Buttery three-layer Red Velvet Cake or Red Velvet Cupcakes, slathered with Perfect Cream Cheese Buttercream and drizzled with Chocolate Ganache. This recipe creates super fluffy and tender cake, with just the right amount of chocolate flavor and red color.
Why This Recipe Works
I love the name of this cake. Red Velvet just sounds like the kind of cake that will be buttery, elegant, plush and luxurious. It's a title worthy of something that melts on your tongue, tasting both rich and delicate.
In reality, Red Velvet Cake is often just red-tinted chocolate cake that's either kind of oily or kind of dry, not at all worthy of the name "velvet". But, here's the thing: Baking a cake that is all of the things red velvet cake should be - buttery, tender, light, fluffy, moist, delicate, rich - is not so easy.
If the crumb is too tender, moist, and delicate, the center will fall in on itself. Add too much chocolate, and you might as well just make a Devil's Food Cake. Add too little chocolate, and you'd be better off making Vanilla Cake, or Buttermilk Cake.
Using all butter gives you a flavorful cake... that's also kind of dry. Using all oil gives you a super moist cake... that's also kind of flavorless.
Red Velvet Cake is a Delicate Balance of ingredients and techniques
But, get it right and it's 100% worth every. single. bite.
In my case, getting it right required baking batch after batch for about 3 days straight. I would get what I thought was the perfect Red Velvet Cake, only to change my mind and decide that it wasn't good enough. My daughter got a bit frustrated with me. "Mom. Stop baking more cake. It tastes great already." (No one feels sorry for her, by the way.)
The important part of the story is that I finally got there. I am so super happy with this recipe. It makes the most buttery, moist, and flavorful Red Velvet Cake I've ever eaten. It's red, of course, but not in a radioactive kind of way.
Also, the same recipe bakes perfectly flat cake layers AND cupcakes, the right shape for staking and icing with a generous amount of Cream Cheese Buttercream. Also, there's Chocolate Ganache, which is optional, but VERY highly recommended.
How to make the perfect Red Velvet Cake or Cupcakes
#1. The perfect balance of flavors.
The flavor of Red Velvet cake should be a delicate balance of chocolate, vanilla, and butter, with the mild tang of buttermilk.
I tested recipes with as little as 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder and as much as ½ cup. To my tastebuds, 3 tablespoons is the perfect amount, contributing a mild chocolate flavor without stealing the show.
Accentuating the chocolate flavor and adding complexity in the sneakiest of ways is a touch of instant espresso powder.
No one will ever in a million years guess that there's espresso power in there. But, you'll be amazed at how much a half teaspoon brings out the flavor of this cake. Don't leave it out. It really does make a difference in the cake's flavor.
#2. The right balance of acid and fat.
Buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt all add acidity and fat to cake batter, in varying degrees. Acid creates a tender crumb while adding flavor and providing balance to the sweetness of cakes.
Fat also contributes to how tender a cake is by getting in the way of gluten formation. In addition, fat adds moisture, richness, and sometimes (hello, butter) flavor.
Both sour cream and yogurt contain lower amounts of acid than buttermilk, making them perfect for things like Devil's Food Cake or Blueberry Muffins. But, full-fat buttermilk contains a high level of acidity, giving Red Velvet cake that gentle tang while also boosting the fat content and adding richness.
Please don't substitute low-fat buttermilk. The little bit of extra fat really does make a difference in how moist and tender this cake is.
#3. This recipe contains both butter and oil - butter for flavor and oil for lightness and moisture.
Oil is wonderful in cakes. When compared to butter, cakes baked with oil are loftier, have a more even crumb and stay moist and fresh tasting much longer. A great example is Olive Oil Cake, which is super moist and flavorful, and stays fresh for much longer than all-butter cakes.
But, butter adds flavor. Butter is also better at trapping air when you beat it with sugar, giving red velvet cake a lofty, fluffy texture. This recipe uses a combination of both - butter that's beaten with sugar to incorporate some air into the batter, and oil that's added later with the eggs.
What Causes Red Velvet Cake to be Red?
Almost every Red Velvet Cake recipe I've ever read calls for red food coloring to give the batter it's signature red tint. That's fine, except that food coloring does absolutly nothing for the cake's flavor.
Also, obviously, red velvet cake should be red. But, food coloring can take it a bit too far. One reader recently left a comment saying, "Finally, a red velvet cake that doesn’t look radioactive."
To get a non-radioactive red color AND boost the cake's flavor, I like to use Red Velvet Bakery Emulsion, a product that contributes gentle red color AND flavor. I love the color this product gives the cake, but what I love even more is that it also adds flavor. More flavor is almost always a good idea.
The Secret to a Soft and Creamy Red Velvet Cake
One of my favorite baking books of all time is BakeWise by Shirley O’Corriher. The book breaks down the how's and why's of baking in a way that makes me almost giddy with inspiration.
Shirley explains that when folded gently into the batter right before baking, whipped cream adds additional air, giving cakes a soft, silky texture.
Plus (remember our little discussion about fat, flavor, and texture?), that little bit of extra fat pushes the richness level up even higher while contributing even more moisture and flavor. Win, win, win.
Simply whip half a cup of heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form when you lift the beaters from the cream, then fold it into the cake batter right before baking. Shirley, you're a genius.
Top Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache
Red Velvet Cake and Cream Cheese Buttercream belong together. They are a perfect match - as long as the buttercream isn't so sweet it overtakes the flavor of the cake.
My absolute favorite Cream Cheese Buttercream recipe contains almost equal amounts of butter and cream cheese plus a touch of sour cream, which gives it a bit of extra tang and balances the sweetness of the powdered sugar.
Oh, chocolate ganache, how I love what you do to this cake. Notice the pictures of cupcakes in this post do not have chocolate ganache drizzled over their tops? They should.
They don't because I shot the cupcake and layer cake pictures on two different days and didn't think of adding chocolate ganache until I was staring at the layer cake, wondering how to decorate it.
Suddenly it hit me: Chocolate ganache, poured over the cream cheese buttercream so that it drips down over the sides of this cake would be SO decadent and delicious.
And it is.
If you're making cupcakes, I urge you to drizzle some over the top of the cream cheese buttercream, just like you see here in the layer cake. I mean, the sprinkles are adorable, but cream cheese + chocolate + red velvet cake is to die for.
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If you give this recipe a try, let me know! Leave a comment, rate it, or take a picture and tag it #ofbatteranddough on Instagram.
For the Red Velvet Cake or Cupcakes:
- 3 cups cake flour (*See note)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoon natural unsweetened cocoa powder - not dutch process
- ½ teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 1 cup full-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
- 3 tablespoon Red Velvet Emulsion
- 4 ounces (1 stick/ ½ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup vegetable or canola oil
- 3 large eggs + 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream, cold
For the Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache:
- 1 recipe Perfect Cream Cheese Buttercream, at room temperature (See note.)
- 8 - 16 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (at least 60% cacao) - You'll need 8 ounces for the layer cake and 16 ounces for the cupcakes.
- 8 - 16 ounces heavy whipping cream - You'll need 8 ounces for the layer cake and 16 ounces for the cupcakes.
Make Red Velvet Cake or Cupcakes:
- If making cake layers, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Using vegetable shortening, grease the inside of three 8 or 9-inch round cake pans. Use the pan to trace circles on a piece of parchment paper. Cut out the circles and place one in each pan to cover the bottom. Lightly grease the top of the parchment paper. Sprinkle some flour inside the pans and shake it around to completely coat the bottom and sides of the pan. Shake out excess flour.
- If making cupcakes, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line three non-stick 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners and spray the pan lightly with non-stick baking spray.
- Add the flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder, and espresso powder to a medium size bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine. Set aside.
- Add the buttermilk, vanilla, vinegar, and red velvet emulsion to a bowl or measuring cup and stir to combine. Set aside.
- Add the butter and both sugars to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on high for 2 minutes, until the mixture is lighted in color and somewhat fluffy in texture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the oil and the 3 whole eggs and beat on high for about 30 seconds, until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg yolks. Beat on high for another 2 minutes.
- Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures in alternating additions: ⅓ of the flour, ½ the buttermilk, ⅓ of the flour, ½ the butter milk, ⅓ of the flour. After each addition beat on the lowest speed just until incorporated. Do not overbeat.
- Add the heavy cream to a bowl and beat with a handheld mixer until soft peaks form when you lift the beaters up from the bowl. Gently fold the whipped cream into the batter, just until it's barely incorporated. Be gentle so that you can preserve as much air in the cream as possible.
- If baking cake layers, distribute the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the cakes are pulling away from the sides of the pan slightly and a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cakes comes out without any batter on it. Remove the cakes from the oven and place on a wire rack. Let them cool in their pans for 5 minutes, then turn out onto the wire rack and let cool completely before frosting and assembling.
- If baking cupcakes, distribute the batter between the paper lined baking cups. Bake the cupcakes for 5 minutes at 400 degrees. Turn down the temperature to 350 degrees, and bake the cupcakes for 15 more minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cupcakes comes away without any raw batter on it. Let the cupcakes cool inside the baking pan before removing them.
Make the Chocolate Ganache:
- Put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Heat the cream in the microwave just until bubbles appear around the edges of the cream. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let it stand for 5 minutes to allow the chocolate to melt.
- Stir the ganache until the chocolate and cream are completely homogenous. If the chocolate isn't completely melted after stirring for a few minutes, microwave the ganache on half power in 20-second increments.
- Ice the cake layers or cupcakes with Cream Cheese Buttercream and drizzle with Chocolate Ganache.
- To Make Cake Flour: For each cup of flour, remove 2 tablespoons of flour and replace with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.
- You'll need a full recipe of Cream Cheese Buttercream to ice 36 cupcakes. For the layer cake, you'll only need a half recipe.
- Decorating idea! One reader sent me a photo of her cupcakes which she had decorated with crushed red velvet Oreos and pieces of Red Velvet Kit Kats. They looked so adorable (and delicious!) that I had to share such a fantastic idea.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 566Total Fat: 34gSaturated Fat: 20gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 11gCholesterol: 119mgSodium: 339mgCarbohydrates: 56gFiber: 4gSugar: 29gProtein: 9g