An All-Natural Red Velvet Cake That's Truly Red

February  5, 2016

Red velvet is a classic cake, flavored with just a hint of cocoa powder, that has a deep red crumb contrasted with fluffy white icing. The early versions of the cake weren’t quite as technicolor as the ones we see today, but in the 1940s, the Adams Extract company saw an opportunity to sell some food coloring and reimagined the cake with a hefty dose of their product. It was a huge hit.

Now, while I love the idea of red velvet, ingesting that much Red 40 isn’t quite as appealing, so for this Valentine’s (or Galentine’s) Day, I set out to make an all-natural red cake, using red beets.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Casual research indicated that the batter needed to be acidic to hold the color, so I pulled out my favorite red velvet recipe from my bakery days. In addition to buttermilk and vinegar (which I figured would provide sufficient acid), it calls for an entire 1-ounce bottle of red food coloring—yikes! I added some cooked beet purée, made a few swaps to account for the extra liquid it contains, and crossed my fingers.

The batter looked rosy and beautiful, and I had high hopes. But, while what came out of the oven tasted great, the color left a lot to be desired...

Not the color I was going for. Photo by Yossy Arefi

I went back to the drawing board and tried a couple of more recipes with beet powder and beet purée without much luck. After a bit more research and a very helpful social media S.O.S. (see below), I learned that even though my batter had just a hint of cocoa and some acidic ingredients, those things alone weren’t enough to make a truly red cake.

Many, many folks chimed in with advice, and here are the top tips that helped make my red velvet truly red:

  1. For this recipe, fresh beet purée is the key to the color. Cooked beets were easier to purée but oxidized in the cooked batter and turned brown.
  2. The batter must be very acidic to prevent the beets from oxidizing. That means no baking soda and lots of acidic ingredients like buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, and, for a little extra acidic punch, some cream of tartar.
  3. Just a touch of natural cocoa powder does the trick—too much and the cake looks too chocolatey. Dutch process cocoa is also a no-go for the same reason.

The finished cake has a slight earthy flavor from the beets, but it's barely noticeable—especially with a healthy swipe of cream cheese frosting.

To make the cake, preheat oven to 350º F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Butter two 8-inch cake pans and line them with parchment paper. Butter the paper too, then dust the pans with flour.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Add the beet purée, buttermilk, vinegar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract to a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until very smooth.

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Sift the cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt together in a bowl. Beat the sugar, oil, and butter together in a large bowl until creamy, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition.

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Top Comment:
“like I said absolutely fluffy, tender and a very beet tasting with a hint of cocoa flavor which we love. Just wanted the red color. ”
— Susan L.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and beet mixture to bowl, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide between the prepared pans and bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes.

Cool the cakes on a rack for 20 minutes then invert onto the rack to cool completely.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

To make the frosting, beat the butter and cream cheese together on high speed until fluffy and smooth, then add the crème fraîche. Turn the mixer to low and gradually add the confectioners' sugar until just combined, then turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat until fluffy and smooth, making sure to stop the mixer and scrape down to the bottom of the bowl so everything is evenly mixed. Add the lemon zest, vanilla extract, and salt.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

To assemble the cake, trim the tops of the cake layers so they are flat, if necessary. Place one layer on a serving plate or pedestal and spread about 1 cup of frosting on top. Top with the second cake layer, then smooth a thin coat of frosting on the outside of the cake.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Chill for at least 30 minutes, then cover the cake with a second, heavier coat of frosting to finish.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

What's your favorite Valentine's Day dessert? Share with us in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Yossy Arefi is a photographer and stylist with a passion for food. During her stint working in restaurant kitchens, Yossy started the blog Apt. 2B Baking Co. where, with her trusty Pentax film camera, she photographs and writes about seasonal desserts and preserves. She currently lives in Brooklyn but will always love her native city of Seattle. Follow her work at &


Susan L. July 18, 2018
I made this cake today. Followed directions exactly and it still came out brown as in first photo. Tastes delicious but I was hoping for that bright red coloring. I used fresh beets from my garden. Did not cook. Used regular cocoa powder etc. like I said absolutely fluffy, tender and a very beet tasting with a hint of cocoa flavor which we love. Just wanted the red color.
Sunitha March 12, 2018
I am so happy to ready your blog. I have tried couple of times with cooked beet puree and cake turned out brown. First cake was chocolaty brown and for the second one I have reduced cocoa powder and cake was slightly brown. I was wondering what could be the cause. I am gonna try uncooked beet puree next time. Thank you so much.
Laura November 24, 2017
After following another "all natural" red velvet cake recipe, I, too, was disappointed by the outcome, rather brown and barely red at all. So determined to have the most red of red velvet cakes, I added 3/4 cup of fresh beet juice to your recipe and my red velvet cake came out so vibrantly red no one believed it was at all natural. Thank you for this recipe!
Taylor October 2, 2018
Did it taste like beets tho??
Linda F. November 8, 2017
Best cake I have ever baked. Than you.
Rose June 29, 2017
Hi, I will like to try this cake just using one cake pan since my oven is really small. Should I just half all the ingredients? Also can I use Coconut flour or Buckwheat flour?
Alexandra T. June 15, 2017
So I have made three red velvet cake recipes with this one being the last one... wish I found it first because it worked out amazingly well! I will be stacking and decorating tomorrow and am so pleased that I now have a red velvet cake that is actually bright red! Thanks for the recipe, definitely my go-to from now on!
Mirtha D. January 29, 2017
how do you make the beet puree? Thanks
Jennifer K. January 29, 2017
Using fresh beets gives you the best color. 3 medium should give you plenty. Wash and wrap each in foil. Place on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven. I usually do 350 degrees for about an hour (until they're soft enough to pierce with a fork. Let them cool before you peel them, cut them into chunks and puree in a blender or food processor. You can add a little water if it makes it easier, but I don't usually. Hope that helps.
Mirtha D. February 2, 2017
!Very thankful¡
Mirtha D. February 2, 2017
But the recipe points out "(not cooked)" and that made me wonder ¿how can we make a puree from fresh beets, not cooked first?
Jennifer K. February 2, 2017
That is interesting. I would think pureeing a raw root vegetable would give you a grainy texture. I admit I have never made THIS recipe ... I shared a different recipe in the comments below, and it calls for roasted beet puree.
Mirtha D. February 5, 2017
I think like you, using fresh beets sounds weird because the texture, it'd be interesting to hear from Yossi Arefi how she prepares raw beets.
JPearl August 8, 2017
Thanks for clarifying that, it's kind of confusing since you say beets (not cooked) in the recipe. I was like, purée uncooked raw beets? Lady, you have a serious blender. 😁
Emily December 6, 2016
Hey, i just saw this recipe and was wondering is there a substitute for cream of tartar?
Stephanie February 27, 2016
Why not just follow a carrot cake recipe, replacing with beetroot and subbing some flour with cocoa?
Laura415 February 26, 2016
What is the flavor of this cake supposed to be? It seems like the cocoa is not in sufficient amounts to flavor the cake chocolate. It has a lot of acidic ingredients. Does it taste tart? If that is the case I could see using some powdered freeze dried red fruits like raspberries and strawberries as color and flavor. I get those at trader joes. They would make the cake taste fruity though.
Jennifer K. February 26, 2016
I've been making red velvet cake and cupcakes from a recipe printed a few years ago in Sunset magazine. While I did add the cocoa myself, there is no buttermilk or vinegar in that recipe. The beets are oven roasted and pureed. I always get the reddest cake I've ever seen. I would really look it up!
Emily December 6, 2016
Can you please show me the recipe?
Jennifer K. December 6, 2016
Look up "Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Buttercream". I originally found it in Sunset magazine, but I also found it on Super easy! Let me know if you can't find it.
Emily December 6, 2016
I found it thank you!
Emily December 6, 2016
I'm sorry to bother you again but how much cocoa powder did you add to the recipe?
Jennifer K. December 6, 2016
Yes, I don't think the recipe calls for any. I added 2 tablespoons of natural cocoa. Not Dutch-process (I'm allergic to the alkali - go figure), so technically more of a dark chocolate flavor. Basically, all it does is mask any taste of beet. It doesn't change the color ... still bright red.
Jennifer January 15, 2017
Hi, I looked up the Sunset article and their "Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Buttercream" links to a recipe with red food coloring instead of beets. :( Any suggestions?
Jennifer K. January 15, 2017
Go to my and search the exact same recipe name. It comes up with the original Sunset recipe that does not have food coloring in it. I literally just did the search and it worked. I had the same problem the last time I looked it up on Sunset's site ... really weird.
Norma February 26, 2016
Matchbox Cafe in Rhinebeck NY makes a fabulous red velvet cake from beets! Make the trip... you won't be disappointed.
Michael L. February 26, 2016
Would canned beets work for the puree?
Rach B. February 26, 2016
WOW! I can't wait to try this, I always struggle with red velvet recipes (usually end up piling in food colouring), ends up not quite as planned. Off to by some beets!
djgibboni February 26, 2016
You avoided baking soda, but added baking powder, which includes baking soda.

But fear not, I suspect your acidic assault on this cake recipe was sufficient to activate the baking powder and keep the beets red.

Then again, you could try erring on the alkali side of the pH scale. You may end up with a blue velvet cake.
Ruth February 17, 2016
I made this today for a party at work and it was a big hit! I used a 9x13 pan and baked it for 39 minutes. It was less sweet and more filling than other red velvet cakes that I have tried. The beets enhanced the flavor just enough for everyone to know this is not a box red velvet cake. Oh, and the cream cheese was frosting was the bomb! It's flavors with really well with the flavors of the cake. It may just be my new go-to cream cheese frosting! I will definitely make this again (x 10!)!
Carla February 14, 2016
I made this cake today and it was absolutely delicious!! I baked it in three 8" cake pans. It turned out moist, fluffy and flavorful. I will definitely be making this again and again!
Bess R. February 13, 2016
Wonderful recipe! Made it into cupcakes and topped with ermine frosting. Best. Redvelvet. Ever.
Jeanne C. February 10, 2016
Baking soda or powder? The text indicates soda, the recipe and directions say powder. Thanks!
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 10, 2016
Clifford S. February 9, 2016
What natural flavor oil are you using?
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 10, 2016
i like grapeseed or vegetable oil. you could also use canola.
Sharon W. February 26, 2016
You can also try avocado oil.