Photo: Taste of Home
Two things everyone can agree on regarding Red Velvet cake: it has a soft, velvety texture, and it’s red. I know, that seems laughably obvious, but there’s not much agreement about anything else. Even the best Red Velvet cake recipes disagree on ingredients (and don’t get me started on the debate over frosting), so we’ll take those two things as an achievement. Even the “red” has been disputed. Some researchers claim the name comes from the reddish-brown hue of the chocolate, or because brown sugar used to be called “red sugar” back in the day. But the most reliably traceable history involves good old American capitalism. While Victorian-Era cooks made “velvet” cakes, the brightly colored Red Velvet cake debuted when John Adams, of the Adams Extract Company, adapted an existing cake recipe, added a generous dose of red food coloring, and packaged it under its now-famous name.
So, what about the velvet part? The fine crumb and smooth texture is essential to a proper Red Velvet cake. Cooks in the 1800s used almond flour or cornstarch to make “velvet cakes,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern Red Velvet recipe using almond flour. Instead, there’s a variety of Red Velvet cake recipes, all claiming to be the real one.
The Essential Ingredient for Red Velvet Cake
There are some commonalities: They all use baking soda, and all have some sort of acid component (usually vinegar or buttermilk—or both). That acid-and-soda combination is a clue to the real secret of a light, silky cake texture, no matter which specific recipe you use. Acid and baking soda react, creating bubbles. Lots and lots of air bubbles.
Though to get the most velvety cake texture, you must also perfect your technique. This means getting lots and lots of air into your batter and then make sure it stays there. Essentially, this means beating ingredients to a proper point and then stopping at the right time as not to overmix your ingredients. Here are a few great recipes to start with; our classic Grandma’s Red Velvet Cake, or our version that uses shortening in place of butter, or even our Peppermint Red Velvet Cake.
Tips for How to Achieve the Best Red Velvet Cake
Apply the following tips to your favorite recipe and you’ll end up with pillowy-soft Red Velvet perfection, every time.
Photo: Shutterstock / Kawin Ounprasertsuk
1. Cream it good.
As the first step, cream your butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Do not skimp on this. Your butter mixture should be pale in color, and the consistency should be airy and light. The smoother and lighter the butter mixture is, the more quickly it’ll combine with the wet ingredients and flour.
Skimping on this step is one of the most common cake mistakes. Learn 9 mistakes you could be making.
2. Beat the eggs.
Add eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, beating well after each addition. Dumping a mass of ingredients in all at once collapses air bubbles, which is bad. A little at a time, and you preserve your texture. Some cooks even separate the eggs, beating only the yolks into the creamed butter mixture, then beating the whites into a bubbly froth and adding them as the very last step before baking.
3. Work in subsets.
Whenever possible, premix ingredients before adding them to the creamed butter mixture. Combine dry ingredients and your wet ingredients separately, instead of adding each ingredient one at a time. This will reduce the amount of mixing time it takes to add them to the butter mixture.
4. Sift the dry ingredients.
Sifting your dry ingredients serves two purposes. It breaks down large clumps, making it combine faster, and—you guessed it—it adds air. Some cooks use cake flour, which is finer grained and needs less sifting. You can also use a whisk to stir the dry ingredients and fluff them up.
5. Make sure not to overmix.
Add the wet and dry ingredients to the butter mixture in small amounts, alternating between dry and wet, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat after each addition, just until combined. Again, adding ingredients a little at a time preserves the air bubbles, which in turn makes your cake light. Do not overmix!
As you can see, the dominant theme is air. Light and fluffy butter mixture, with lots of air. Sifted dry ingredients, with lots of air. Vinegar and baking soda reacting, creating … lots of air. That air is the secret to the fine, silky texture that all experts agree is one of Red Velvet Cake’s defining features. Now, if we could just agree on what kind of frosting it should have…