Red Velvet Cake with Ermine Icing

Okay so here’s the thing about red velvet… I don’t get it.

I used to work at a cupcake shop for a while, and our red velvet cupcakes were probably the best selling item on the menu. People went nuts for those cupcakes. Every day just as many red velvet cupcakes were baked as were all the other flavors combined, and on most days the red velvets were sold out before anything else. I thought most of the cupcakes there were phenomenal, but the red velvet was probably my least favorite. It was kind of bland, with no distinct flavor beside the cream cheese icing swirled on top. Not enough vanilla to be vanilla cake, so little cocoa flavor that I’m not convinced any was actually used. There were plenty of tastier and more interesting flavors to choose from, and I could never figure out why people always went for the red velvets. Are people really just into red velvet because it’s red? There has to be more to it than just the color right?

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

Curiosity got the best of me and I started doing some digging on the internet. It turns out that the history of red velvet, the roots of it’s popularity and the original recipe, are pretty tough to nail down. There are almost as many stories about the origins of red velvet as there are recipes for “real” red velvet. “Real” red velvet means very different things to different people.

I’d always heard that red velvet cake originally turned “red” because of a chemical reaction between acid in buttermilk or vinegar and natural cocoa powder. This wouldn’t actually turn a cake RED, but it would, supposedly, produce a very slight reddish hue in a cocoa cake. The same is supposed to be true of the origins of devil’s food cake, but with a lot more cocoa. This sounded believable-ish to me, so in my mind the real “original” red velvet cake was supposed to be deep reddish brown, with a slight cocoa flavor, and of course, topped with cream cheese icing.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

Once I started digging though, I started running into some problems. First there were the various origin stories. Some people think the cake was invented in Canada by the wife of a wealthy department store president, others convinced that this quintessential southern cake was invented in the south, and others still are certain that it was invented at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Then there were the recipes. Everyone believes that their red velvet recipe is the one true way it should be done. Google “real red velvet” and you’re going to come up with some wildly varied recipes. There are also a lot of “rules” about red velvet out there, many of them conflicting with the rules of the next guy. Most of the rules dictate something about the color, flavor, or icing of this iconic cake.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

According to the internets, the color of red velvet should always come from artificial color. If you don’t pour in the red food color, it’s not red velvet. Also, red velvet cake should never contain artificial color. If you’re using red food color, you’re doing it wrong. The color should come from cocoa powder and buttermilk, or vinegar, or both. The truth is that the red in red velvet cake needs a boost, but not from food color. Along with the cocoa and acid reaction, an additional boost of red should come from red wine. Actually it should come from beet juice.

Red velvet cake should have a very specific flavor profile that should not be messed with. It seems that red velvet cake is supposed to be a mildly chocolatey cocoa cake, since the red color comes mostly from natural cocoa’s reaction with acidic ingredients. Also, red velvet cake should have only a very slight, almost indistinguishable, cocoa flavor, since the color of this cake should be the star and too much cocoa would muddy the color. At the same time, recipes for red velvet cake should never contain any cocoa powder. Red velvet cake is a bright red buttermilk cake and cocoa would ruin both the color and flavor of this beloved cake.

The one thing I thought everyone agreed on was the icing. Everyone knows that red velvet cake calls for tangy cream cheese icing, always. Well, yeah. It turns out that some people think that the OG icing for red velvet was ermine icing, also known as butter roux icing, or boiled milk icing.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

Once I started weeding through the conflicting stories and varied rules and recipes, I started to uncover some facts. It seems that the name most likely evolved as the public’s tastes in sweets were changing at the turn of the last century. At first the name was mostly symbolic and never really had anything to do with the color of the cake.

In the late 1800s what we know as brown sugar used to be commonly known as red sugar. Any cake that used finely ground cake flour and had a fine crumb was referred to as a “Velvet” cake. So, at that time any cake with “red sugar” and fine cake flour could be referred to as a red velvet, but no one was really going crazy for red velvet yet, and there is little evidence of any printed recipes for anything like what we have today. At that time natural cocoa was the most commonly available cocoa on the market. Unlike today’s more common dutch process cocoa, the PH of natural cocoa does cause a chemical reaction with acid causing a very slight reddish hue. Devil’s food cake made with natural cocoa would have a slight reddish hue to the deep dark chocolate cake, and that is most likely the origin of that name. Red velvet cake is devil’s food’s less chocolatey cousin, but again, the cake was never really RED. At the time, these cocoa cakes were often referred to as “mahogany cakes”.

It wasn’t until the depression that red velvet cake turned truly red. Food additive and extract companies were struggling at the time because most Americans were cutting back on such luxury items. As a way to boost sales, the Adams Extract Company started marketing their food coloring and flavorings by giving out recipes for a truly red red velvet cake, complete with color photo, in grocery stores. That was when red velvet started taking off, especially in the south. The popularity waxed and waned for generations, and then there was the groom’s cake in Steel Magnolias. Boom. Everyone knew and wanted red velvet. And then a decade or so later, the cupcakes shops started popping up and pushing the red velvet on us.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

I’m no historian, and I don’t claim to know that any of what I’ve read is the absolute truth, but this seems like the most likely story. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to dig up the depression era recipe that made red velvet the popular cake that it is today. So, the “real” recipe still seems to be something of a mystery, but based on the history I think that natural cocoa is as important to the recipe as the red food color.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

Another point of contention is the icing. I’d always heard, and believed, that cream cheese was king when it came to red velvet cakes, and I was shocked to find out that this wasn’t always so. Cream cheese icing wasn’t really common with red velvet until the mid-twentieth century. Before that the traditional topping for red velvet was a creamy and light icing made by cooking milk and flour together, and whipping into creamed sugar and butter. It can be called Butter Roux frosting or Ermine frosting. In the south this icing was very popular because it’s whipped texture is similar to whipped cream, but it’s much more heat stable and keeps better.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

When I set out to bake my first red velvet cake, I knew I had plenty of recipes to choose from but had to decide which one would produce the cake that I wanted to end up with. I kept going back to natural cocoa and buttermilk but decided that adding red color was just fine with me. So, I checked in with my favorite food blog, Smitten Kitchen, and guess what, she had a recipe that sounded like exactly what I was looking for. I also decided I wanted to ditch the cream cheese icing and go back to the traditional ermine icing.

This recipe calls for a LOT of red food color. At first I thought it might be a typo. It’s not. Since there is more cocoa in this recipe than most, a lot of food color is needed to bring the red forward over the brown. Well. This cake is red alright. The batter before baking is literally beet red. It gets a bit darker in the oven, but even still, the finished cake is a deep dark RED. Pretty much the color you’d see if you sliced into an armadillo. Just sayin’.

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

As a former red velvet naysayer, I have to admit that this cake is pretty amazing. The texture is perfect, super moist, with a very delicate light & fluffy crumb from the cake flour. You can definitely taste the cocoa, even though it doesn’t really scream chocolate. It also has a really pleasant delicate tang from the buttermilk and vinegar, which I think would be completely lost if I’d gone with the modern traditional cream cheese icing instead of the ermine. I totally love this icing, btw. It’s much easier to make than a meringue buttercream, but has a very similar stability, mouth feel and texture. It is easy to work with, frosts smoothly and tastes whipped, creamy, light and just sweet enough.

To be perfectly honest, if I’m going to make a cocoa cake I’d like even more chocolate flavor, and even though it’s kind of fun, the amount of food color that goes into this recipe makes me ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. If I’m baking a cake for me, I think I’d rather go for a devil’s food cake, which I think would be delicious (and beautiful) with this same icing. But for special occasions, or for people who love red velvet, this cake is a force to be reckoned with. Perfectly moist & fluffy, with just enough cocoa and buttermilk, and red red RED!

red velvet cake with ermine icing | Brooklyn Homemaker

Red Velvet Cake

  • Servings: makes one 3 layer 8 inch cake, feeds 12-16ish
  • Print
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 tablespoons butter
3 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened natural cocoa (not Dutch process)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups peanut or canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring (or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 tablespoons of water)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place teaspoon of butter in each of 3 round 8-inch layer cake pans and place pans in oven for a few minutes until butter melts. Remove pans from oven, brush interior bottom and sides of each with butter and line bottoms with parchment.

Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring, being careful it doesn’t splash. Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely, and level layers with a cake leveler or sharp bread knife. Fill and crumb coat with ermine icing, and place in refrigerator for 30 minutes or more. Then ice and decorate as desired with remaining icing.

Ermine Icing
adapted from Tasty Kitchen 

7  tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2  teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup Granulated Sugar

In a small saucepan, whisk flour into milk and heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. You want it to be very thick, almost like brownie batter. Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature. It must be completely cool before you use it in the next step. Stir in vanilla.

While the mixture is cooling, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. You don’t want any sugar graininess left. Then add the completely cooled milk/flour/vanilla mixture and beat the living daylights out of it. If it looks separated, you haven’t beaten it enough! Beat it until it all combines and resembles whipped cream.

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54 comments

  1. We were out to dinner the other night with the cousins and remarked on the awesome information on red velvet cake. Then it occurred to us…what about chocolate cake? We love chocolate cake. Awesome blog!

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    1. I’m thinking about doing a Devil’s Food Cake post sometime soon. I love chocolate cake too- and Devil’s Food has a similar history to Red Velvet and also uses natural cocoa rather than dutch process.

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  2. Wow, this was an awesome post! I too have always wondered what the fuss was about red velvet, and couldn’t quite figure out the flavor – is it chocolate, is it vanilla, etc. Thank you very much for clearing up my confusion! Your cake is beautiful, too. I love the red decorations on the edges!

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      1. Oh why thank you! That means a lot to me – I’m a beginner, and still trying to learn as much as I can about photography and blogging! Looking forward to more of your delicious recipes :)

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  3. Number one, this cake looks gorgeous! Number two, I have always been so confused about the obsession people have with red velvet cake. I teased my friend’s husband because he said it was his favorite cake and I said red velvet is like a sexy woman without a lot of substance. It’s kind of a weak chocolate cake. That being said, I will totally jam on some red velvet cake if it’s offered to me.

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    1. Thank you!!!
      It’s funny, I never got it either, but now that I’ve tried it with the ermine icing I think it finally makes sense. It still wouldn’t be my first choice, but if it’s done right the subtle tang of the buttermilk and light cocoa flavors actually work really nicely together. In my opinion, cream cheese icing is too bold for the delicate subtle flavors of a good red velvet.

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      1. I’ll have to give that style of frosting another shot. I screwed it up about 3 times when I first tried my hand at cakes 4 or 5 years ago and had since written it off as “impossible.” But if you say it can be done, I will have to try again!

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  4. My boss was talking about how someone had made him a red velvet cake with ermine frosting years ago and how he wished he could have it again. I found your recipe, made it for him and he LOVED it!! Thanks so much for the recipe and easy to follow directions. (loved the line about beating the daylights out of the frosting!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is just so darn gorgeous I do not know what to say. Just fantastic looking and the story I so enjoyed. Every time I think I know a thing or two…I learn a thing or two more. Very lovely post and recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Tux,
    I love this icing because of its beautiful taste,
    but I’ve had problem in adding color to it (it goes separated :( ) do you have any idea/experience with dying this butter cream?
    thanks,
    Ziba

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry Ziba, I don’t! I’ve never tried coloring this type of icing before.
      Can I ask what kind of food color you’re using? Does the color separate or is it causing the icing itself to separate?
      If it’s causing the icing itself to separate, you might just need to use a thicker “gel” color, but if the color isn’t taking to the icing you might want to try an oil-based candy color instead.
      I hope that helps- and if you solve the problem let me know so I’ll know for the future!

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      1. I used americolor gel coloring, and it makes the icing to separate, and as it gets colder (ie. after I put my cake in the fridge) it goes even worse

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m really sorry! The only other thing I can thing to suggest is to use candy color. Since candy color is oil based, it might mix into the butter better and keep everything stable. I’d try mixing the candy color into the butter before you add the cooked milk. I can’t say for sure that it’ll work- but I think it probably should.
        Let me know if you’re able to give it a try- and how it goes.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, I absolutely love this recipe, i adapted it to make cupcakes. However, now I have to make this for a birthday party that needs to feed around 40 people. I have 1 10′ inch pan and 1 8″ inch pan. Would I be able to divide the batter between both those pans and get a decent size cake?? I know i will have to make two layers of each of those sizes to get the amount to feed those many people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! Im so glad you love the recipe!
      I think that since the recipe is meant to be divided between 3x 8″ pans you could try to do it in an 8″ and a 10″ and just add a little extra batter to each. Youll likely need to adjust the baking time because the layers will be thicker, and youll need to be careful not to fill the pans too close to the top so they dont overflow, but i think the recipe is moist enough that the layers shouldnt dry out if done this way. Ive never tried this though so i cant say for sure. If it seems like too much batter for each pan you could always reserve a little and make a couple cupcakes on the side!
      To get two layers of each youll need to double the recipe, but since you only have one of each pan i’d suggest you make the recipe twice instead of doubling it all at once and having the extra batter sitting around while the first cakes bake. Good luck! I hope it works out well- let me know!

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  8. This year, I made your Red Velvet Cake as part of our Thanksgiving Dessert Table to ring in the Holiday Season. I made mine in 4 layers with double frosting to pipe up the sides and around the top. It was a huge hit!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My grandma is from New Orleans and every year when we would visit her she made my dad his absolute favorite cake, red velvet with butter roux icing. I absolutely abhor any red velvet cake topped with cream cheese icing. I think it’s the most putrid, disgusting combination ever. Butter roux (or ermine, I’ve never heard it called that!) is the ONLY way to go. Thank you for this delicious recipe and for giving me a fantastic tastebud throw back to my childhood!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Tux, you’ve recreated my Nana’s red velvet recipe! Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, this was the birthday cake she would prepare for my cousins and I. Her cake had a crumbly texture and great depth of flavor; cocoa, buttermilk, and red food dye were all required. Childhood friends were floored when this appeared at a party because no one had heard of red velvet cake before. It felt like my family secret.

    Around the time that she passed away, red velvet began to make a reappearance. Except now, it was floury, dense and covered in cream cheese frosting. I tried every version but all of them fell short and I began to forget why I had ever loved red velvet cake. Then a couple of years ago I was given her original recipe and once again was able to enjoy “my” red velvet cake. Thank you for resurfacing some of those lost elements to share with everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Erin! This comment is so sweet and made me so happy I had to stop in the middle of breakfast yesterday and make my husband read it too.
      I am so so pleased that people are finally getting away from that floury flavorless cream cheese covered red velvet and discovering how good it can truly be!
      Have a great day, you certainly made mine!

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    1. Hi Deena,

      I know it seems like a lot, but I promise that it makes for a really moist and delicious cake. I adapted this recipe (just barely) from Smitten Kitchen and her recipe calls for the same amount of oil. I made this recipe again recently (adapted as cupcakes) and everyone raved about it.
      If you wanted to, you could substitute 1 cup of butter and 1 cup of oil for a more buttery flavor, but I wouldn’t go all butter or the cake could might turn out a bit dry.

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  11. Man, I wish I had found this recipe 3 days ago! I decided for my husbands birthday I was going to attempt my first red velvet cake. It came out OK but I am not thrilled with it. It tastes very oily. I don’t know it just underwhelmed me. I did a lot of reading and search for the history of this cake and reading your blog after writing my own experience is almost identical! Glad to see I wasn’t the only one stumped with this cake of the past. Great blog. I definitely will be following!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Can this icing be made a couple days ahead of putting it on the cake? I’m baking a red velvet cake (2 each of 6″, 9″, and 12″ layers) for my granddaughter’s wedding which will be a 7 hr. drive from my home. Can I make the icing on Wednesday and transport it to icing the cake on Thursday?

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    1. Hi Aundry!
      Thanks for your comment.
      I’ve not tried this method before so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.
      I’d say for best results make the icing and put in a container with a tight fitting lid. Refrigerate until the day you plan to use, then bring to room temperature a few hours before you want to use it so it’s nice and spreadable.
      I hope it works out! Please let me know how it goes so I’ll know for future readers!!!

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      1. Did not work well! When I took it out of the fridge and it warmed up a little, it looked like clabbered milk. I got out my mixer and beat it some more and it got a lot better but not better enough to serve at a wedding. Any suggestions as to what icing I can make and store it for a day before I use it?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m so sorry to hear this Aundry! Can I ask how you warmed it up? Just leaving out on the counter or did you try to heat it? Just wondering for future reference!
        Anyway- I’m sorry I just now saw your response, if it’s not too late I’d recommend trying a swiss meringue buttercream. I recently made a wedding cake with my mother for a family member, and that’s what we used. We didn’t use it in exactly the way you plan to though. We made it and iced the individual tiers of the cake ahead, then refrigerated them, transported, assembled, and then let the whole cake come to room temp. The icing didn’t suffer at all but we didn’t try warming back up and spreading at all.
        I have heard that it’s supposed to be very stable and easy to work with though so I think that’d be your best bet. The recipe we used was from a cookbook but there are a ton of them online if you google Swiss Meringue Buttercream.
        The egg whites get heated to prevent any issues with food borne illness, but if you’re worried you can buy pasteurized egg whites in a carton at the grocery store and use those instead!
        I hope that helps!

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  13. I just left it on the counter to warm up. I will definitely research the Swiss Meringue Buttercream. That sounds like I may be able to ice the cake layers and put them together at the destination. I’ll do some experimenting with that. Thanks for your help.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. So I made this recipe yesterday, and it was fantastic. I accidentally forgot the vanilla in the batter, but that was not a big deal. As for the frosting, it will be my new favorite. I did want the cream cheese taste, so I added one 8oz package to the recipe above, bet the hell out of it, and it was perfect….nice and fluffy!

    As for this vs the Swiss Meringue Buttercream, I made a cake last week with the SMB, and even though it was delicious, it was really not that easy to work with to frost as large a cake as I did. I will be doing the Ermine frosting in the future.

    Thanks for the great recipe!

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