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Culinaria – Red Velvet Cake

Culinaria – Red Velvet Cake


Skip the fake red hue —  and the insects — with the recipe below

A friend recently asked me what makes Red Velvet cake so good (the answer is: the richness of the buttermilk, the combination of the cocoa powder and vanilla, the loft from the vinegar and baking soda, and the tart sweetness of cream cheese frosting) and that led to a conversation about food coloring. Classic Red Velvet cake has a subtle reddish hue, a far cry from the garish scarlet that many of us associate with it, and is not tooth-achingly sweet. The magic that starts with whole eggs, grainy sugar, dry flour and ends with a light, delicious concoction with which to celebrate birthdays, end a meal, or comfort the bereft is alchemical and timeless: cake baking. 

Red Velvet cake is not a chocolate cake in the traditional sense of the word, it has a small ratio of cocoa powder which leads to its velvety texture (thus the name) and when the unprocessed cocoa powder reacts with the acids in the vinegar and buttermilk used in the batter it takes on the aforementioned red tint. These days, most Red Velvet cakes are helped along the road to bright red with food coloring, often artificial, and are overly sweet and dense. 

Some red dyes are highly allergenic for some people – most specifically the ones that are made from bugs: carmine, cochineal, or natural red dye 4. Yes, you read that correctly, bugs. And while they may be preferable to red dye 40, which appears to have some links to migraines and hyperactivity, for many people the thought of eating bugs is not appealing. Many European countries have banned food dyes that are still found commonly here and there is a movement to follow suit. Until then, maybe skip the bugs and the petroleum based dyes and go au naturel. For a truly remarkable treat, this classic Red Velvet cake is totally worth the effort. Or send this recipe to a friend and ask them to bake it for you!

Classic Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting


  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 Tbs unprocessed cocoa powder (don’t use Dutch process – the cocoa has been alkalinized and will not turn red)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp kosher or flake salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk (you can make your own version by adding 1 Tbs white vinegar to 1 cup of whole milk)
  • ½ cup neutral oil (sunflower is great here)
  • 1 Tbs white vinegar
  • 12 Tbs butter, softened (if you use salted butter, cut the salt above to ½ tsp)
  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup hot water (or hot coffee, which is less traditional but delicious)

Heat oven to 350 degrees F then butter and flour or butter and line with parchment 2 8” cake pans. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, vinegar, and oil. In another bowl (yes, this is a 3 bowl cake – it’s worth it, though!) cream the butter until light and fluffy then beat in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly incorporated.

Beat the vanilla into the eggs and butter then beat in half the dry ingredients, then half the wet, repeat. Slowly pour in the hot water (or coffee) beating all the while. Pour batter evenly into the prepared pans then bake about 40-45 minutes (test with a toothpick or thin knife.) Remove cakes from oven and allow to cool slightly, remove the pans and allow cakes to cool. Meanwhile, make the frosting.


(you can double this recipe if you are piping frosting flowers or using extra cake layers or just want to have extra to eat on toast)

  • 1 stick of salted butter, softened (4 oz)
  • 1 block of cream cheese, softened (8 oz)
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbs heavy cream (you can use half & half or whole milk if you don’t have cream)
  • 2 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • (½ tsp grated nutmeg – not traditional for Red Velvet Cake but so delicious)

Beat the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy. Beat in the cream and vanilla (and nutmeg if you are using it) then beat in the powdered sugar, ¼ cup at a time. Beat until all incorporated then stop; you don’t want to melt the butter. 

Put a thin layer of frosting between the cake layers then frost the top and sides of the cake. You can decorate with cocoa powder, fresh berries, edible flowers, or piped frosting flower. If you want to get fancy, you can split the cakes horizontally in half so you will have a cake with four layers instead of two, putting a thin layer of frosting between each layer.

I will be here again next month, to talk food and answer questions. Please be part of the dialogue by submitting your questions or comments to [email protected]

Cook, eat, be brave.


Jessica Hersh
Jessica Hersh has been working as a culinary professional for over 28 years but her love of food has been lifelong. She has made a career of cooking, teaching, writing, and talking about food. Jessica loves eating, reading, playing word games, and spending time admiring the beauty of nature.

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