Daring Bakers: Beet Red Velvet Cake

Beet Red Velvet CakeRuth from Makey-Cakey was our March 2013 Daring Bakers’ challenge host. She encouraged us all to get experimental in the kitchen and sneak some hidden veggies into our baking, with surprising and delicious results!

OK, here comes the FOURTH cake post this month! My goodness.

I’ve been mildly obsessed with red velvet cakes for the past little while – you know, the American Southern classic bright red cake spiked with cocoa powder and frosted with cream cheese frosting – only upon looking through several recipes, there was one ingredient that put me right off: red food colouring. We’re not just talking a few drops here – we’re talking a few tablespoons or ounces! I figured there had to be a way to make this cake without all the food colouring, so I started searching. I found a post with a recipe for a red wine velvet cake (yes I’ll be trying that soon!) and a really interesting history of the red velvet cake as we know it (ie, chock full of food colouring). Apparently, way back when, “velvet cakes” were called that because of their velvety texture, and red velvet cake would have been appreciated for that rather than for its colour. In this particular cake, the acidic buttermilk caused a chemical reaction with the small amount of cocoa powder in the batter, making the resulting cake a slightly reddish brown. As well, the cake was usually made with brown sugar, which at the time was known as “red” sugar. The bright red velvet cake we know today didn’t come about until the enterprising owner of a food colour-producing company decided to boost Depression-era sales by creating a recipe for red velvet cake that included two whole bottles of red food colouring.

Maybe not two-bottles-of-food-colouring red, but still pretty red.

In addition to the red wine velvet cake recipe, I also found a few suggestions of using puréed beets to get the red colour. However, this seemed to be kind of hit and miss, simply because the natural red colour of beets is much less predictable than, say, red dye number 40, and you have to carefully control the acid content of the batter to prevent it from turning purple or brown. Luckily, I came across a blogger who apparently had it figured out, so when I saw this month’s “baking with veggies” challenge, I knew exactly what I was going to make.

There are a few important ingredient notes to make here. Because the acidity of the batter is crucial, I would recommend following the recipe pretty exactly. You will need cultured buttermilk, rice wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, baking powder and soda, and NATURAL cocoa powder – NOT Dutch process. Dutch process cocoa has been alkalinized, which neutralizes its acidity and therefore is not good for this application. I had a heck of a time finding natural cocoa powder in the grocery store – apparently the extremely common Fry’s Cocoa Powder is Dutch process, although it’s not specifically labeled as such. I ended up finally using organic raw cocoa powder from the natural hippie store, because I figured if it was raw then it is probably as unprocessed as possible (ie, not Dutch process).

How do you like my cake stand? (aka a plate balanced on an upside down mug)

I followed a slightly modified method for the cake (the creaming method rather than the dump-and-blend food processor method) and I will admit that I was pretty anxious the whole time, waiting to see if the cake would a) taste too much like beets, and b) be purple or brown instead of red. After mixing the (very pretty) purpley-red batter, I was surprised to find that while I could discern a little bit of earthiness from the beets, the dominating flavours were vanilla, tangy buttermilk, and a slight chocolate hint. Not bad at all! Actually, pretty good, and oddly, the flavour reminded me of raspberry more than anything.

The cakes came out of the oven a deep burgundy colour rather than a bright red, but I’m pretty happy with both the colour and the flavour, especially considering some of the not-so-pretty beet cake results that I read about online. The texture of the cake is moist and dense and once baked, neither Nate nor I could taste a trace of beet. So I think we can put this one in the “success”column.

Now, all that was left was the cream cheese frosting. As I’ve mentioned before I’m not a fan of frostings made with icing sugar, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to once again tackle my nemesis: cream cheese Swiss meringue buttercream. This time, I followed a new method and IT TOTALLY WORKED! 😀 Click here for the recipe. The only problem was that I didn’t have quite enough frosting to cover the outside of the cake properly, so I mixed up a white chocolate-cream cheese ganache to pour over the cake. It’s pretty decadent, but man-oh-man is it good. Nate dubbed this his favorite icing yet.

Ruth, thank you for the opportunity to make this cake! Check out the Daring Kitchen for some more pretty awesome veggie-filled baked goods 🙂

Beet Red Velvet Cake

Cake adapted from Sophistimom and this comment. Makes one 6″ round layer cake or 12 cupcakes. Double the recipe for an 8″ or 9″ layer cake.

Beet Purée:

Scrub 2 medium beets and place them in a roasting pan with 1/2″ of water. Place a piece of parchment paper on top, then cover with aluminum foil and seal. Roast the beets in a 400˚F oven for 60 – 90 minutes, until they are very tender. Allow the beets to cool completely, then peel and cut into chunks. Purée in a food processor until they are as smooth as possible, making sure you scrape down the sides and bottom of the processor bowl frequently. This should yield about 3/4 cups of beet purée for the cake recipe below.

Red Velvet Cake Batter:

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Butter two 6″ round cake pans, then line the bottoms with parchment paper and butter the paper. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together until very light and fluffy:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated white sugar

One at a time, beat in:

2 eggs, at room temperature


3/4 cup beet purée

3/4 tsp vanilla extract

Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the dry ingredients:

1 1/4 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

2 tbsp natural cocoa powder (NOT Dutch process)

In a liquid measuring cup, combine:

1/2 cup cultured buttermilk

1 1/2 tsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Add the dry and wet ingredients alternately to the beet mixture, making three additions of dry and two additions of wet (starting and ending with dry). Mix gently to incorporate, scraping down the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and wrap each one in a strip of damp towel to help insulate and bake it evenly. Bake the cakes in the preheated 350˚F oven for 35 – 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few point crumbs sticking to it (start checking after about 25 minutes – mine were still quite jiggly in the middle). Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cakes onto a rack, and cool completely.

When cool, split the cakes in half horizontally and frost with Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting. Use about 2/3 of the batch to fill between the 4 layers, then frost the top and sides with the remaining buttercream (you might need to chill the whole thing after stacking/filling the layers if the frosting gets very soft).

Put the cake in the fridge to chill while you make the White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Ganache:

In a small saucepan, heat until just boiling:

5 tbsp half and half cream

2 tbsp cream cheese

1 tsp butter

Pour the hot mixture over 5 oz chopped white chocolate and let it sit for a minute to melt, then stir until smooth. Stir in a pinch of salt and let it cool until thick enough to spread.

Pour the ganache over the chilled cake and spread it gently down over the top and sides of the cake (don’t be like me – put the cake on the serving platter AFTER you cover it in ganache). Chill again to set, then take out of the fridge about an hour before serving.


  1. says

    Hi Korena!
    I learned so much from your post! I had never read about the real story behind the red velvet cake but suspected it had something to do with a food color-producing company.
    I love the color of your cake, it looks absolutely gorgeous! Hats off to you!!

  2. says

    Korena, that is simply *stunning*. So beautiful! I’ll definitely be checking back for the Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting recipe! It sounds delicious! 🙂

  3. says

    Love this recipe! It’s been added to my ‘bake when I have more time’ list. 😉
    When you mentioned icing the cake ON the serving plate, I was reminded of how my Mum used to do this: she would put pieces of waxed paper around the plate, under the cake (not to the centre of the plate, just enough to go under the cake about three inches or so). After the cake was iced and the icing had set, she would carefully pull the waxed paper pieces out from under the cake. This way, she never had any drips or drops to clean up! ~ Linne

  4. makeycakey says

    This looks fantastic – so elegant, but fun with the deep red colour – and it sounds delicious too! Thanks so much for taking part this month 🙂
    PS – love the ‘cake stand’ – genius!

  5. says

    I am so impressed with this.. Definitely saving the recipe for later. I bake for people a lot, but I hate making red velvet because of all the dye. Weirds me out. Glad to find a successful recipe! Also, cream cheese swiss meringue is completely new to me and I eagerly away your post on it 🙂

  6. wendyjv says

    Yours was the most amazing in the whole DB thing, IMHO! (BTW, I didn’t see a photo of this on the DB website.) Well done! 🙂

  7. says

    Girlfriend, that is awesome. I didn’t know about the history of the red velvet cake (always having avoided it, due to all that food coloring – who knew that was all a marketing ploy?? Crazy!), but this is one I DEFINITELY want to try. And I am absolutely coming back to read about that cream cheese Swiss meringue frosting – it looks amazing and I can’t wait to try it!!

  8. says

    So YOU made this cake !! Oh my god, when I was going through all the posts on the Darinkg Bakers forum, your picture really caught my eyes. What you did is soooo amazing! Congratulations !

  9. says

    I absolutely love all your cake adventures and this beautiful tall cake Korena; gosh love the colour too. That frosting sounds finger licking good as well. Some DB challenges are so creative and fun; this one certainly was.

  10. says

    what a cake!!
    you truly are an amazing pastry chef. and that frosting looks yummy and so firm, will use your dedicated post as a reference. Also, so great to use beets to give a natural red color! love natural tricks like these.

  11. says

    Incredible! I avoid red velvet cake because of the fake coloring, but I’d dive right into this cake with a fork! I’d love to try the red wine version, too. Bookmarking this right away – frosting recipe too! It looks spectacular.

  12. says

    Dang..I missed another challenge and would have had the perfect recipe for it! I swore ‘d make it this time 🙁 Anyway..your beet cake is stunning..and no one would ever know there was beets in there..it looks just like a simple, luscious red velvet cake. I just started liking beets last year. Boy, have I missed out!

  13. says

    What can I say? Your cake is gorgeous! I would much rather have it look like that using natural ingredients than unnaturally bright red any day. I have yet to make a red velvet cake partly because of the food coloring issue. (And I love your ingenious cake platter!) Nice job on the challenge!

  14. says

    Wow, Korena — your red beetroot cake is glorious! I love the decoration – such beautiful, clean lines. Nice bit of cake stand ingenuity as well. Great tip. 🙂

  15. says

    Really enjoyed that article on the history. We miss out on so much but not researching food’s background. What a pity the transition towards these so-obviously-artificial food stainers. Curious.. what does a couple do with a cake this huge? Tell me you threw a party..

    • says

      Ha, I wish I could say we threw a party! This was just a little guy, only a 6 inch round cake… and luckily it kept pretty well in the fridge so we just had a piece a day for a few days and then it was gone…

  16. says

    Awesome job!! I have recently been loving the idea of using natural food coloring (I just tend to shy away from it all together). Last year I made a beet chocolate cake and used beets in my cream cheese frosting and it turned hot pink! It was awesome. Definitely going to try this cake!

  17. Sandy says

    Red velvet cake is stunning. However, I just can’t imagine me swallowing one of those bright-red red velvet cake knowing that colour comes from a bottle of red food colour. I have been wondering there must be a way to make that from nature ingredients and here I found ur great recipe. Thank u so much, I must try it once I can find nature cocoa powder.

  18. says

    Just made this. And it’s brilliant. Came out lovely. And I love that it’s not too overtly sweet. I used regular cocoa and I seemed to think that worked well. Tue best thing is that it’s organic. I used homemade butter and buttermilk. Thank you so much.

  19. says

    Thank you for posting the recipe, it’s surprisingly hard to find a red velvet cake without red food dye! Beautiful photography by the way, on all your recipes =)

    • says

      Hi Vaishali, it probably had something to do with the acidity of the batter – because you are working with natural pigments rather than food dye, there’s no *real* guarantee about the colour, unfortunately! I don’t know if I can help much, but you could check the comments on the original post on Sophistimom (which I linked to) – there might be some suggestions or help there!

  20. says

    Hi Korena! I just made this cake and it came out amazing. Thank you thank you thank you!!! It’s for a friend’s birthday and she really loves red velvet cake with beets so I wanted to make it for her but I’d never made it before so I was nervous. Your recipe was perfect, straightforward with useful pictures and all the necessary details. I just flipped the cake onto the rack and peeled off the parchment and it was just perfect! I literally jumped for joy. I love you! I love your blog! Thank you!!

  21. Kim Eun-hwa says

    Great cake, me and the lady are totally gonna make it. We even bought beets.

    That said, you misspelled ‘Korean’ in the name of your site. As a Korean American, I find this offensive.

    • says

      I hope the cake turns out well for you! Please let me know how it goes.

      That said, this is probably the oddest comment I have ever received: my name is Korena, there is no misspelling, and my site has nothing to do with anyone’s nationality other than perhaps my own, which is Canadian.

  22. Abigail says

    Hi Korena, could you please advise if i can using self-rising four instead of all-purpose flour? If yes, how much (cup/g)should i add to the recipe? thanks

    • says

      Hi Abigail, I suspect that you could just use an equal amount of self-raising flour in place of the all purpose flour and omit the salt and baking powder (but still add the baking soda). However I have never used self-raising flour in this recipe so can’t know for sure… If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

  23. Kelly says

    Hello. I live in Colorado and will need to adapt this recipe to high altitude. I am concerned because it seems that this recipe needs to be followed very carefully due to the chemistry involved. Do you have any ideas for me? Should I just follow the typical advise for modifying for high elevations? Thank you!

    • Korena in the Kitchen says

      Hi Kelly, unfortunately I have no experience with baking at high altitude, but I *think* the key to the red colour in this cake is in the acidity of the buttermilk, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, and natural cocoa powder, so if you need to adjust leavening or add more flour or whatever then I suspect it should still come out fairly red. I just read something that said acidity can be helpful in baking cakes at high altitude (it helps them set faster in the oven) so maybe this recipe will be a good candidate in that regard? Sorry I don’t have any concrete advise. Please let me know how it goes!!

      • Kelly says

        Thank you so much for your reply. I have a juicer and thought I could just juice the beats instead of having a puree. Do you see a problem with this? Also, I do not have a food processor, do you think just a regular electric beater would work?

        Thank you for your help!

        • Korena in the Kitchen says

          Beet juice would probably be fine, just keep in mind that it might change the consistency of the batter (ie, might make it thinner than using a puree). Rather than replacing the 3/4 cup puree with an equal amount of juice, I would use whatever juice comes out of 2 medium beets (I suspect that adding 3/4 cup of liquid to the batter would not be good). A regular electric beater will definitely work for making the batter. Keep me posted on your results!

  24. Denise Anderson says

    Hi! This cake looks delicious and what makes it even better is that it uses beets instead of the horrible red food coloring. I would love to try this today but I don’t have buttermilk. we live in the country and we’re snowed in. can I use milk/ vinegar “buttermilk”?

    • Korena in the Kitchen says

      Hi Denise – yep, the milk + vinegar trick should work fine. I hope you like the cake! Nothing like baking on a snow day 🙂

  25. jana says

    Just beautiful! Have you ever tried the original red velvet icing called “ermine” icing? It is made with cooked milk and flour, butter and granulated sugar, and is simply amazing.

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