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No Dye Red Velvet Layer Cake

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Seeing red? Not anymore!

This no-dye red velvet cake recipe is made without food coloring for a moist, sweet Southern layer cake that lets cocoa’s natural ruddiness shine through.

food coloring free velvet layer cake slices on plates with sprinkles birthday party spread

Admission: I do not like chocolate. Never have. I held this secret shame with me throughout pastry school, when I would smile through the pain of tasting our chocolate truffles or dark chocolate mousse assignments. I became an expert in hiding my “just a sliver” slice on the plate at a birthday party. Chocolate just tastes very bitter to me. But I have two exceptions: 1) Reese’s Cups, and 2) this cake.

This No-Dye Red Velvet Layer Cake Recipe is one of my favorites: moist, full of sweet cocoa flavor and made without Day-Glo red food coloring, so the cake’s natural warm reddish-brown hue can shine.

not-red velvet cake ingredients eggs cocoa flour vanilla buttermilk with sifter

Skip the dye, up the beauty.

I know many people like their red velvet cake to be bright red. I get that; it looks fun and you know exactly what cake it is from half a mile away. That said, cutting into a real red velvet cake has always made me feel like I was committing cake murder. Think Ouizer in Steel Magnolias.

Plus, most red velvet cake recipes use an entire bottle of food coloring. This feels less terrible if you use a natural food coloring, but standard red food dye contains ingredients like propylene glycol, FD&C reds 40 and 3, and propylparaben. I picture these chemicals coloring my entire digestive track for days. Possibly weeks.

And for what?

The best part about red velvet cake is the velvet part, not the color. In other words, the moist cake made from buttermilk, sugar, flour, cocoa, vanilla, and eggs.

Making red velvet cake without food coloring lets the cocoa be the star. Plus, the reaction of the alkaline cocoa and baking soda with the acidic buttermilk and vinegar gives the finished cake a beautiful reddish-brown color all its own.

whole velvet layer cake on pedestal with silver decoration made without food coloring or dye

No-Dye Velvet Layer Cake: Recipe Notes

  • This red velvet cake recipe is adapted from one of my favorite custom cake bakers, Elisa Strauss of Confetti Cakes in New York City. Elisa has some great online cake sculpting and decorating classes, and a wonderful book if you are interested in fancy cake decorating.
  • Be sure to sift your cocoa. Always. Cocoa clumps in a cake batter otherwise. These clumps are virtually impossible to get out without straining the entire batter or whipping the batter on high, which is bad because it will activate gluten and make the cake tough.
  • Cake flour vs. all-purpose flour. This recipe uses cake flour. Cake flour has less gluten than all-purpose flour. This makes a more tender, lighter cake. No cake flour? No problem. You can easily substitute by removing two tablespoons of all-purpose flour per cup, and replacing it with two tablespoons of cornstarch.
  • How to tell when your cake is done. Baking times are always approximate. Your cake is done when it springs back when lightly touched on top, and a cake tester comes out clean.
no dye velvet layer cake without food coloring slices on plates with sprinkles birthday party spread
Notice the natural ruddy color of the cake, made completely without food coloring.

Red Velvet Layer Cake: Next Steps

Now that you’ve baked your cake, here are some more useful cake tips and recipes, for your reference:

cake covered with buttercream frosting on cake stand

Did you make this No Dye Red Velvet Cake? You’ll also enjoy these other fabulous layer cakes:

do dye red velvet layer cake recipe slices

No Dye Red Velvet Layer Cake

This moist red velvet cake lets the natural buttermilk and cocoa ruddy color shine. No dye or food coloring in this cake.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keywords:: birthday cake, cake, chocolate chip, cocoa, cupcake, dessert, frosting, layer cake, red velvet
Servings: 2 x 9" round layers, or about 18 cupcakes
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Ingredients

  • 2 2/3 cups cake flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted (I like Hershey's)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups neutral vegetable oil, like canola
  • 1 2/3 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup cold water (or food coloring, if you must)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • scant 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • Buttercream frosting, to decorate (recipe follows)

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease two 9" cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper, or line muffin tins.
  • Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, and salt and set aside.
  • In the bowl of a large mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the oil and sugar on medium until fully mixed and lightened slightly in color. Lower the mixer to low and add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla. Add each egg when the previous one is almost fully mixed in. Scrape the bowl and beat on medium until everything is fully emulsified and smooth.
  • With the mixer on low, alternately add the flour/cocoa mixture and the buttermilk in two additions each: flour, buttermilk, flour, buttermilk. Scrape the bowl and mix again on low until everything is emulsified.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and white vinegar. It will sizzle like a mini-volcano science experiment. Add this to the cake batter with the 1/4 cup water (or food coloring, if using) and mix on medium speed for about 10 seconds to fully combine. Scrape the bowl.
  • Divide the cake batter evenly between the cake pans or muffin tins and bake on the center rack until done, about 25 to 35 minutes for 9" cake layers, and about 18 to 20 minutes for cupcakes.
  • Let cool in the cake pans until you can handle them without an oven mitt, but are still warm. Turn out onto cooling racks, removing the parchment from the bottom of the cakes, and cool fully before eating or decorating.
    PRO TIP: The best way to remove cakes from a cake pan is to run a small offset spatula around the edges first, with the front of the spatula facing outward so it does not accidentally cut into the cake. I like this Ateco one, and find it indispensable.
    PRO TIP #2: Cake always tastes better the day after it is baked. First, you can't frost or decorate a cake until it has fully cooled. Second, something just happens with the flavor to make it taste better. Wrap the fully-cooled layers in plastic wrap overnight, and leave them out at room temperature. The refrigerator will stale them.
  • To layer and decorate you cakes, use this recipe for classic vanilla buttercream frosting, or whip up a Swiss meringue buttercream.

62 comments

  • Frances W

    5 stars
    This is a wonderful cake recipe. It does not look bright, blood red like you see come cakes look, but I prefer this more natural color. The cake itself tastes delicious. We loved the cocoa flavor. Which brand of cocoa powder do you recommend? Thank you.

  • Jenny P.

    5 stars
    I have made this several times, and always comes out just right. I make it with vanilla buttercream, and garnish with some cake crumbs, which has been the tradition in my southern family.

  • Terrie Tanner

    3 stars
    I made this cake recipe for my son for his birthday. I followed the directions to a tee, but it came out rather dense. The chocolate flavor is fantastic, I just don’t understand why it came out the way it did. Any suggestions to correct this if I make this again?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Terrie. So sorry to hear about the result! That can be so frustrating. Density is usually due to one of two things: 1) the amount of air that was (or was not) beaten into the batter while creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs, and 2) the leavening agent. Check your baking soda. It might be that it is not fresh enough. Barring that, you may need to beat the eggs, oil, and sugar a little more, until you get a nice, light ribbon. Hope this helps.

  • Can this be a bunt cake? If so what is the temp and how long to bake it?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi! Yes, you can make this as a bundt. Bake it at the same temperature (I’d rest the bundt on a sheet pan instead of placing it directly on the oven rack). The time will increase. I am not sure about the exact baking time, but test it starting at 40 minutes; it will probably take 45-55 minutes total, or until the tester comes out clean and the top feels springy. Don’t fill the bundt pan beyond 3/4 full, since it will rise. Happy baking!

  • 5 stars
    Hi, what do you mean by scant one cup buttermilk?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Rose! Scant basically means to take one cup and then take out a tablespoon, so it’s on the low end of the fill line 🙂 Hope you enjoy the cake!

  • 5 stars
    hi, i haven’t made this yet, but it looks delicious and you explain it very well. question, can i use AP flour instead of cake flour?

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Lauren! I hope you like it. Cake flour will make for a more tender cake. You could substitute all-purpose flour, but I recommend making your own “cake flour”: For every cup of all-purpose flour, remove two tablespoons and replace it with cornstarch.

  • But what makes it red if you don’t use food coloring. It’s just a chocolate cake then? I’ve been wondering if beet juice would work for the red.

    • Johnathan

      4 stars
      non alkalized coco powder mixed with vinegar turns it red. make a simple google search before commenting. hope this helps!!

    • Unpeeled

      If you want a very vivid red, you definitely want to consider adding some food coloring. Beet juice is a great way to go. You can also buy natural food-based coloring at Whole Foods or online. (The brand I recommend is India Tree.) But you will actually get a reddish, ruddy color naturally due to the chemical interaction between the cocoa and baking soda (alkalis) and the buttermilk (acid). I hope you enjoy!

  • 5 stars
    LOVE IT!!

    • Unpeeled

      Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. It’s one of my favorite cake recipes of all time.

  • Jennifer

    Hello, I’d love to make this cake as a single layer tray bake. Which size baking tin would you recommend? Would I need to adjust the cooking time?
    Thank you 🙂

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Jennifer! I recommend a 9 x 13 x 2″ cake pan. Just make sure the cake batter does not fill beyond 2/3 full and you’ll be just fine. The baking time will increase a little since it’s all baking in the same pan. I’m not sure how long exactly, but just bake until the center springs back and a toothpick comes out clean. Enjoy!

  • Have you ever tried this with butter in place of the oil? I love the taste of butter and usually cakes have you cream the butter and sugar, so I’d think it should work. I’m unsure though!

    • Unpeeled

      Hi, Helen! Great question. Whipping softened butter into the batter instead of liquid oil could actually make this too aerated, and rise too much given the amount of other leaveners. I agree with you about the deliciousness of butter, however. Try substituting the equal amount of melted, slightly cooled butter. I bet it’s great. Happy baking!

4.08 from 88 votes (80 ratings without comment)

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