What Is Red Velvet Cake Flavor? Is It Just Chocolate?

Mary and Brenda Maher

By Brenda & Mary

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Red velvet cake is undoubtedly a classic favorite; the vibrant red hue and smooth, velvety texture make it a real head-turner. It also boasts a subtle cocoa taste that dances with a gentle tanginess from the buttermilk, all perfectly sweetened! No wonder this cake has been a top seller in my bakery for decades.

Red Velvet Cake

But hey, if you’re just getting started, the flavor of red velvet cakes might still feel like a mystery. No worries; I’ll unravel all its delicious secrets for you, one by one.

What Is Red Velvet Cake?

Red velvet cake is a Southern American delight that blends a vanilla cake with a striking red hue from food coloring, mixed with several tablespoons of cocoa powder. Its cake batter gets a tangy kick from buttermilk and white vinegar, perfectly offsetting the sweetness of the classic cream butter-cheese frosting

And what makes it special is the cake’s super fine, tender crumb that just melts in our mouth!

A Peek Into The Old Days

The iconic cake emerged during the Victorian era when cake flour was not yet a thing; back then, to soften cake textures, people only used vinegar. 

The treat would take a reddish-brown tint when mixed with non-Dutch cocoa powder. But not until the 20th century did recipes explicitly named “red velvet cake” surfaced. Southerners later amped it up by adding buttermilk for that extra tang.

History of Red Velvet Cake

Later on, during World War II, the cocoa powder formula changed and lost its red tint when mixed with acids. To maintain the red color, folks turned to reduced beet juices. A dye company, Adams Extract, made it a hit by popularizing their red food dyes through a published velvet cupcake recipe.

In those years, this cake often sported a French-origin roux-style buttercream, a total delight to make yet quite time-consuming. Then came cream cheese frostings, which were much easier to whip up and, therefore, eventually became the standard topping we all know today.

What Do I Use It For?

This cake easily steals the show with its lively color and elegant vibe at any of my birthday bash or social events. And during Christmas or Valentine’s Day gatherings, that vibrant red hue brings in an extra festive charm that easily catches everyone’s eye. 

Sometimes, my husband also surprises me by bringing home a velvet cake to mark our anniversaries – a little tradition that adds more sweetness to our memorable moments!

What Flavor Is Red Velvet Cake?

Red velvet cakes have a subtle cocoa taste mingled with a hint of tanginess. And let’s talk about our real star here, the creamy, sweet cream cheese frosting,  whose velvety mouthfeel definitely takes center stage!

And sometimes, it’s not just about the tangy flavor. This cake also enjoys a classic texture that’s oh-so-soft, smooth, and tender, paired perfectly with the fluffy icing at the very top.

What Makes Red Velvet Cake Red

Back then, cocoa and buttermilk (or sometimes buttermilk substitutes) were the dynamic duo. The acidity in buttermilk danced with cocoa’s natural anthocyanins, yielding that reddish-brown tint. This blend was the OG secret to the cake’s iconic hue, sans any artificial coloring.

Red velvet cake batter

However, there’s a slight twist to the tale today. Red food coloring is now the go-to option in my bakery for that crimson pop, especially in commercial cakes or velvet recipes chasing a bolder red shade.

And cocoa powder also plays a role; different types and processes impact the final color outcome! Dutch-processed cocoa, for instance, brings a darker, much richer red to the table compared to natural cocoa versions.

Is Red Velvet Cake Chocolate?

No, and let me tell you why!

The key difference between red velvet and chocolate is their flavor profiles. Traditional chocolate cake rocks a rich cocoa taste from chocolate chips, melted chocolate, and cocoa powder. Red velvet also has a bit of cocoa powder for a subtle chocolate taste, but thanks to buttermilk and vinegar, you can spot a tart tang that sets it apart.

And wait, there’s more than taste! Let’s talk texture. 

Chocolate cakes, thick and moist, are like the cool kids at the flavor party. Meanwhile, red velvet boasts a soft, tender hug you didn’t know you needed. The magical combo of buttermilk and vinegar in red velvet gives it quite a feathery texture, setting it in a league of its own compared to the much denser chocolate cake. 

How to Make A Red Velvet Cake – My Secret!

Let’s break down the secrets behind my best red velvet cake. 

  • I usually start by whisking together the dry ingredients – the cake flour and just enough unsweetened cocoa powder – to give it a hint of chocolatey goodness without taking over the show.
  • Now, here’s the kicker: unsalted butter and oil! Red velvet must have that signature buttery taste, but we also need a soft, moist texture, so I mix oil and melted butter to get the best of both worlds! Trust me, this combo is key to that bakery-quality texture.
  • Ah, buttermilk. This sweet gem is the magic touch. It’s creamy, it’s tangy, and boy, does it make things moist. You should not skip this if you want that authentic red velvet flavor. Plus, it will team up with baking soda/powder to ensure the entire cake rises perfectly.

Long story short: blend the dry and wet ingredients, then add some tangy buttermilk to the mix. It’s the winning recipe for a cake that’s sure to steal the spotlight!

Now, let’s discuss our big question: the food colorings in red velvet cakes. 

If you’re going for that classic red vibe like me, gel food coloring is your pal. Since it’s super concentrated, you won’t need loads of it. But what if you prefer a more organic touch? Then, beet powder should be your go-to, adding a subtle hue without any artificial stuff. 

For those who are not even keen on coloring, just skip it! Trust me, your fluffier cake will still taste just as delightful, with a lovely cocoa shade to boot.

What Is The Best Cocoa for Red Velvet Cake?

Natural cocoa powder totally rocks for velvet cakes for three big reasons:

  • Its higher acidity joins forces with the buttermilk and baking soda, resulting in that soft, almost melt-in-your-mouth texture we all love in a cake layer.
  • Natural cocoa powder is lighter in color, which gives a more vibrant red hue to your red velvet cake. 
  • And the best part is that it packs the richest chocolatey flavor possible since it undergoes less processing than other powder versions. Now, that’s what I call a win-win situation! 


What makes red velvet cake different isn’t just the stunning red color; it’s the irresistibly creamy flavor that makes it a party favorite! 

The baking and coloring process is quite straightforward, even if you’re just starting. But for more advice or support, feel free to reach out!

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Mary and Brenda Maher

Mary & Brenda Maher

Mary & Brenda Maher, are the founders of Cake Girls, a Chicago-based online baking shop specializing in cake supplies, party decor, and DIY cake tutorials. They are known for their elaborate and artistic cake creations, which have been featured on the Food Network Challenge and in a reality show, Amazing Wedding Cakes.

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