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Red Velvet Cake, How to Make a Southern Classic

Updated on October 14, 2017
DixieMockingbird profile image

Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over twenty years, and has cooked on multiple television stations, including Food Network.

Classic Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

There's nothing quite like the striking colors of a Classic Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting. Traditional at Christmas or Valentine's, it's a family favorite at any time of the year.
There's nothing quite like the striking colors of a Classic Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting. Traditional at Christmas or Valentine's, it's a family favorite at any time of the year.

The Classic Southern Red Velvet Cake

I first began making red velvet cakes when I was a little girl - most likely no older than seven or eight. Because I was born with some hard wiring regarding food in my brain gone haywire, I had already been cooking for a couple of years at that point. My first cakes were simply chocolate cakes (usually the recipe off the back of Hershey's Cocoa) with about a half a gallon of red food coloring thrown and topped with plain vanilla frosting. I'd like to apologize to my family for those, although I don't remember either my grandfather or brothers turning them down. Uh...I've grown since then. And learned quite a lot.

Those early mistakes weren't wasted - partly because I had a houseful of little brothers who would eat anything. But more importantly, I learned a lot of lessons from a lot of baking mistakes. Most of the cakes I made when little weren't really red at all - the most that could be said for them was that they were a rather rusty dark brown. Mainly because a true red velvet cake isn't really a chocolate cake to begin with. That's what I did wrong when I started - I didn't know I was working my way in backward. The cocoa in this cake is just an accessory - it highlights the rest of the cake without taking center stage.

Basically a red velvet cake is one in which the cocoa highlights the other flavors - the real rockstar element of a classic red velvet cake is the texture - hence the 'velvet' in the name. It's the gorgeous texture that you're after. Velvet, indeed.


Want More Layers?

This recipe makes two 9 inch layers. You can cut each layer in half if you wish, double the frosting amount, and make a four layer cake. Even better though is to double the cake recipe itself, and bake off four 9 inch layers. The resulting cake will be about a mile high - and covered with that fluffy, creamy frosting is truly impressive. That's the favorite birthday cake at my house!

Classic Southern Red Velvet Cake Recipe - Ingredients

Classic Southern Red Velvet Cake Recipe - Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ounce (usually 1 little bottle) red food coloring
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

For the frosting:

  • 16 ounces cream cheese - two 8 ounce packages
  • 2 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Make a paste first...

By making a paste of the cocoa powder and food coloring before you add them to the wet ingredients, you're far less likely to have brown steaks in the even, red coloring of your cake, than you would if you mix the cocoa powder with the dry ingredients, and add the food coloring to the wet ones. Going a step further and whisking this paste into the buttermilk makes the even color more of a sure thing. It seems like a small step, but it makes a big difference in the final cake.

Classic Red Velvet Cake Recipe - Directions

Classic Red Velvet Cake Recipe - Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9 inch cake pans and set aside.
  2. Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring.
  3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together oil and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated. Whisk cocoa paste into the buttermilk and stir to combine. Add buttermilk/cocoa mixture to the sugar and oil, and continue beating until all is incorporated. Add vanilla and stir. Fold in the flour, and transfer batter, distributing it evenly between the two pans.
  5. Bake cakes for 30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let them cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Allow them to cool completely before frosting.
  6. To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, and beat until fully incorporated. Add vanilla - and you're ready to frost your cakes!
  7. If you double the recipe to make four layers, try using a small dowel or large wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes to make sure they stay straight and tall. Use kitchen snips to trim the skewer before you frost - just don't forget it's in there and serve it to someone!
  8. Alternately, you can make two layers, then carefully slice each into half horizontally, making four 9 inch cake rounds. Use a thin layer of frosting between each layer, then frost the exterior of the cake as usual.

Classic Southern Red Velvet Cake

A Red Velvet cake is made with cocoa, yes, but not very much, and the red food coloring makes most of the ingredients pop with that bright scarlet color that Southerners adore. I've got to say - I've never seen a red velvet with an icing that wasn't bright white - although I guess you could. If you want to be branded a heretic and run out of town, maybe. The classic I grew up with was a cream cheese frosting, although I've seen lots of seven-minute frosting, and several beautiful whipped marshmallow versions. I think any would work just as well, but I use cream cheese, so that's what you get with me. Over the years I tweaked any number of recipes and finally came up with this one. This one defines 'Just Right' for us. This is the recipe I reach for when I want the classic red, velvety cake layers with popping bright colors, highlighted by gorgeous, fluffy, white, cream cheese frosting.

This cake has been a classic for decades - it began appearing on the menu of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City as early as the 1920s, but it was known in the South for several decades earlier. Who really cares who made it first, as long as we get it now? Try it yourself - this version has the perfect 'velvet' texture that's so wonderful, as well as the hint of cocoa, the fullness of vanilla, and the faintest tang from the buttermilk. It's a luscious combination of flavors and it's a favorite my kiddos. Try it during the holidays as well - blue sparklers make a great Fourth of July dessert, and holly sprigs (not real ones, they're poisonous) round out a beautiful Christmas table. Or do nothing extra at all, and still have your Valentine follow you anywhere...


Classic Red Velvet Cake Ingredients

Eggs, cocoa, salt, vanilla, and red food coloring are all iconic to the Classic Red Velvet Cake.
Eggs, cocoa, salt, vanilla, and red food coloring are all iconic to the Classic Red Velvet Cake.

Red Velvet Cake Batter Ready for the Oven

Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pans, and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. This helps the cakes rise evenly.
Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pans, and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. This helps the cakes rise evenly.

See how to Make A Red Velvet Cake!

How to Make Vanilla Extract

How to Prepare a Pan for Baking

More Cocoa Flavor...

If you want a little more of the cocoa flavor in your cakes, use cocoa powder instead of flour to prepare the pans. Simply butter the pans, and sprinkle with cocoa powder. Tap to spread and discard the excess.
If you want a little more of the cocoa flavor in your cakes, use cocoa powder instead of flour to prepare the pans. Simply butter the pans, and sprinkle with cocoa powder. Tap to spread and discard the excess.

How to Make Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting

© 2010 Jan Charles

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    • profile image

      Lisa 2 years ago

      I noticed in the ingredients it says baking powder, but in the directions it says baking soda. Which one do I use?

    • DixieMockingbird profile image
      Author

      Jan Charles 5 years ago from East Tennessee

      You know - I have no idea why this one doesn't have vinegar, but it just doesn't. You my have to blame it on my granny. ;-)

      I've doubled this and had no trouble BUT you're right. That much baking soda does have a tendency to overwhelm. I usually just make two batches now instead of trying to double most cake recipes.

    • profile image

      Tami 5 years ago

      Big fan of red velvet :-)

      Like your cake how comes your recipe does not call for vinegar?? And if I wanted to make a really big cake to I just double or triple the recipe if so wouldn't 6tsp of baking soda be to much?? I am gonna try your recipe

    • DixieMockingbird profile image
      Author

      Jan Charles 5 years ago from East Tennessee

      Thank you so much! I'm glad I offered a little inspiration!

    • profile image

      wisdomwithage 5 years ago

      Hi Dixie, love your recipe. I just saw yours come up alongside the one I just posted using a boxed mix instead of from scratch.. When we are ready for red velvet again I'm going to try yours..it looks a lot easier than most of the other 'from-scratch' recipes I've seen which is why I did my own 'doctored-from-the-box' recipe.. Nice recipe..Will definitely try yours!!

    • profile image

      Phoebe Pike 5 years ago

      I've never been a big fan of red velvet cake, it makes me thirsty, but I do know how to make cakes that everyone else loves. I use a strikingly similar recipe to yours, if you use a little honey to the cake batter, it sweetens it slightly and makes it a little more moist.

    • Journey * profile image

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 5 years ago from USA

      I've only made red velvet cake from boxed cake mixes and I have a great interest in trying to make it from scratch one day. Thank you for this information.

    • DixieMockingbird profile image
      Author

      Jan Charles 5 years ago from East Tennessee

      Thank you! I hope you enjoy it!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      Your hub showed up alongside one of my hubs so I thought I would pop over and check it out . This looks really good and I'm going to check out some of your other recipes.