Red Velvet Cake

The first time I made Red Velvet Cake was in Edinburgh to celebrate Canada day. I used this recipe from Joy of Baking, but made cupcakes instead of a 9-inch cake. To make them Canadian, I topped them with little maple leaves cut out of strawberries. I had high hopes while I shaped the miniature leaves, but the end-result wasn’t quite what I envisioned. However, despite my “maple leaves” actually being little red blobs, my coworkers seemed impressed by my cupcakes. One of my coworkers even started making questionable noises while eating them, so they must have been decent.

Why Red?

For those who aren’t familiar with Red Velvet Cake, it is a blend between vanilla and chocolate cake that is almost always paired with cream cheese icing. Red Velvet recipes usually call for copious amounts of red food colouring; however, it is thought that the origins of the red colour came from pigments found in cocoa powder. These pigments are called anthocyanins and change in colour depending on pH. In acidic conditions, anthocyanins are a red colour so by ensuring that the pH of cake stays below 7, the cocoa should have a red-tinge to it. The type of cocoa powder you use will affect whether or not you get a red colour. Cocoa powder is naturally acidic but a lot of cocoa available in stores has been neutralized to become a “dutch-processed cocoa powder.” For instance, Fry’s cocoa, which is the brand I most often see in Canada, is dutch-processed. Because dutch-processed cocoa is no longer acidic, it won’t give you a red colour like natural cocoa powder can. Unfortunately, even when using natural cocoa, this red colour is not very pronounced so we must resort to other means to obtain the bright red colour of today’s Red Velvet Cake.

Red = Bad News

It really is too bad that we love the red colour of this cake so much. The sole purpose of the red colouring is to alter the appearance of the cake. The red doesn’t give the cake a nicer flavour, unless perhaps there is a psychological effect that makes pretty cake taste better. The downside to having a beautifully red cake is that artificial food dyes- red in particular- have been linked to various health defects such as hyperactivity in children and cancer, among others. My little sister also did a few science fair projects on food dye, and even though she is 11, I trust her scientific method. Her results suggested that red food colouring had more of a damaging effect on plants than the other colours did.

I’m just not sure I’m ok with using food colouring to make this cake anymore. But not to worry! I’m currently doing some kitchen experiments to make an all-natural Red Velvet Cake! So far my first attempt was…. BRIGHT RED with no artificial colouring:

All Natural Velvet Cake with Beets

Unfortunately, this cake may have tasted a bit like beets (Dwight K. Shrute would be proud.) I actually really like beets, and still enjoyed the cake, but I definitely was not thinking “yeah I really want this cake to taste like a beet!” Needless to say, I’m not ready to post an all-natural recipe just yet. I’ve got the colour down, but just need to work on the flavour.

Until then, I thought I would post my adapted version of the Joy of Baking Red Velvet Cake Recipe. If my sister’s science fair data isn’t enough to scare you away from red food dye, go ahead and try it. Otherwise, wait until I come up with a recipe that doesn’t taste so beety.

[Update: Yay! Success with a Natural Red Velvet Recipe!]


2-1/2 cups cake flour (260 g)
1 tbsp. cocoa powder (NATURAL not dutch-processed)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter (112 g)
2 cups white sugar (400 g)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk* (250 mL)
1 tsp. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. red food gel
1/4 cup boiling water (60 mL)

*You can substitute buttermilk by adding 1 tbsp. of white vinegar to 1 cup of milk


Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C). Grease two 9-inch cake tins and line the bottom with parchment paper OR line a cupcake tin with cupcake cases.

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Cream together butter, vanilla, and sugar. Mix in eggs, one at a time.

In a separate bowl, mix together the buttermilk and vinegar. Dissolve the red food gel in boiling water and stir into the milk mixture.

Slowly add the dry and wet ingredients to the butter mixture (alternating between dry/wet) and mix until just combined.

Pour batter  into prepared cake tins and bake at 350 F (175 C). For two 9-inch cakes bake 25-35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. For cupcakes, bake 18-22 minutes.

Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes and let cool completely on wire rack.

Frost with cream cheese icing.

I chose to make cupcakes this time around because they are much easier to decorate:


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