What Is Red Velvet Cake, And Why Is It Red?

I get a lot of people asking for red velvet cake, and it seems that a lot of bakers around here don’t make it. 

This is understandable, because if you make cakes from mixes, which a lot of larger bakeries do, red velvet cake just isn’t right.

why is red velvet cake red

This article includes affiliate links that will pay a commission if they’re used to purchase something. As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

red velvet cake batter

For a list of the cake decorating and baking supplies that I recommend, click here to see my Amazon shop list.

What is red velvet cake?

Red velvet cake is a buttermilk cake, not a chocolate cake. 

It has a little cocoa in it, but not enough to give it a chocolate flavor. 

The buttermilk is what gives it a distinctive flavor, which I can’t even describe because it’s unlike any other kind of cake. 

If you make it from a boxed mix it will probably have powdered buttermilk in it, which doesn’t really give the same result as real buttermilk. 

It just won’t be 100% “right.”

red velvet cakes

(For another article with three red velvet cake recipes, click here.)

However, even if you make it from scratch it might be a little “wrong” for one reason. The red color.

My assumption is that when red velvet cake was invented, whenever that was, they used non-alkalized cocoa, which would have given the cake a reddish color. 

But only slightly red. (If someone knows something I don’t and I’m wrong about this, feel free to correct me. I’m curious about it, actually.)

The way that you get the red color these days is to add an obscene amount of food coloring to the batter. 

The recipe that I use calls for two tablespoons of red food coloring. 

If I double the recipe that would be 4 Tbsp, which is a quarter cup of food coloring. That’s a lot.

The problem with using a lot of food coloring is that it can give the batter a bitter flavor.

Food coloring isn’t meant to be used in baking in large quantities because heat can change the color, depending on what type of dye it is.

To get a really deep or bright red, you need to use a lot of red food coloring because it tends to fade.

(For another article where I show what happened when I switched out the red for blue, green, and yellow food coloring, click here.)


Even though it can fade out, I tend to add less than I’m supposed to because this just seems more than a little nasty to me. 

You could, theoretically, make a blue velvet or a green velvet cake, it’s not really anything other than the food coloring that gives it the color.

On the other hand, you could get the same flavor in the cake without adding any color at all. 

If you like the flavor but want to avoid the dyes, just have the cake made without the color. Much nicer.

I’ve also seen some natural recipes that call for beet juice to give the cake a color, but it won’t be the same as the red food coloring. It won’t taste the same, either, but it’s better than using a ton of food coloring to try to get a ruby-red cake.

It’s better to forgo the bright color and have a good flavor, if you ask me.

For an article with the baking tip that keeps my red velvet cakes from overflowing in the oven, click here.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top