What is a ‘velvet cake’? It is a sponge cake with a tender, luxurious texture thanks to the egg yolks and the reaction of acidic buttermilk with alkaline baking soda.

What flavor is red velvet cake?

There were many versions of velvet cake, and they may be found in recipe books dating back to the early 1800s. There were lemon velvet cake, pineapple velvet cake, and brown velvet cake, which is simply a vanilla velvet cake made with brown sugar was called back then. The velvet cake had a soft and velvety crumb, which was moist and very appealing. Concurrently, there was a popular devil’s food cake. It was a rich chocolate cake, made with egg yolks, which usually contained coffee. It has a dark color and strong flavor – dense and fudgy.

Red velvet cake with frosting

At the beginning of the 20th century, a recipe that united the two concepts was invented, and a velvet cocoa cake appeared. This was a kind of a combination between a devil’s food cake and a velvet sponge cake. The recipe included cocoa powder in place of chocolate. Later the recipe was modified and adjusted and buttermilk was added to it. The acidity of the buttermilk increased the acidity of the cake significantly. At that time, most cocoa powders were raw, modern cocoa powder is made of roasted beans.

Why is red velvet cake red?

Indeed, cocoa, like many other plants, has in its cells pigments anthocyanins, which give red, purple, and blue plants their bright coloring.
Anthocyanins are intensely red in their natural acidic environment, but if they are placed in an alkaline environment, they start to turn brown. Manufacturers of chocolate in the Netherlands discovered this reaction and decided to include alkalizing as a stage in the production process of all their cocoa powder and chocolates, to achieve an appealing, rich brown color, and as a consequence demand a higher price. This became the dominant way to produce cocoa powder, and by the 1930s, the natural chemical reaction that gave the batter its reddish tint wasn’t happening anymore, so beet juice has to be added to make it red.

Red velvet sponge natural color
Red Velvet sponge natural color
Red velvet sponge
Red Velvet sponge with food coloring

And the old-fashioned red velvet cake, colored naturally, has become history.

So the acidic environment of the cake batter made color pigments in the raw cocoa powder turn red. This trick doesn’t work today unless you get raw cocoa powder, not roasted cocoa which you can usually find in the stores. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to add buttermilk, then also vinegar, cocoa, and a red food coloring after all, as some recipes call.

Thus, the original cake was not bright red at all but has a special natural red-brown hue. In a while, people wanted it to be redder to match its intriguing name, to be more sensational, more appealing and that’s how formulas start to include less cocoa and more food coloring.

But there might be a point to stop and turn to some common sense and logic because to create an eye-catching thing, huge amounts of food coloring have to be added, it sounds neither appealing and tasty nor healthy and reasonable.

Red Velvet Cake Recipe

So I wanted to find a recipe that provides a velvety texture that defined the original cake and natural reddish color. I decided to go for raw cocoa as it gives the cake its special aroma and flavor, it is not a problem to find it, as it’s available in some shops or online.

A slice of red velvet cake

Thus, after hours of research and several experiments, that’s what I get as my current favourite recipe:

Ingredients for the batter:


  1. Preheat an oven to 165°C (329°F)
  2. Lightly spray the interior border of a baking pan with nonstick spray, line it with parchment paper.
  3. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, ground cinnamon, and salt together.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream the mixture on a medium speed until light and fluffy.
  5. Add the egg and several drops of vanilla essence and mix until completely blended in. Scrap the sides of the bowl.
  6. Add the egg yolk and mix well.
  7. Add half of the sifted dry ingredients and mix for a few seconds until incorporated. Then add half of the buttermilk and mix for a few seconds until incorporated. Repeat with the other half of the dry ingredients and the remaining half of the buttermilk.
  8. Once the mixture is homogeneous add the vinegar and mix well to incorporate all the ingredients.
  9. Pour the batter onto the prepared baking pan and spread it out evenly.
  10. Bake for around 15 minutes, until deep brown-red color.
  11. Let the cake cool to room temperature.
Red velvet sponge recipe

What frosting goes with red velvet cake?

Cream cheese frosting or whipped white chocolate ganache would be the best options.

For the cream cheese frosting:


Directions for the Cream Cheese frosting:

Do not overwhip. Stop beating when the cream forms peaks that hold their shape. If the cream is whipped longer, it first becomes grainy and then curdles (separates into butter and whey).

Red velvet cake decoration

Red velvet cake designs and decorations

Red velvet cake with frosting

There are hundreds of ways to decorate a cake, of course. Here we’ll take a look at two classical options.

Decoration with cream:

  1. Cut your cooled red velvet sponge into 2-3 layers.
  2. Moisten the cake layers with syrup.
  3. Sandwich them together with the cream of your choice.
  4. Spread the top with a layer of cream or decorate as desired using a pastry bag with piping additional cream, making patterns, etc.
Red velvet cake decoration

Decoration with crumbs:

More Pastry Techniques and Recipes: