Red velvet cake is as southern as big hair and sweet tea. The history of this alluring dessert is as mysterious and as complicated as any Southern Belle. Not to mention, speculation of the confection’s origins makes good fodder for mini legends – a Waldorf Astoria chef’s creation was so delectable a diner requested the recipe and was subsequently billed several hundred dollars by the chef for it, a marketing ploy of the Adams Extract company during the Great Depression – no matter. You can read about these and other possibilities elsewhere.
Here, I’m serving up a few sweet facts about the “velvet” part, highlighting the ongoing debate about why the layers might have that lusty hue, and as the icing on the cake, giving you a few frosting options from which to choose when you get ready to whip up this one-bowl wonder of a dessert.
One Bowl, No Mixer and Fools Gluten-Eating Red Velvet Lovers
That’s right, one bowl, but it gets better. No mixer need be dirtied in the making of this cake, yet you will still be rewarded with layers that rise tall with a crumb as smooth as… velvet. As for the flavor, honest to goodness, you cannot distinguish this version from the “real deal”. Trust me, I’ve fed it to some die hard, Deep South, gluten-eating red velvet cake lovers and not one of them so much as batted and eye. It is that good.
Now, I don’t have to remind you about following the recipe exactly as written to get my results, do I? No, I do not.
Speaking of that recipe, ever wonder why it’s called red velvet cake?
Why “Velvet” and a Bit about Baking Soda + Acids
The original version of velvet cake (the “red” part came later), which dates back to the 1800s, was so named due to its velvety smooth texture.
Evidence from documentation during that period indicates cooks experimented with a variety of ingredients (almond flour, natural cocoa powder, cornstarch, etc.) to lighten up the coarse, grainy wheat flour. Leavening agents of the time were baking soda and vinegar or buttermilk (or both).
This combo makes for good leavening because when combined, baking soda and an acid (like vinegar and buttermilk) elicit a chemical reaction that causes the release of carbon dioxide gas. The result? Those fizzy bubbles you remember from your elementary school volcano science fair project. (You can read more on leavening agents here.)
So, when you add baking soda to a cake batter that contains an acid (again, like vinegar or buttermilk) that same reaction happens inside your cake. Those little bubbles expand in the batter like tiny air balloons, gloriously pushing the batter up, up, up. This also adds a degree of tenderness, thus that “velvet” texture.
Bottom line: baking soda + acid (vinegar, buttermilk, etc.) = tender cake layers that rise high.
Now let’s talk about cake color.
The Great Debate: What Makes Red Velvet Cake Red
Traditionally, red velvet cake is reported to have been a much more subtle (nearly dull, by some accounts) reddish-brown relative to the bright (nearly glaring) food-coloring enhanced red velvet cakes we see today. The reason the original version had a reddish hue is attributed to several conflicting reasons such as:
(1) because anthocyanins (naturally occurring compounds in plants) in cocoa make it red
(2) because the acid in natural cocoa powder reacts with the baking soda (a base) and vinegar and buttermilk (both acids) to render a red color
To this day, the reason red velvet cake is red is debated among home cooks, chefs, food historians and chemists.
What we do know is that adding an ounce of liquid red food coloring to this cake will, indeed, result in red layers. The intensity of red depends on how much and the type cocoa powder you use (the more and the darker the cocoa powder, the more brown/less red your layers).
So, while we won’t contribute to the debate, let’s do clarify the difference between natural and Dutch-process cocoa because the one you use in your recipes will make a difference in your color outcome.
Natural versus Dutched Cocoa Powder
Cocoa is naturally slightly acidic.
Natural cocoa powder still contains the natural acids. It is the kind of cocoa powder you’re likely used to if you live in the USA – think Hershey’s brand. It is a pale, reddish-brown color and has a bright, astringent chocolate aroma.
Dutched cocoa powder (or more properly, Dutch process cocoa) has had its acid neutralized via a process called “Dutching”, hence the name. You may also hear this called alkalized or European style cocoa. It’s the same thing, it just means it is natural cocoa that was treated with an alkalizing agent to neutralize the acid. Dutch processed cocoa is very dark, almost black, in color with a smooth, rounded chocolate aroma.
(Note: you can actually purchase an ultra-Dutched cocoa powder that is black and if you’re into making things like homemade Oreo cookies, knock-off versions of Hostess cupcakes or dark chocolate whoopie pies, you will find it handy to have around.)
Notice how much more red the cake pictured below is than the one featured in this post. The one below was made with Hershey’s Natural Cocoa Powder (plus an all-natural red food coloring). The featured cake for this post was made with Valrhona Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder (plus an all-natural red food coloring). Valrhona is an European Dutched cocoa, and my personal favorite.
So, you can see just how the type cocoa powder you use can affect your baking results.
How the Cocoa Powder Used affects Baking
The type cocoa used in a recipe with chemical leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda can affect the outcome of your recipe. By and large, baking soda is used in recipes calling for natural cocoa powder and baking powder is usually used in recipes calling for Dutched cocoa.
Now, the question is, which do you use?
In baked goods, if a recipe doesn’t specify and it is an American recipe, it is likely safe to assume natural cocoa powder. Check the leavening agents used. If baking soda is listed, it’s safe to assume natural cocoa powder. If baking powder is the only chemical leavener, go with Dutched cocoa. In those recipes where a bit of both are used, it could go either way, but again, if it is an American recipe, the general default is natural cocoa powder.
For other, non-baked items (like sauces, puddings, ice creams, etc.), you’re free to use what you like best. For me, that means my good old Valrhona just about every time. But if you prefer a natural cocoa, or another Dutched brand, go with what you like best. When you remove the issue of chemical leavening agents, it’s all about taste (well, in some cases, at least for me, it’s about taste and color since natural cocoa yields lighter results and Dutched gives you that dark, almost black, finished product).
Avoiding Red Dye
If you’re like me, you might prefer to forego the red dye (you can read more about red dye #40 in this Ingredients Inside post) and use an all-natural coloring for your red velvet cake. If so, you can opt for using:
(1) commercially produced all-natural food color (like India Tree in the USA or Deco Relief in France)
(2) dried food grade hibiscus flowers
(3) beet juice or pureed beets (fresh beets that you juice or roast then puree, or canned beets that you puree – you can also use the juice from canned beets)
(4) beet powder
Of these, beet powder is my personal favorite. It imparts no flavor and the color is really stunning! Check out this cake using beet powder.
I also use beet powder in my All-Natural Red Velvet Oatmeal.
But who the heck wants oatmeal at a time like this?? No one! We want cake!
And here it is… but before you make it, don’t forget to think about the frosting you’ll use to top it. Frosting is important. You can read more about my sweet recommendations after the recipe.
The Best Gluten-Free Red Velvet Cake with White Chocolate Ganache Frosting
For the cake:
- 3/4 cup oil (Use any neutral tasting oil that you enjoy baking with; I use sunflower oil.)
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder (Use a good quality cocoa powder for the flavor to come through as it should; I use Valrhona.)
- Red food coloring of your choice (Use 1 ounce of traditional coloring OR choose an alternative that I talk about in the intro post. I included links for you, too, to help find the products if you want a natural coloring, which is what I prefer.)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups Gigi’s Everyday Gluten-Free Flour Blend (Gum-Free) or similar gum-free blend
- 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)
- 1 cup milk (I use unsweetened coconut milk from a carton; use what you like to use in your baking.)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
For the White Chocolate Ganache frosting:
- 8 ounces white chocolate
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
- Before baking your cake layers, make the ganache so that it can cool. You will need it cooled before you can whip it to a light fluffy frosting (you’ll do this while your cake layers cool).
- To make the ganache, simply combine white chocolate, cream and salt in a saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring very often, until smooth. Once completely smooth and combined, remove from heat and pour into a bowl and set aside so that it can cool to room temperature. Do not cover the ganache in the bowl and do not refrigerate it.
- Now, for the cake…
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, sugar, and eggs; stir until combined.
- In a separate small bowl, stir together cocoa and food coloring, making a paste, taking care to make sure there are no clumps of cocoa powder (I sift mine to be sure).
- Add cocoa mixture and vanilla extract to oil/sugar mixture and stir.
- Combine vinegar and milk in a small bowl and stir. This is your dairy-free “buttermilk” alternative.
- Add the salt to your flour blend. Whisk to blend.
- Then, add flour blend and milk alternately to the sugar/oil mixture, stirring after each addition, beginning and ending with milk.
- When you add the final milk, before stirring, sprinkle the baking soda over the batter.
- Stir quickly and pour batter into the prepared pans.
- Bake 30-40 minutes, watching the cake layers carefully for doneness (the “toothpick test” works well here – insert a wooden pick and remove; it should come out clean if your cake is done).
- Remove the cakes from the oven and cool to room temperature in the pans.
- While the cake layers cool, whip the cooled ganache with a mixer on low-medium speed for 1 minute, then on medium-high speed for 2 minutes, until light and fluffy.
- To assemble, spread a thin layer of ganache between layers, then cover the outside of the cake with the remaining frosting.
- Chill to set, then slice and serve. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.
Frosting Your Red Velvet Cake
If white chocolate ganache frosting doesn’t appeal to you, not to worry. You can go the more mainstream route and top your cake with The BEST Cream Cheese Frosting Ever (no lie!) OR if you’re like me and you grew up in a family of Southern women who knew a thing or two about making red velvet cake, you might want to whip up a batch of Old Fashioned Fluffy Cooked Frosting (refashioned by me to be gluten-free, of course!), which is the traditional topper for red velvet cake.
More Red Velvet recipes you may love:
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