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I distinctly remember my first introduction to the red velvet cake trend. It was years ago, and I was served a red velvet cupcake. Eating it felt like a party on a regular day. It was such a pretty confection: a soft, bright red cake with creamy cream cheese frosting.
Velvet cakes go back to the Victorian era, when the word “velvet” was used to describe a cake that was softer in texture than pound or sponge cakes. Red velvet cake originally got its color thanks to a chemical reaction between cocoa and baking soda. During WWII when ingredients were scarce, bakers used beet juice to color the cake. Today, it’s typically made with red food coloring.
The Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City served red velvet cake in the 1930s and tried to take credit for it, but the cake was already popular by then. The Waldorf’s version can take at least partial credit for helping spread the word about red velvet, though. John A. Adams, of the Texas-based Adams Extract Company, tasted the cake at the hotel, and in 1940 the company released a recipe using the company’s red food coloring. This helped spread the cake in the South, where bakers added buttermilk to the original recipe, giving it a uniquely Southern flavor.
Fast forward a few decades and red velvet — in the form of an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias — hopped back into the limelight. The cake is also often used to celebrate Juneteenth.
I was a fan of these beautiful cakes until, when developing my own recipe for The Holiday Kosher Baker Cookbook, I learned how much food coloring really goes into them. In short, for me to eat a red velvet cake and its signature unnatural ingredient, it has to be really good. To find a recipe that met this standard, I hopped online to do some research. After narrowing the field of contenders down to four recipes, I was able to crown a winner. I knew it was the one because I couldn’t help taking another bite of it, and then another. And then another. Read on to find out which cake took home this coveted top spot.
Meet Our Four Red Velvet Cake Contenders
To ensure a level playing field, I looked for recipes that didn’t stray too far from the classic (cakes made with red wine or chocolate frosting were out). From there, I purposefully chose recipes with a different number of layers to see if that impacted the taste and look of the cakes. The recipes also varied in the amounts of cocoa and food coloring, and while three of the recipes had cream cheese frosting, one did not. Ultimately, I landed on four very promising contenders.
King Arthur Baking Company is a trusted source for solid baking recipes, so I was curious about what they would do with this classic cake. Would the company’s Vermont roots affect this classic Southern confection? The recipe does call for buttercream instead of the classic cream cheese frosting, which made me wonder if we’ve all been wrong about the best way to to ice a red velvet cake.
Cake Man Raven, aka Raven Patrick De’Sean Dennis III, is famous for his red velvet cakes. Born in Harlem, he grew up in South Carolina before returning to New York. After a stint in Brooklyn, he now has a boutique bakery in Harlem that specializes in red velvet cakes, which he also sells by the slice. He has baked cakes for celebrities such as Oprah and Jay Z, and has been on TV many times. The recipe I used is from Cake Man Raven’s appearance on the Food Network with Sara Moulton. I was intrigued by its bright red hue and use of only 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder.
Because red velvet cake is considered a Southern cake, I chose a recipe from a Southern food expert: Monique Kilgore, the woman behind the Divas Can Cook blog. This recipe won Pancake Princess’ red velvet cake bake-off, so I was curious to see if it would be a winner for me, too. The recipe is a classic oil-based cake, but does include a little bit of coffee, which I found intriguing. It also was the only two-layer cake. Would fewer layers make a difference?
Friends raved about the red velvet cake from the popular blog Smitten Kitchen, so I added it to my contenders. As someone who creates her own dessert recipes weekly, I’m always excited to try a dessert from someone else and learn from them. Deb’s recipe calls for the heaviest dose of food coloring and I wanted to see how that affected the color and flavor of the cake.
All of the cakes were baked in the center rack of a GE Monogram oven in the same 9×2-inch round cake pans. When the recipe called for baking three cakes, I moved the pans around the rack twice during the baking time for even baking. I followed individual instructions for how to grease the pans before baking, as well as how to release the cakes. I had no trouble releasing any of the cakes, no matter the greasing method.
As for ingredients, I used King Arthur flours for all of the cakes, except for Smitten Kitchen, which calls for cake flour. I used Hershey cocoa, unless directed to use Dutch-processed. I had my eggs and buttermilk at room temperature before baking each cake. I used liquid food coloring, large eggs, fine sea salt, and Philadelphia brand cream cheese for the frostings. To mix the batter, I used my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, and either the same or a handheld mixer for the frostings. Each recipe had a different method for mixing the ingredients together, and I followed each one precisely.
None of the recipes required me to trim either the tops or the sides of the baked cakes (something that I regularly do when I build layer cakes myself). I simply stacked the layers on top of each other.
The cakes were baked over two days. I tasted each cake about 30 to 60 minutes after assembly, and again the next day. I took apart slices from each cake, separating the cake from the frosting, so that I could experience the texture and flavor of the cake and frostings separately. I evaluated the cakes for flavor, texture, and overall look.
1. The Easiest Recipe: The King Arthur Baking Company’s Red Velvet Cake
The King Arthur Baking Company recipe is unique in that it has butter in the batter (rather than oil) and uses Dutch-processed cocoa, which took me five grocery stores to find. What I liked about it was that it is a one-bowl cake, which I fully respect in a recipe.
The recipe has you bake two cake layers and then slice each one in half to create four. Rather than a cream cheese frosting, you’ll make a quick buttercream frosting, which I found was harder to spread. (I did not add the meringue powder, which was optional.) Although the recipe instructs you not to ice the sides and instead leave the layers exposed, their photo shows otherwise. To test both options, I left mine exposed, while the Kitchn photo studios iced the sides. I recommend going with the latter, as the overall look of my cake was rather messy. Exposed cake layers can be very attractive in a tall cake, but as the layers were so thin, it wasn’t pretty at all.
Now to the taste test: Because of the buttercream frosting, this cake tasted like a classic birthday cake. It has a very light chocolate flavor, due to only three tablespoons of cocoa, and the overly sweet frosting overpowers the cake. When tasted alone, the cake texture is dull and feels pasty in your mouth. Because there are four layers, you get quite a lot of frosting with each bite, which was overwhelmingly sweet. The experience might have been a bit better with a tangy cream cheese frosting, which solidified in my mind that cream cheese frosting is indeed the way to go with red velvet.
2. The Prettiest Presentation: Cake Man Raven’s Southern Red Velvet Cake
I was excited to try this recipe, as Cake Man Raven has made a career out of red velvet cake. His recipe is easy to follow and there is an accompanying video if you’re unsure about any steps. My layers looked thinner than his do in the video, but when the cake was assembled, it had a nice height to it. I appreciated that the recipe instructs how much frosting to place on the cake layers, a detail not included in some of the other recipes. To make it easier to compare to the other contenders, I didn’t sprinkle pecans on the top as Cake Man likes to do.
The cake has a very pretty bright red color — the brightest red of the contenders — and the frosting layers are the right thickness to create the classic look and contrast between cake and frosting. Although the cake itself was moist, it had no identifiable flavor; it just tasted like plain sheet cake and felt like just a vehicle for the frosting. The frosting is not too sweet and very creamy.
Unfortunately, with each bite, you feel the hard-ish tops of the cake layers in your mouth, so the experience of the cake wasn’t as pleasant as I would have liked. Even putting that aside, which could possibly be remedied by a shorter baking time, the overall flavor of the cake along with the frosting was rather dull.
3. The Best for Cake-Lovers: Smitten Kitchen’s Red Velvet Cake
This recipe uses a lot of red food coloring — six tablespoons — which is more than any of the other recipes. You’re instructed to add it to the oil, sugar, and egg mixture on low speed, but I had to turn the mixer to medium to get the red mixture to be uniform and scrape the bowl down once. Even with those steps, when I sliced the finished cake, it had a marbled, albeit quite beautiful, look to it. I would recommend beating the food coloring in for longer and really scraping the bottom of the bowl to make sure it’s fully mixed in. I baked the cake for 43 minutes; next time I would bake it for 40, as it could have been a little moister.
As for the frosting, the notes indicate that the recipe creates a thin coat of frosting between the layers and over the cake, the ideal ratio according to Deb. But in my opinion, there was barely enough frosting to cover the cake sides, so it didn’t look very pretty. I was also unable to fill in the gaps between the cake layers, which happens when you don’t trim the tops flat.
The result is a tall cake with three substantial layers and very thin layers of frosting. I thought color was gorgeous, so I have to agree that so much food coloring really does add up to a deeper-colored cake. However, you barely see the frosting, so you miss the dramatic contrast that is the signature visual of red velvet layer cakes.
The cake is tasty and has a nice light chocolate flavor due to the 1/2 cup of cocoa, and the texture is pleasant with a nice crumb. The frosting itself was quite sweet. Overall, you feel like you are basically eating cake with a hint of frosting. But if you double the frosting, as Deb suggests as an option, the cake might been too sweet. If you’re more of a cake than frosting person and/or you’re looking for a red velvet cake with a very deep color, this is the recipe for you.
4. The Clear Winner: Divas Can Cook’s Best Southern Red Velvet Cake
I am generally not impressed with recipe titles that brag about how good they are, but in this case, it is entirely justifiable. It is the best red velvet cake I have ever eaten.
Monique provides a range for the food coloring, and I chose the midpoint: 1 1/2 ounces. When I added the food coloring, I mixed it in for a full minute so that it would be fully incorporated. She says the batter will be thin, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I baked the cakes for 30 minutes; the recipe has not one but two warnings about not over-baking them, and I’m glad that I paid attention.
The recipe had no instructions on how to frost the cake, but I figured it out. The recipe makes a ton of frosting, using four 8-ounce blocks of cream cheese, 2 sticks of butter, and 4 cups of powdered sugar. The volume and texture of the frosting made it extremely easy to ice the cake. Moreover, the cake stayed intact and the frosting picked up very few crumbs — the enemy of frosting a red cake with white icing. Even though this recipe had the largest volume of frosting, the ratio of cake to frosting was just right.
The cake itself is also a stand-out. It’s deep red and incredibly moist. Because it wasn’t overbaked, there weren’t any hard edges — so the cake’s texture is soft and tender all the way through. A combination of coffee and cocoa amp up the chocolate flavor of the cake, making it more than a vehicle for frosting. When you add on the not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting, you have pure red velvet perfection.
Do you have a favorite red velvet cake recipe? Let us know in the comments!