Red velvet cake is so much more than a white or chocolate cake tinted red. This iconic cake is a masterpiece of flavors, textures, and frosting. Learn all my tricks and tips to perfecting this classic red velvet cake recipe at home!
I’m out of control excited to share this recipe with you.
This is the holy grail of layer cakes. The most romantic, gorgeous, vibrant cake of all time. The “I can’t quite put my finger on the flavor” cake. Dense, yet soft ‘n light. The sweet marriage of buttermilk and vanilla with a little cocoa on the side. Tall, dramatic, and completely covered in tangy cream cheese frosting.
This, everyone, is one and only red velvet cake.
What Does Red Velvet Cake Taste Like?
As I’ve told you many, many times before, I’ve always been unsure about red velvet. Quite honestly, I don’t really trust a cake that has a mystery flavor. Is it vanilla? Is it chocolate? Is it just a butter cake colored red? Why is dessert so confusing! That was until I learned the beauty of this mighty flavor. From red velvet brownies and red velvet cookies to red velvet bars and brownies again, I’ve had quite a lot of fun getting to know red velvet. Red velvet is:
- mild chocolate
- intertwined with the unmistakable taste of buttermilk
- a generous dose of vanilla
- plenty of butter flavor
These four flavors make up the mystery of red velvet and are essential to perfecting a red velvet layer cake. Not only are the flavors fabulous, red velvet cake’s texture is something to write home about. It’s dense but soft with a moist, tender crumb. My absolute favorite part about red velvet cake, though, is the cream cheese frosting. Slathered on thick, this frosting is delicately sweet and undeniably creamy.
How to Make Red Velvet Cake
Enough red velvet rambling, let me tell you about my specific recipe. There are reasons I use specific ingredients, certain amounts, and unique mixing techniques, so pay attention if you’re looking to recreate this cake at home.
- Cake flour. I highly 100% recommend cake flour for red velvet cake. Cake flour is much lighter than all-purpose and the perfect base for a light, soft-crumbed cake texture. Like I mention above, red velvet’s texture is important to the authenticity of the flavor. Cake flour is sold at all major grocery stores, baking stores, or basically wherever there is a baking aisle. You will thank me for encouraging you to buy it after you taste how incredibly soft this cake is. It’s like the kind of texture you find at professional bakeries. And guess what? They pretty much always use cake flour in red velvet cake. Please see my recipe note about subbing all-purpose flour if you absolutely must.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder. 2 Tablespoons is just enough to give that very slight cocoa taste without overpowering the vanilla and butter flavors. Chocolate’s flavor, as you know, is quite strong.
- Use both butter and oil. What makes red velvet cake different from chocolate cake is its buttery flavor. When I began testing recipes for my red velvet cupcakes, I threw the butter flavor aside because all I could concentrate on was “make the cupcake moist.” And we all know oil brings so much moisture. But with oil we (1) don’t have that natural buttery flavor and (2) the cupcakes aren’t as light and soft, which is something creamed butter imparts into cakes, cupcakes, and muffins. Furthermore, I often find that too much oil weighs baked goods down. So, I use both oil and butter. Moist texture, soft and cakey texture, butter flavor. Boom.
- Whip the eggs. I could write an entire post about my red velvet/egg methodology. I’ll try to avoid boring you by summarizing it. This is a very large layer cake, so you’ll be using 4 large eggs to provide richness, structure, binding, etc. You will separate the eggs before going into the red velvet cake batter. The yolks are beaten in with the creamed butter/sugar, then beat the egg whites to a frothy consistency and fold them in last. What is the point of this? I find that the fluffiest texture is achieved this way. Beating the egg whites incorporates air which, when folded into the cake batter, creates airy volume. (As opposed to just weighing it down.)
- Buttermilk is a must. A little tangy, a lot of moisture, and ultra creamy. You can’t make this red velvet cake without it! Besides what buttermilk does for the taste and texture of red velvet cake, it also helps to activate the baking soda to leaven the cake. The vinegar does too- and it helps brighten the red color. Don’t get scared, a touch of vinegar is normal in red velvet desserts! You cannot taste it. Back to buttermilk, though. You can make a DIY version at home that works wonderfully in this red velvet cake recipe. In fact, I tried both ways in my recipe testing. (Who wants to raid my freezer full of red velvet cake?) Both fantastic and identical in appearance, texture, and flavor. See my recipe notes for how to make a DIY buttermilk if you do not keep it on hand.
I really want you to make this cake, but I just have a couple more things before I leave you with the recipe. The cake layers are very thick. I love the look of nice, thick layers in a red velvet cake. You can bake this cake into three layers instead of two. See recipe notes.
As I mention above, I love to use cream cheese frosting on my red velvet cakes. You can use another frosting you like such as vanilla or chocolate. In my opinion, cream cheese pairs best with the flavor of red velvet. I decorate the cake with cake crumbs. These are crumbs from the cake layers themselves. The cakes bake up to be quite tall, so I level them off with a large serrated knife and then crumble up that thin piece of cake to use as garnish. Pretty easy, right? Waste not want not.
I think that’s about it. Did you make it down this far?
Red Velvet Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 3 cups (345g) cake flour (spoon & leveled)1
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 Tablespoons (10g) natural unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature2
- 2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (240ml) canola or vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs, room temperature and separated
- 1 and 1/2 Tablespoons (22ml) vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
- liquid or gel red food coloring3
- 1 cup (240ml) buttermilk, room temperature4
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 16 ounces (450g) full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature5
- 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 4 cups (480g) confectioners’ sugar
- 2-3 Tablespoons (30-45ml) cream or milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Spray or lightly butter two 9×2 (deep dish) cake pans6. Set aside.
- Make the cake: Whisk the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside.
- Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on high speed until smooth and creamy – about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat on high speed for 2 minutes until creamed together fairly well. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the oil and beat on high for 2 minutes. The butter may look curdled and not completely combine with the oil. It’s ok!
- Add four egg yolks and the vanilla. (Set the egg whites aside.) Beat on medium-high speed until combined. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Beat in the vinegar and the food coloring– until you reach your desired color. I used about 3 Tablespoons of liquid food coloring. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not overmix. Vigorously whisk or beat the 4 egg whites until thick and foamy as pictured above, about 3 minutes. Fold into cake batter with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. The batter will be silky and slightly thick. (If there are still small pieces of butter – again, this is ok. They will melt inside as the cakes bake. Making them even more buttery tasting!)
- Pour batter into cake pans filling 2/3 of the way full. Bake for 30-32 minutes or until the tops of the cakes spring back when gently touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If the cakes need a little longer as judged by wet crumbs on the toothpick, bake them for longer. However do not overbake; your cakes may dry out. Remove from the oven and allow cakes to cool in the pans set on a wire rack. Cool them completely.
- Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk or paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and 2 Tablespoons of cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more Tablespoon cream if needed to thin out. Beat on high for 2 full minutes. Taste the frosting and add a pinch of salt if it is too sweet.
- Assemble and frost: First, using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Set these thin pieces of cake aside. Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with frosting. Top with 2nd layer and spread remaining frosting all over the top and sides. Crumble the thin pieces of cake you sliced off in a large bowl. Decorate the sides and top edges of the cake with these crumbs– this is optional! Slice and serve.
- Cover extras up tightly and store at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Unfrosted cake remains fresh covered tightly at room temperature for 3-4 days. Store frosted cakes in the refrigerator for up to 7 days and allow to come to room temperature before serving.
Make ahead tip: The cake layers can be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature overnight. Likewise, the frosting can be prepared then covered and refrigerated overnight. Let the frosting sit at room temperature to slightly soften for 10 minutes before assembling and frosting. Frosted cake or unfrosted cake layers can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before decorating/serving.
- I strongly recommend cake flour in this cake recipe. If you absolutely cannot get ahold of it, a mix of all-purpose and cornstarch is fine. Sift together 2 and 2/3 cups (333g) all-purpose flour + 1/3 cup (40g) cornstarch and use this instead of cake flour. Sifting them is imperative.
- Why so many room temperature ingredients? When everything is near the same temperature, they mix together easily, evenly, and produce a uniform texture among the cake.
- The amount of red food coloring is up to you. I tested with varying amounts. To get the dark red color you see here, use about 3 Tablespoons of liquid food coloring. Dye the batter until you are pleased with the color. Of course, you don’t have to dye the batter at all if you don’t want to. I have never tested this recipe with a natural alternative, so let me know if you try it!
- Buttermilk is a key ingredient in this recipe. I used low-fat because that’s what I typically have, but full fat buttermilk is great too. You may make your own “DIY” buttermilk and use it instead. To do so, add 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar to a liquid measuring cup. Add enough regular milk (skim, 1%, 2%, or whole) to make 1 cup. Stir the two together and let sit for 5 minutes. This soured milk may be used instead of buttermilk in step 4.
- Use brick-style cream cheese. Not cream cheese spread.
- If you’d like to make a 3 layer cake, pour the batter evenly into 3 pans and bake for about 22-25 minutes.
- This batter will fit into a 9×13-inch pan. Fill 2/3 full. If there’s extra batter, you can make a few cupcakes. Bake time will be close to 40 minutes; use a toothpick to test for doneness.