the frosting can be made in advance and assembled the day of serving. Wrap the cooled cake layers in plastic and store them at room temperature overnight or freeze them for longer storage. The cream cheese frosting can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Make sure to remove the frosting from the fridge at least 10 minutes before frosting the cake and give it a mix on low speed for a few seconds.
Store the cake, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. If it's already been sliced into, I like to fit a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper on the exposed cake layers, so they don't dry out.
Red Velvet Cake
For the red velvet cake
2 2/3 cups (320g) cake flour
3 tablespoons (16g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (240ml) buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon red gel food coloring
1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (180ml) vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups (300g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
For the cream cheese frosting
2 (8-ounce) packages full-fat cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
5 cups (568g) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Prepare the pans:
Grease two 8-inch round cake pans with butter. Line the pans with parchment paper and grease the parchment. Dust the bottom and sides of the pans with flour and tap out the excess.
Sift the dry ingredients:
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. If you don’t have a sifter, whisk the ingredients together instead. Cake flour and cocoa powder tend to clump, and sifting helps ensure a smooth batter.
Measure the wet ingredients:
Measure the buttermilk in a liquid measuring cup or small bowl. Add the vinegar, vanilla extract, and red food coloring and whisk to combine.
Beat the butter, oil, and sugar:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, vegetable oil, and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until very pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. The mixture will have doubled or nearly tripled in volume.
Add the eggs:
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until fully combined after each addition. Scrape down the bottoms and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Combine the wet and the dry:
Add one third of the flour mixture into the butter mixture and mix on low speed until incorporated. Pour in half of the buttermilk mixture and continue mixing on low speed just until combined. Continue alternating the dry and wet ingredients, making sure to end with the dry ingredients and mixing until just combined. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bowl in between additions to ensure the batter mixes evenly.
Divide cake batter and bake the red velvet cake layers:
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. The cake will have deepened in color to brick-red, the edges of the cake will have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan, and the cake should spring back when gently poked with your finger.
Cool the cakes:
Let the cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
Beat the cream cheese and butter for frosting:
To make the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.
Add the powdered sugar and vanilla:
Add the powdered sugar and vanilla extract and continue beating on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. The frosting will be much thicker than standard buttercream frosting.
If the frosting seems too soft, place it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to stiffen. If it still seems too runny, add more powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until you reach the desired consistency.
Trim the red velvet cake layers:
Depending on your cake pans, the red velvet cake layers may have domed while baking. It’s not a problem if they have. Use a large serrated knife to remove the domes. Optionally, you can save the trimmings to make crumbs to sprinkle on the cake.
Assemble the cake:
Place one of the cake layers right-side-up on a large plate or a 10-inch cardboard cake round. Use an offset spatula or a butter knife to spread a thick layer of frosting, 1/2 to 1 cup, evenly over the layer. Top with the remaining cake layer, placed up-side-down, so the top of the cake is smooth and flat. Check that the cake layers are centered and that the top of the cake is level. Gently adjust accordingly.
Apply the crumb coat:
Spread a generous amount of frosting over the top and sides of the cake using an offset spatula or the straight edge of a large butter knife. Use the spatula to spread the frosting into a thin, even layer. You should be able to see the cake through the frosting.
This thin layer of frosting is called the crumb coat and helps catch any loose crumbs on the outside of the cake so that the final layer of frosting doesn't have any bright red crumbs caught in it.
Refrigerate the cake and frosting:
Place the cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes for the frosting to set. Cover and refrigerate the bowl of frosting.
Frost the cake:
Remove the cake and the bowl of frosting from the refrigerator. Stir the frosting a few times until smooth.
Spread a generous amount of frosting over the top and sides of the cake as before, this time leaving a thicker layer of frosting. Use the offset spatula or the back of a butter knife to smooth the sides.
If you have any cake trimmings, you can break them into crumbs and sprinkle them along the circumference of the top of the cake if desired.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 33g||42%|
|Saturated Fat 14g||70%|
|Total Carbohydrate 73g||27%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 56g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||1%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|