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.
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.
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 Weezer 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.
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.
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:
- Here is my post on how to frost and decorate a layer cake, and what tools every home baker should have to make it beautiful
- Here is my recipe for classic vanilla buttercream frosting, enough to full and coat the cake, or enough for all of the cupcakes.
- If you are feeling a bit more ambitious, here’s the recipe for my Swiss meringue buttercream. Swiss meringue buttercream is made with egg whites and hot sugar for a fluffy, silky buttercream that’s less cloying than frosting can taste.
Did you make this No Dye Red Velvet Cake? You’ll also enjoy these other fabulous layer cakes:
No Dye Red Velvet Layer Cake
- 2 ⅔ cups cake flour
- ⅓ cup cocoa powder, sifted (I like Hershey's)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ½ cups neutral vegetable oil, like canola
- 1 ⅔ cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- ¼ cup cold water (or food coloring, if you must)
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- scant 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- Buttercream frosting, to decorate (recipe follows)
- 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.
I made this cake for my stepdaughter’s birthday. Red Velvet is her favorite but I did not want to use the food coloring so I thought I would give it a try. It came out great. Absolutely delicious. Everyone loved it! this recipe as a keeper. Thank you so much.
Fantastic! Thanks so much and I am so glad that it turned out well.
Kassandra Harris says
Hello! I have not made this recipe yet but would like to try it. I am making a smash cake for my niece for her first birthday and my sister-in-law wants a red velvet cake without any dyes, so I thought this recipe looked perfect! She really wants it to be a vibrant red though, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading on beet root powder. Would I be able to add it to this recipe to enhance the red color, and if so how much would you recommend??
Hello! Thanks so much for writing. You can certainly add beet root powder. India Tree also makes nice natural food colorings, and is generally available in grocery stores (especially such as Whole Foods). As for beet powder quantity, if you want a very vibrant cake, I would guess that you will need a generous amount. I’m going to ballpark at least 1/4 cup, but you may need even more. As my favorite pastry chef instructor at the CIA used to tell us–much to our frustration!–just do it ’til it’s right. In that spirit, start with 1/4 cup, then go by tablespoon until the batter is a super red color. I’d love to know what you end up with!
I made this for my son’s birthday, making cream cheese frosting instead of buttercream. It was a huge hit. I ended up baking just one layer in a springform pan because that’s all I had. I baked ita good bit longer,as one would expect, and worried it would be dry. No, moist just as other reviewers have said. This one’s a keeper!
Fantastic!!! I am so glad it was a hit, and great call adapting it for the springform pan.
Suzy Kisch says
Hello again! The cake was a huge hit! Everyone commented how it was the perfect sweetness…not too sweet like many other cakes. I’ve become the “official” cake maker for our school/faculty events (and other family/friend occasion), so have made quite a few cakes, all of which have been delicious, thanks to the pros, like you! I would love to send you a picture, but don’t see that I can do that here.
Incidentally, I made our daughter’s wedding cake this summer!!!! Was an amazing project for sure!
Oh I am so glad!!! And it’s great to know another “cake person.” If you’d like to send along a photo (I’d love to see it), you can email it to email@example.com . Thanks again for making the recipe!
Fantastic cake and it’s very moist.
Jacqueline LaBrie says
I really want to try this for my grand daughters 13th birthday requesting Red Velvet Cake. I just can’t bring myself to add the red food coloring. Is 1 1/2 cup of canola oil? It seems like a lot. Do you need to add the 1/4 cup of water?
I completely agree about the red food coloring. I never use it, and no one misses it. The natural color is so pretty. Yes, the vegetable oil quantity is correct. The recipe has a lot of dry ingredients with all the flour and cocoa, so this is the appropriate ratio. The water serves to compensate for the loss of liquid of the food coloring. I do not recommend skipping it, as both the oil and water contribute to a nice, moist cake. If you don’t want to use water, you can use milk. I hope you enjoy, and happy 13th birthday to your granddaughter! Wow–teenager!
Suzy Kisch says
I’m going to make this cake for a baby shower, and plan on using a cream cheese frosting (dyed pink, blue, and yellow) for the filling. Can I make the layers on a Tuesday evening, then assemble/frost the cake Wednesday, and serve the cake Thursday? Should I refrigerate the layers Tuesday overnight? I usually work with a buttercream frosting, so want to be sure a cream cheese frosting won’t sink overnight! Can I also slice each 9-inch layer horizontally so I have another layer of frosting? Hope my questions make sense! Thank you!
How nice! I love a baby shower. Here’s what I would do: Bake the cake up to 2 days in advance (Tuesday, like you propose). When fully cooled, cut any dome off the top of each layer; slice each layer in half horizontally–you can totally do this; stack and wrap the layers; and leave them at room temperature. (Somewhat counterintuitively, cake will get stale in the fridge because of the high moisture content.) If you want, you can also make the frosting on day 1 and refrigerate it, fully covered, in a bowl or container, then bring to room temperature when it’s time to decorate. I like to give frosting a quick re-whip when I make buttercream in advance, to smooth it back out before I use it. As for assembly and decoration: Ideally, if you have time, I would frost and decorate the day of, and just chill it in the fridge briefly to set. I find that buttercream like this tends to form a crust the longer it sits, and just doesn’t look as fresh. One compromise option might be to frost the layers and do a crumb coat the day before, and then just do the outer layer of buttercream and final decoration the morning of. You can put the layered, crumb-coated cake in the fridge overnight, well wrapped, and it will not get too stale. Though you really don’t want to serve cold cake, so I’d want to make sure it has a few hours to come up to room temperature before serving it. Let me know if you have any more questions!
Suzy Kisch says
Oh my gosh! Thank you for your detailed response. What a lovely surprise! I actually am using a cream cheese frosting for this cake since the mom-to-be really loves “red velvet” cake, which I think typically uses a cream cheese frosting. This is a surprise shower, so I can’t ask her what she prefers. That being said, I wanted to know if you thought I could frost the layers (with a cream cheese frosting) the day before serving. I’m planning on baking three of your cake layers, but don’t know if they’re “strong” enough (not too soft) to have three stacked layers with the frosting in between each layer AND the extra layer from cutting each cake horizontally in half. Hope this makes sense! Because I work full time (I’m a teacher), and the shower is immediately after school, I won’t have any time the day of to do anything with the cake. Thank you in advance for your expertise!
Hi, Suzy! My pleasure to help. I do think that you can frost and stack the cake the day before. You can always dowel the cake to keep it more sturdy. (I usually just use drinking straws trimmed to the height of the cake.) Here is what I think, given time constraints: Frost and decorate the cake the day before. Loosely wrap it and chill overnight in the fridge. I don’t think you should leave the frosted, decorated cake overnight at room temperature because cream cheese is not as safe to leave as butter. Plus, the buttercream will stiffen in the fridge and help the cake not to slump. In the morning, just take the cake into work and leave it to come to room temperature a few hours before serving. Pastry chef tip: When I travel with a cake, I like to travel with a little extra buttercream, decorations, and small offset spreader, just in case I need to do any last-second touchups! Have a wonderful time at the shower, and I know the mom-to-be will be thrilled.
Janet Miller says
This recipe intrigues me, as many people (Me included) are turned off by the red food coloring addition. I would love to try it! I WEIGH all of my larger amount ingredients – could you please tell me how much cake flour to use? Everyone’s flour measurements seem to be quite different, from King Arthur using 4.25 ounces per cup of AP flour, to Cook’s Illustrated using 5 ounces per cup of AP flour. I would greatly appreciate it if you would give your ounces per cup of Cake and All Purpose flours. Thanks!!!!!!!
Hi, Janet! I apologize for the late response to this! For both all-purpose and cake flour, I use the conversion rate of 1c cake flour : 4.25 ounces (or 120 grams). Happy baking!
I only have 8” cake pans. Should I divide the batter among 3 of these pans? I don’t want to overfill 2 8” pans.
I would divide it to be on the safe side; I never like to fill my cake pans higher than halfway!
Thanks! Three 8” pans worked perfectly. Absolutely beautiful, moist delicious cake! My family raved!
Fantastic! This made my day 🙂
Amazing recipe! Great with cream cheese frosting.
Fantastic! So glad you enjoyed.
Julie McConnell says
And I forgot to mention:
This cake freezes great !
I wrapped the layers in plastic wrap (twice). I had it in the freezer for about a month and it tasted terrific — moist and yummy!
Julie McConnell says
Fabulous cake! Thank you !
Yea!!! I am so glad you enjoyed it!
I used milk instead of buttermilk, will that affect my cake at all?
Hi, Melanie! Apologies for the late response. It will slightly affect the rise of the cake. The buttermilk’s acidity acts as a leavening agent when combined with the alkaline baking soda. If you only have milk, I recommend adding an additional teaspoon of vinegar.
Alisa B Bennett says
You never say what to do with the quarter cup of water.
Hi and thanks so much! You’re the first person (including me!!) to catch this. Great eye. I’ve updated the recipe. Thanks again, and happy baking.
Kimberly Hundl says
Hi! Is the water added with the buttermilk or with the baking soda/vinegar mixture? I see it listed in both places. Thanks so much!
Hi, Kimberly! Fabulous catch! I corrected the error. You will add it at the end, with the baking soda/vinegar mixture. Happy baking!
I have never understood the appeal of Red Velvet cake and the thought of consuming that much red food coloring never appealed to me. This is an excellent cake. I made a cherry filling, and iced the cake with cream cheese icing. My loyal family kept saying, they liked my usual chocolate better but judging at the rate the slices of cake disappeared. I have to give it 5 stars!
Yea!! I am so glad you liked it, and the cherry filling sounds so good.
Fantastic. Love this cake.
Stephanie Petrucek says
I love red velvet cake but was always a little turned off by the vivid red color as well. This is such a good cake, and you are right that it does have a naturally reddish hue. The flavor of this is absolutely wonderful. I made it for my son’s birthday and we devoured it.
Julie Ma says
Fabulous. Moist and loved the color, actually.