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 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.
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.
- You can also decorate a sprinkle cake!
- 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:
- Buttermilk Birthday Funfetti Cake
- How to Decorate a Cake With Sprinkles
- The Commissary Carrot Cake
- Spiced Apple Rye Layer Cake
No Dye Red Velvet Layer Cake
- 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)
- 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.