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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12 Responses to Red Velvet Cake

  1. Karin Paterson January 19, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Hi Honey,

    It’s your minimal baking/cooking mother publicly reminding you that you promised me a birthday cake tomorrow. I would love to have one that looks as beautiful as all your photos.
    I was hoping that your success with the red velvet cake was the precursor to my schwarzwalde kirschtorte. I know I’m not being subtle, but I have been trying to diet and reading the recipes and seeing the photos has made me have some serious cravings. Can I expect something delicious tomorrow??

    • Ashleen January 20, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      Very subtle…. black forest cake it is

  2. Christy Lane October 7, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Great post! I was looking for a red velvet cupcake/cake recipe and trying to figure out which cocoa (dutch process or regular) to use. I was going to try the Pioneer Woman recipe but it didn’t sound good with such a tiny amount of cocoa powder, a bottle and a half of food dye and she used shortening! Your website gave the best explanation of why to use non-dutch process cocoa. And the cake looks delicious! I am going to use your cake and frosting recipe now. Thanks so much! You have a lovely website and this is the first time I came across it.

    • Ashleen October 21, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

      Thanks, Christy! That’s awesome to hear :)

  3. Kay November 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Red Velvet cake is never been a Canadian thing, as far as I know, but it looks good and I am starting to see references to it. But red food dye? Yikes. THAT’S not happening! Your beet idea is a good one. Did you cook the beets first or grate them raw and then add them? Might make a difference to the taste. A blind taste test might be in order.

  4. Jennifer V. December 22, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    As the mother of kids who react poorly to red food coloring, I’m all for your all-natural recipe. Keep trying and we’ll check back. Thanks!

  5. Cari Sim January 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    Just went searching through Google-land to see where I went wrong with the red velvet cake I baked for my husband’s birthday this weekend. I’m an American living in Scotland and my hubby loves all things southern, so thought I’d give red velvet a go. I too used the Joy of Baking’s recipe, did everything right thought I had it all down, but then I got to the vinegar part. (I used this recipe ). It said let the vinegar and baking soda fizz up and then fold into batter. Fine. I couldn’t see how such a small amount of ingredient, folded in, would get to all of the batter but I trust Joy of Baking so I let it go and trusted.

    The cake came out delicious and moist, lovely. But, it’s not red. Actually though he liked it, my husband thought that the inside of the cake resembled the fillet steak he’d just had for dinner, pinkish in parts, brown in others. He called it… a MEAT cake!

    Lucky for him, we both have a good sense of humor.

    In your opinion…where did this go wrong? Some say the vinegar wasn’t enough, others say the food coloring was not right. I’m lost. I can’t cook to save my life…but I usually can bake well. And I know I shouldn’t use red food coloring, the horror stories scare me, so that gel you mention sounds a good option.

  6. Emms January 16, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    What to do if I don’t have food gel coloring? instead i have liquid food coloring available in my pantry. I can’t seem to find red food gel since Christmas in grocery stores. I hope u can help me with my problem. I’m going to try red velvet cake for the first time and i finally decided follow your recipe after a decade of searching.

  7. Mama March 28, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    I made an attempt at baking red velvet cupcakes a while back, and indeed the red food coloring was a big problem! My cupcakes turned out a brick-red color, since I only had Wilton’s crimson red food coloring gel, and I always knew it to be quite potent–so I was very selfish in adding coloring and perhaps put too little?

    Unfortunately, I was hoping you added the science of adding buttermilk in a red velvet cupcake. You sure did explain the RED in red velvet, but not the VELVET, since the velvety texture is caused by the buttermilk added instead of normal milk..

  8. patelpuja April 22, 2015 at 4:50 am #

    i m find recipe of valvvet cake. thanks for post. I make it and it was so delicious.
    Here are some helpful link that are use for ur recipe

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