This Southern Red Velvet Cake recipe is a classic dessert that's perfect for any special occasion. From birthdays to Christmas, no one can resist the beautiful red layer cake with a moist, fluffy, and buttery inside that's finished with a decadent cream cheese frosting!
Red Velvet Cake Recipe
This is my go-to cake when I want an indulgent treat that turns any meal into a festive celebration. In fact, I bake myself this cake each year on my birthday (there's no better gift!), and the vibrant red-and-white dessert also makes a regular appearance on our Christmas buffet. It's timeless, old-fashioned, and always well-received. Best of all, the homemade red velvet cake is actually really simple to prepare!
What is Red Velvet Cake?
Red Velvet Cake is not just a chocolate cake that's tinted with red food coloring. Instead, this traditional Southern dessert has a very unique taste that's hard to pinpoint or describe. The layer cake is flavored with a small amount of cocoa, but don't expect a chocolate cake. The combination of buttermilk, butter, oil, cocoa, vinegar, and flour yields a moist, tender cake with a velvet-like texture. The complex flavor is a perfect combination of buttery vanilla cake with a hint of cocoa and tang. It's typically finished with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting, but some recipes use a buttercream frosting instead.
What makes Red Velvet Cake different?
The unique combination of ingredients that you don't often find in other cake recipes gives red velvet cake its special color and texture. Modern recipes use red food coloring to really emphasize the cake's vibrant red color; however, many experts believe that red velvet cake's special hue comes from a chemical reaction in the ingredients. Natural cocoa powder contains anthocyanin, a compound found in fruits that creates dark-colored pigments. When anthocyanin interacts with an acid, like the vinegar and buttermilk found in red velvet cake, its color becomes reddish.
The cocoa, buttermilk and vinegar also contribute to the cake's unusual "velvety" texture. These ingredients break down the protein in flour, resulting in a smooth and silky cake. With one bite you'll quickly realize that this is no ordinary cake!
How to Make Red Velvet Cake from Scratch
Thought to have originated sometime in the Victorian era, Red Velvet Cake was initially a fancy dessert reserved for the elite or special occasions. Its soft, velvety crumb set it apart from the more common coarser-crumb cakes of the time. And while it certainly looks impressive, this easy red velvet cake recipe is actually quite simple to prepare. Skip the boxed mix and make it from scratch -- you're worthy of an "elite" dessert, too!
Ingredients for Homemade Red Velvet Cake
- Butter: gives the red velvet cake its classic buttery flavor
- Sugar: sweetness
- Oil: for moisture. The butter gives you the flavor, but the oil helps to prevent a dry cake.
- Eggs: structure
- Red food coloring: two 1-ounce bottles of liquid food coloring give this cake a beautiful, vibrant red color.
- Vinegar: a traditional ingredient in this cake, the vinegar helps brighten the red hue and tenderizes the crumb. You can't actually taste the vinegar itself.
- Vanilla extract: for flavor
- Cake flour: While you can sub with all-purpose flour in a pinch, the cake flour has a lighter texture, which creates a softer, lighter cake with that hallmark "velvet" consistency.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder: contributes to the red color and adds a very subtle hint of chocolate in the background. If you prefer a slightly more prominent chocolate flavor, increase the cocoa powder to 2 tablespoons.
- Salt: for flavor
- Baking soda: leavening that helps the cake rise
- Buttermilk: use thick, whole buttermilk if possible. It's creamy, tangy, and adds moisture to the cake. The buttermilk also reacts with the baking soda to help the cake rise.
- Cream cheese: for a rich, creamy frosting. Use blocks of cream cheese (not tubs).
- Confectioners' sugar: to sweeten the frosting
Step 1: Mix the Batter
This simple batter comes together quickly. Just cream together the wet ingredients, add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, and beat until well-blended.
Step 2: Bake
Divide the batter between two 9-inch round cake pans and bake in a 350 degree F oven for 25-30 minutes.
Step 3: Cool
Make sure that the cakes are completely cool before frosting. This will take at least 1 hour, maybe longer.
Red Velvet Cake Frosting
Old-fashioned red velvet cake was iced with ermine icing (a French-style butter roux icing). Today, Southern Red Velvet Cake recipes call for easier-to-prepare cream cheese frosting (shown here) or buttercream frosting.
Spread the frosting between the two cake layers, and then on the top and sides of the cake.
The frosting will be soft at room temperature, but will firm up in the refrigerator.
There are endless ways to decorate a red velvet cake. I opted for a rim of red sprinkles around the top edge of the cake to keep it very simple! Other good decorating ideas:
- Use the extra red cake crumbs after you cut off the rounded domes of your cakes to sprinkle around the top edge of your frosted cake.
- Garnish the top of the cake with finely-chopped walnuts or pecans for some rich added crunch.
- Use extra cream cheese frosting to pipe a design around the top and bottom edges of the cake. Before piping, you may need to refrigerate the frosting for about 30 minutes to give it time to firm up.
- Garnish the top of the cake with sugared cranberries and fresh greens for a Christmas dessert.
- Add sliced strawberries on top for a bright, colorful addition.
Bake the cake ahead of time, cool, and wrap tightly. Store the cake at room temperature overnight, and then frost before serving. You can also freeze the unfrosted cake layers for up to 2 months.
Make the frosting in advance and store it in the refrigerator overnight. The frosting will need to sit at room temperature to soften for about 30 minutes before you spread it on the cake.
Store the cake covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. You can also freeze the frosted cake for up to 2 months. Just make sure that it's wrapped tightly to prevent freezer burn. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight.
Tips for the Best Red Velvet Cake Recipe
- Make sure that all of your ingredients are at room temperature. This helps them blend together more easily and smoothly.
- Use thick, whole, real buttermilk if possible. This is the liquid that runs off a batch of fresh butter, not to be confused with the cultured milk that's often labeled as buttermilk in grocery stores.
- Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour before slicing and serving. The cream cheese frosting will be quite soft when first spread, so you'll have a cleaner cut if you give the cake time to firm up.
- For a three-layer cake, divide the batter between three 9-inch round cake pans instead of two. Bake the thinner cake layers for about 22-25 minutes. You should have enough frosting for that extra layer, too.
- Sift the confectioners' sugar to avoid any lumps in your frosting.
- Use full-fat block-style cream cheese for the frosting. The cream cheese frosting will be thin and runny if you substitute with low fat cream cheese or cream cheese spread from a tub.
More Cake Recipes to Try
- Grandma's Texas Sheet Cake
- Caramel Cake
- Grandma's Old-Fashioned Rum Cake
- Orange Juice Cake
- Carrot Cake
- Coconut Cream Cake
- Sour Cream Pound Cake
Southern Red Velvet Cake
FOR THE CAKE:
- ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, softened at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 2 ounces red food coloring (about 2 bottles), liquid, not gel
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 ½ cups cake flour
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (can increase to 2 tablespoons for stronger flavor)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
FOR THE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING:
- ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, softened at room temperature
- 16 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 lbs. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
BAKE THE CAKE:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans, line with parchment, and then grease and flour again.
- Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add oil and eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Mix in the food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla extract.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda.
- Alternately add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the butter mixture, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat until well blended.
- Scrape the sides of the bowl and incorporate any unmixed batter, if necessary.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Tap the pans on the counter to ensure that there are no air bubbles.
- Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.
- Cool the cakes for at least 10 minutes on a wire rack before removing from the pans. Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.
PREPARE THE FROSTING:
- Use an electric mixer to cream together the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl.
- Add vanilla and beat for 1 more minute.
- With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the confectioners’ sugar. Scrape the bowl, as necessary, to make sure that all of the ingredients are completely combined. Once you’ve added all of the sugar, beat on low for 3 more minutes.
- Using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard the extra cake, or crumble and set aside to decorate the top of the frosted cake with the red crumbs.
- Spread the frosting in between the two cake layers, and then on the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before slicing and serving.