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Is red velvet cake simply a Chocolate Cake Lite™ with cream cheese frosting? In this bake off, we set out to find out.
I don’t claim to be a red velvet cake expert, but per Wikipedia, red velvet is “traditionally a red, red-brown, crimson, or scarlet-colored chocolate layer cake, layered with ermine icing” and traditional recipes do NOT use food coloring! Wikipedia also notes that some believe devil’s food cake may have ties to red velvet (the main difference is that red velvet uses cocoa, the former uses chocolate).
Given this definition, we strayed quite a bit in this bake off, skewing towards more modern red velvet cakes that generally use food coloring and cream cheese frosting. My ideal red velvet cake has a moist, close crumb, a fairly sugary buttercream-esque cream cheese frosting, and to be honest–a deep red color is part of the appeal to me. So let’s see which cakes rose to the top!
- 25 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked the day of tasting
- All cakes were baked in an 8 or 9″ cake pan lined with parchment paper
- All tasters ranked each cake on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- All ingredients were measured by weight according to the King Arthur website
- Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour
- Swans Down cake flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Rodelle vanilla extract
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Americolor Red Red food coloring
- Imperial granulated and powdered sugar
PARTNER NOTE: I’m delighted to be partnering with Imperial Sugar on this bake off as I’ve consistently used their consistent, high-quality pure cane sugar products throughout my bake offs. Imperial Sugar is non-GMO verified, allergen free and gluten-free!
For more sweet inspiration, you can visit Imperial Sugar to find more than 4,000 expert-tested recipes, free downloadable vintage cookbooks, sugar scrubs and bath products at the Sugar Spa, and lots of helpful guides on their blog. You can also check out their Pinterest, You Tube, Instagram for even more recipe inspiration!
One of the clearest themes in this bake off was that the moister cakes tended to do better (Divas and Zoe are both extremely moist) and those with a more cream cheese-forward frosting (vs. the sugary buttercreams that I prefer) also tended to do better.
A note that although Bravetart is at the bottom of this chart, I wholeheartedly think this is because this cake was just a very different type of cake compared to the rest. The prominent wine flavor was surprising/a little off-putting to most who were comparing this to the other more conventional cakes–it’s still an excellent cake in its own right!
- Fat type: All cakes used either butter, oil, or a combination. Interestingly, the top three cakes were all oil-based! As we know, oil tends to lead to a more moist crumb while butter leads to more flavor. Typically, I find that cakes that use a combination tend to do best, but that was not the case here. The combination butter + oil cakes (Sugar Geek and Sally’s) fell to the middle of the pack and those made with all butter tended to have drier crumbs that led them to lower rankings.
- Egg: All recipes used whole eggs except Zoe Bakes, which was a vegan cake. (In her recipe, the structure hinges on the gluten from the flour interacting with acid from cocoa powder and lemon juice rather than eggs). It’s a beautiful lesson in the art of baking without eggs! The other notable egg factor was in Sally’s recipe, where she calls for whipped egg whites to be incorporated into the batter separately. This rather labor-intensive step didn’t seem to be worth it when you look at the rankings, and I personally didn’t find it to give a big boost to the cake texture. Whole eggs or no eggs for the win!
- Dairy: It’s always so counter intuitive to me that sour cream makes for a lighter crumb, but that was the case with both cakes that used it (African Bites and McCormick). Both butter + sour cream-based cakes had a fairly tight, light crumb that reminded me of bakery-style cakes. Unfortunately, both cakes were somewhat lacking in flavor–interesting as I expected the sour cream to impart more tang to the cake.
- Frosting type: Those with the more traditional ermine frosting (NYT) or a similar-ish custard-based cream cheese frosting (Bravetart) did not seem to do as well as the cakes with cream cheese frostings. I think this just speaks to the expectation of the modern palate (red velvet is almost synonymous with cream cheese frosting). I’ll go into more detail below, but there was some interesting variation in cream cheese frostings, and those with a less sugary frosting seemed to be preferred!
- Creamed vs. melted butter: I chose Sugar Geek Show partly because I was curious to see if her method of using melted butter would prove to be different than recipes that cream the butter. In the end, I think there were too many factors to truly figure out if this made a difference. But if you compare SGS and Sally’s recipes, SGS uses a higher proportion of butter to oil while Sally’s is the opposite. I do think this made a difference as tasters generally preferred more oil to butter in the cakes.
Video Tasting Review
As always, for those who would like extra videos or don’t prefer to read lengthy blog posts, here is the YouTube tasting video!
Analysis of the Best Red Velvet Cake Recipes
Bravetart: a luscious, wine-spiked cake with a tangy, airy frosting that doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional red velvet cake
Bravetart’s cake was the maverick of this group of recipes–dubbed a “red wine velvet cake,” Stella hydrates her batter with red wine instead of the more common buttermilk. She also calls for raw cacao (like Navitas Naturals) which is supposed to react with the anthocyanins in the wine to create a natural burgandy hue. The cake is paired with a custard-based frosting similar to a boiled milk frosting except that it also incorporates cream cheese. Stella specifically omits powdered sugar to remove any grittiness, and uses the custard to make a “thick and creamy, but not too rich” frosting.
First, we must note that the anthocyanin reaction unfortunately didn’t come to fruition in my oven–the cake turned out a stubborn brown. Texture-wise, I do think this cake had a delightfully soft and velvety crumb, though it erred slightly on the drier side. Though there’s a decent cocoa flavor with a whisper of cinnamon, the cake is extremely wine-forward to the point where I think it should really be classified more as a wine cake than as a red velvet cake. (This is why I think it was docked points by many tasters–it’s not a bad cake, just very different from the rest). The frosting is extremely smooth and light yet tangy, like a thick whipped cream that pairs very well with the strong flavor of the cake. Overall, a very unique cake that I think would be delicious on its own!
- Such a good cake but I think it’s a category in itself and not a traditional red velvet. The wine note with chocolate gives it such a complex flavor. The light, whipped texture of the frosting keeps it from being too much and allows the flavor of the cake to shine.
- I like the dark chocolate, slightly nutty flavor, tastes mostly like regular chocolate cake
- This one was wild! The cake alone was not good but the frosting was. However, after trying it together, Experienced it in whole new way. Together, they really complimented each other. Loved the chocolate but questioning the wine
- Tastes too much like wine (actually first thought it was beer), loved the texture of the frosting
- A bit dry, if I was expecting red velvet, I would be disappointed. The cake texture was good, but tastes like fruit cake base.
- Had some spiced notes that didn’t do it for me and the texture was a bit dense
New York Times: a soft, subtly-flavored cake with a fluffy, creamy ermine frosting that tastes like whipped cream
This recipe is supposedly similar to the original recipe developed by the Adams Extract company–in keeping with the old-fashioned red velvet cakes, it uses an ermine frosting. The cake itself uses one of the lowest ratios of fat among all the cakes (just 1 stick per 2.5 cups of flour; for reference, McCormick used 2 sticks per 2.5 cups of flour). Otherwise, it’s a fairly standard recipe that uses buttermilk, a dash of vinegar, and a little bit of cocoa.
I thought this cake had a relatively soft texture despite a sliiiightly drier crumb. Overall, I liked the texture of this cake but wanted more tang and a more prominent chocolate flavor from this cake–there wasn’t a lot of flavor going on. I am also not a huge fan of the ermine frosting, so I can relate to the tasters who said it tasted somewhat like cool whip or whipped cream. But it is undeniably smooth and silky and light, so if that sounds like an ideal frosting to you, give this a try!
- Moist crumb with that delicate cocoa flavor. I LOVE ermine frosting and it keeps the sugary frosting from being overwhelmingly heavy and cloying. Some will miss the tang of the cream cheese and may score this way too low!!
- Very light taste overall. Frosting was just like whipped cream.
- Classic red velvet flavor, moist, frosting needed more cream cheese
- Frosting a real plus – light and sweet. Cake was firm, dryish and lacking in flavor
- Another disappointing red velvet cake that doesn’t taste like anything. BUT totally loved how smooth the frosting is!! Something very luxe about it
- Dense tight crumb of cake with aftertaste; frosting has a cool whip taste to it and heavy on the butter
McCormick: a finely-crumbed, subtly-flavored cake with a sweet cream cheese frosting
This recipe is somewhat similar to NYT, but it builds on it with more sugar, more cocoa, double the butter AND eggs, and swaps out the buttermilk for a cup of sour cream + 1/2 cup of milk. I was very curious to see how it would turn out!
To me, this texture was even softer than New York Times with a kind of tight-crumbed, light and velvety quality that was very similar to African Bites. Yes, this crumb was a little drier in comparison to uber-moist cakes like Divas Can Cook, but I actually sometimes prefer this kind of delicate tight crumb. I also loved the very sugary cream cheese frosting on this one. Overall, I wished for slightly more tang and flavor in the cake, but liked this one a lot for a bakery-style, tight-crumbed cake! (One nit picky observation: I didn’t love the muted red color of this one–cakes made with the Americolor gel coloring simply looked more appealing to me.)
- Oh my god so good. I would drink the frosting by itself and order seconds. Icing and cake flavors bounce off each other beautifully, and the cake is moist without being heavy and springy without being too dry. Absolute Goldilocks zone, not too much of anything and just right.
- Rich frosting and cake has good chocolate flavor. Harmonized well, just a teensiest bit dry.
- Densely packed with tight crumb, somewhat dry and relatively little flavor (just hints of cocoa); good flavor to frosting but grainy
- Solid cake flavor but definitely a “maroon velvet” in color. Lighter cocoa without being aggressive. Frosting was on the thicker, sweeter side with less cream cheese tanginess. I’d change the frosting for something less sweet but overall a solid cake.
- Tooooooo sweet. So sweet the frosting crunches and my cavities cried.
Sugar Geek Show: a slightly dry, brilliantly red cake with a citrusy cream cheese frosting
This butter and oil-based cake stood out to me thanks to its use of melted (instead of creamed) butter, 3:2 ratio of butter to oil, and use of orange extract in the frosting. Thanks to the melted butter, this was a super easy cake to throw together! You can also thank Liz for pointing us in the direction of Americolor gel coloring, which she prefers for its lack of taste.
Once again, I liked the cake crumb on this–soft and ever-so-slightly crumbly (some called it cornbread-like; I didn’t find it to be quite that coarse). Flavor-wise, it just tasted sweet to me, lacking a bit in cocoa flavor (not surprising since this only calls for 2 tablespoons of cocoa) and other flavor complexity. However, I LOVED the frosting! The tiny bit of orange extract adds a zing of citrus that was subtle but refreshing. I slightly prefer lemon juice in my cream cheese frosting, but this was an interesting variation.
- Frosting was sweet, with a tart surprise at the end. Not a strong cream cheese flavor which is typical. Cake was dry, but flavor was okay
- Icing was more sweet than tangy; a little gritty and I didn’t love the hint of lime
- Cake is very sweet and crystalline, a little too dense and slightly dry. Not much chocolate flavor
- Brighter red cake color with crumbly, dry “cornbread consistency” cake (almost bready), tangy grainy frosting
- Prominent citrus note in the frosting which I didn’t prefer
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a light, slightly dry red velvet cake with a very sweet frosting
Sally’s popular recipe is unique in its use of cake flour, whipped egg whites, and a 1:2 ratio of butter to oil. Interestingly, this cake uses the same amount of eggs and sugar as McCormick, but adds more flour and 1/2 cup more fat (in the form of oil) and uses far less cocoa (just 2 tablespoons).
This texture of this cake was extremely light and delicate and was again on the slightly drier side. I think the whipped egg whites may have contributed to the lighter texture of this cake, but I still would prefer the tighter, more velvety crumb consistency of McCormick or African Bites. Like Sugar Geek Show, I didn’t find this cake to have a ton of flavor. This had another sugary buttercream-esque frosting that I loved! Overall, I probably wouldn’t bother with the whipped egg whites to make this cake again.
- Yes! Just the right amount of sweetness, the frosting was so fluffy, loved it. Cake was very slightly dry but chocolate flavor was there and gave it a cakey brownie vibe I’m really into.
- This cake has chocolate prevalence but also that mystery red velvet feature that really stands out. What I hope red velvet is going to taste like whenever I order it.
- Good cream cheese frosting, on the sweeter side. Texture isn’t grainy at all. Favorite one definitely. The cake has enough cocoa but also something floral. Combined together, this one’s a win!
- The cake is really dry but the frosting made it much tastier together. The cake reminded me of a wet Pòrtico candy because of the color and appearance.
- Loved the flavor. Cake was a bit dry but I loved it.. made it a bit crunchy which I enjoyed.
- Very pale red color, with a very underwhelming flavor. It’s topped with an aggressive thicker, tangy frosting, so all you taste is frosting.
- Dry, bland cake, thick with a slightly brittle crumb with an offensively sweet frosting
African Bites: a tight, finely crumbed cake with a muted flavor and sugary frosting
Like McCormick, this cake uses a combination of butter and sour cream–but it also adds oil, buttermilk instead of milk, and cake flour! Imma also adds a dash of vinegar and uses a lower ratio of eggs than McCormick.
It was surprising to me that both cakes that used sour cream had fairly similar cake textures–a tight, close crumb that still managed to be light. Like, a literal definition of velvety cake (one of my favorite cakes texturally!). I wouldn’t describe the crumb as moist, but it also wasn’t dry–just a very neutral, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. Flavor is where this cake fell short for me–I wanted more cocoa and tang from this cake, but I did get some tang from the frosting (yet another delicious sugary buttercream). I would happily make this cake again (and perhaps try bumping up the cocoa slightly)!
- I’m glad I can taste chocolate with this one! Love how fluffy it is. Cake is a win but frosting is a no. I don’t like a frosting that’s so sugary that it’s crunchy
- Moist bright red cake with tight crumb and spongy texture; I liked the frosting on this one–light with a good cream cheese flavor but not overpowering, does crystalize in hard sugar layer on top
- Tight crumb, a little dry. Great cream cheese flavor, cake has a more muted flavor
- Frosting not very cream cheesy and too sweet for me
- Shorter cake with a bouncy texture, and underwhelming flavor
Bakerella: a moist, almost brownie-like cake with a very sweet frosting
Bakerella was one of three oil-based cakes in this test, and it had the highest ratio of oil. It’s similar to both Divas Can Cook and Chelsweets (another popular recipe) but has more oil. In fact, it’s very similar to the Divas recipe except that it uses slightly more flour, slightly less cocoa, no baking powder, and no coffee.
This was the first of our moist cakes! I loved the deep, rich color on this cake. Though it didn’t have an especially high ratio of sugar (compared to others), I felt like this cake tasted especially sweet with sugary, crunchy edges and a plush, spongy texture (perhaps the lack of cocoa put the focus on the sweetness?). In combination with a sugary cream cheese frosting, this felt like a pretty traditional, pretty delicious red velvet cake. It did feel a tiny bit greasy/oily and the sweetness felt a little one-dimensional, but I think this cake would be popular with a crowd!
- Very chocolatey cake, moist, chewy, dense and almost brownie like
- Pretty burgundy cake color with a moist yet tight crumb. Palatable aftertaste; frosting with light with cream cheese flavor, sugar crystalizes in solid layer on top of frosting
- Very moist, nicely colored red cake with a light cocoa flavor. I enjoyed this! Frosting was more buttercream like with less cream cheese tang. I’d add more cream cheese if I were to make this frosting.
- Cake was rich and moist, frosting was thicker and sweeter but not much flavor complexity.
- Frosting is too sweet, like sugar icing–no flavor
Zoe Bakes: a moist, plush chocolate cake with a beautifully soft and flavorful cream cheese frosting
Our dark-horse contender, Zoe Bakes is the singular vegan cake in this batch of recipes! Her recipe (which is from Eileen Goudge’s Something Warm from the Oven) is an extremely simple recipe that uses no eggs and just water for additional liquid. (The protein/gluten in the flour react with the acid in the cocoa powder/lemon juice to mimic the structure usually lent by eggs). I paired Zoe’s red velvet birthday cake with this cream cheese frosting (for consistency with the other cakes), which uses the interesting addition of Lyle’s Golden Syrup and optional lemon extract (which I omitted).
In a happy turn of events, tasters LOVED this cake! The plush, moist texture reminded me of the chocolate cake bake off winner in the best way. I also loved the soft cream cheese frosting–I feel like the golden syrup gives a slight unique dimension to the frosting, and I loved the tiny amount of tang from the fresh lemon juice. My only complaint? To me, this is a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting! I think there’s actually too MUCH cocoa in this cake for it to taste like a traditional red velvet cake. But as one of the tasters pointed out, given how much people loved this cake, maybe this just means that we really want chocolate cake instead of red velvet cake. Overall, a very easy and tasty cake to make!
- Hell yes!! Gives me chocolate, gives me moistness, gives me decadence. Even the color was gorgeous. Bonus, the cream cheese frosting has enough body to hold up to the sweetness of cake
- Moist cake, unique flavor and color. Very chocolate forward. Smooth cream cheesy frosting
- High marks on the cake density and moisture; complex and interesting flavor. Frosting had an almost yogurt-like consistency – less airy and more creamy (which I liked)
- A very dark colored cake with a light crumb. Lovely texture but too chocolate forward for a red velvet. The cream cheese frosting was softer and had a lighter sweetness and tang compared to other recipes
- Oily cake which led to moisture, but not favorite flavor
Divas Can Cook: an irresistibly moist and plush cake with a cream cheese forward frosting
If you recall, Divas Can Cook took top honors in the yellow cake bake off, so I was thrilled to see the winning streak continue! As mentioned earlier, this recipe is somewhat similar to Bakearella, but the unique factor in this oil-based cake is the addition of hot coffee. Monique also offers two frosting options: a lighter cream cheese frosting, and what she calls her cheesecake frosting–designed to be extremely tangy and thicker in texture.
From the first bite, this was far and away my favorite of the bunch. Like Zoe Bakes, the crumb is plush and moist without being greasy. It also managed to have the most flavor of all the recipes in my opinion, even with just 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder (perhaps the coffee provided additional acid that made it more flavorful). The cheesecake frosting was VERY tangy, creamy and cream cheese forward, so it’s not surprising that most people viewed this as the ideal red velvet pairing. (Personally, I would opt for her lighter frosting next time). Overall an incredible cake that I would definitely make again!
- Damn, this cake is GOOD! Super moist, a rich ruby red color, and the cocoa is present and well balanced. The frosting isn’t too heavy and still has the sweetness and tang that cream cheese is well loved for. I’d still go lighter on the frosting to let the cake flavor come through! YUM
- Cake was incredibly moist and rich. Frosting was the right balance between creamy and airy, and was just the right level of sweet with hints of lemon. One of my favorites!
- Cake is very chocolatey-it actually has a taste. Very moist and loose crumb; good tangy cream cheese flavor and smooth consistency
- Not super sweet, tart cream cheese frosting which I enjoy and balances with the cake. Good color on the cake. Not too strong cocoa taste in cake. Good for red velvet lovers that don’t love chocolate.
- Really delicious flavors but frosting was a little too cream cheesy for me although the sour notes were really prevalent and appreciated. Really impressive.
- Erika’s picks: Divas Can Cook, African Bites
- Best moist cakes: Divas Can Cook, Zoe Bakes
- Easiest to make: Zoe Bakes, Sugar Geek Show
- Best finely-crumbed, velvet-textured cakes: African Bites, McCormick
- Most traditional red velvet: Divas Can Cook, Bakerella
- Most untraditional red velvet: Bravetart