Serves a Crowd

Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Beets and Cream Cheese Frosting

February  2, 2016
4 Ratings
Photo by Alex Egan
Author Notes

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.

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...

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. —Yossy Arefi

  • Prep time 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Makes an 8-inch cake with two layers
Ingredients
  • For the cake:
  • 1 cup beet purée, from fresh red beets (not cooked)
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, not Dutch-process
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup neutral-flavored oil
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • For the cream cheese frosting:
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraîche
  • 1 pound confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pinch salt
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. For the cake:
  2. Preheat oven to 350° 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Sift the cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt together in a bowl.
  5. In a large bowl, beat the sugar, oil, and butter together until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition.
  6. Alternating, add the flour mixture and beet mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide between the prepared pans and bake until a bake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes.
  7. Cool the cakes on a rack for 20 minutes, then invert onto the rack to cool completely.
  1. For the cream cheese frosting:
  2. To make the frosting: Beat the butter and cream cheese together on high speed until fluffy and smooth 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.
  3. 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. Chill for at least 30 minutes, then cover the cake with a second, heavier coat of frosting to finish.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sarah Ashley
    Sarah Ashley
  • Sharon Wegner
    Sharon Wegner
  • Corene Walters
    Corene Walters
  • Amanda Potter Cole
    Amanda Potter Cole
  • Laura415
    Laura415
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 apt2bbakingco.blogspot.com & yossyarefi.com.

27 Reviews

Rsc February 16, 2020
The red velvet of my childhood had a light chocolate, definite cherry flavor, and a bottle of red food color, which I couldn’t taste then, but can’t stand now. So I tried this one. I called mine a “Cherry Velvet” as I added purées freeze dried cherries and the raw PEELED beets to this. Peeling removes much of the dirt(earthy)taste. Wear food gloves while using a potato peeler for this job, and while chopping too.
I think I over beat the batter this time, the cake was rough textured, and I had the wrong cocoa powder, so color was more of an antique rose. But the flavor was wonderful, chocolate, cherry and vanilla all shown through. I mixed 3 black cherries microwaved for 30 sec, into the frosting for a delicate color, and I have a cup extra frosting for toast this week. I will try this recipe again in the future, with the right coco powder, adding the almond extract and cherry powder from freeze dried tart cherries that I did this time.
 
Rsc February 16, 2020
Also, I detest lemon peel, so I left it out. Always bitter to me, genetic thing.
 
Sarah A. January 9, 2019
This cake is very acidic. Tastes almost like a lemon cake. There’s a beet juice drink that you can buy at Trader Joe’s. This recipe essentially makes that drink in cake form. The texture is lovely and moist... definitely velvety. But the taste... is it supposed to be soooo tart?
 
dbrs August 25, 2017
The second purée works much better in a blender if you have a large food processor
 
Amy T. July 5, 2017
We made this yesterday and it was delicious. The color was vibrant and the cake was moist. It did take longer than 30 minutes to bake as some people have commented, but we are at altitude. With blue sprinkles on top it was a perfect July 4th dessert.
 
Laura November 24, 2016
I hate to say it but...this cake was disgusting. The beet purée smelled like dirt (instructions on how to make were never mentioned). And the cake tasted like dirt. (Not that I'm in the habit of eating dirt) I will not be making this recipe again (although the frosting was delicious).
 
Rsc February 16, 2020
Did you peel the beets? That helps the dirt taste.
 
John August 4, 2020
Gross! lol 😂
 
nicole July 2, 2016
I thought this was one of the worst cake recipes I've ever made. The cake was just sweet with a tang. There are much better beet cake recipes such as the one from Martha Stewart Living. I was very disappointed as this was a cake for my son's 13th birthday.
 
John August 4, 2020
Hope your son’s cake for his 17th birthday 🍰 was great! ;)
 
lenore March 18, 2016
the colour, flavour, and texture of this cake was spectacular! no strong beet flavour, but a lovely moisture from the beets. my cake pans were too shallow to hold all the batter, so I made 3 layers instead of 2; not a bad thing! the baking time was much longer than called for in the recipe, even with the smaller pans. when I read about the 1000 calories per serving, I gasped! glad I ate only a small piece; the cake is so rich tasting that I didn't need more than a sliver. I didn't have any wine vinegar, so I used cider vinegar; still yummy. I used twice as much lemon rind in the icing, as I like a tart lemon flavour. a suggestion for the recipe: give an estimate re how many beets will be needed (e.g. approx. 4 - 5 medium sized beets - just a number pulled out of the air; I can't remember how many I ended up using!)
 
Jeannie E. March 14, 2016
A very good cake, and the flavor was lovely. Two comments:
1) The recipe needs to include the instructions on how to make the beet purée. We should not have to hunt in the comments to find it, as it is an integral part of the recipe.
2) in step 5 for the cake, we need to know if we are to "stir" "beat" or "mix" and for how long. Often at this point in a cake recipe, a baker is cautioned against over mixing. So do we beat for 5 minutes...or stir to combine or what?
Thanks.
 
Sharon W. February 26, 2016
Although I've been searching for a natural food coloring for red velvet cupcakes, I just did the numbers of this recipe and at over 1000 calories per serving, I'm struggling to figure out a way to make this manageable. Any suggestions?
 
leslie W. February 12, 2016
Just wanted to make sure before making this recipe that for the icing that it's truly 8 oz (2 sticks) of butter and not 8 T, since I usually don't see butter listed in recipes as ounces.
 
Corene W. February 10, 2016
My mother's friend worked in a bakery and their secret for flat cakes was this:
You tie a strip of wet towel around the edge of the pan while baking. This helps the cake rise evenly so one does not have to saw off the cake tops.
 
Don February 10, 2016
can you juice the beets and then just use the beet juice
 
Laura415 February 26, 2016
I'm thinking of using the beet pulp and juice. Juicing the raw beats is a good way to get them pulverized more than just grating. Then if necessary you can puree them further in a blender mixing both together.
 
Anna February 8, 2016
What exactly is neutral-flavored oil?
 
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 9, 2016
grapeseed, vegetable or canola oil would all work - basically anything without a strong flavor like olive oil.
 
Sumeet K. February 8, 2016
What can I use instead of eggs to make this recipe vegetarian?
 
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 9, 2016
I haven't tried this recipe with any egg substitutions so I can't say for sure what would work.
 
priya February 13, 2016
you could try 2 flax eggs and 2 AF eggs:
2 tbsp ground flax seeds in 6tbsp water, and 6 tbsp aquafaba (aquafaba.com or search on facebook: vegan meringue - hits and misses, for more info)
 
priya February 13, 2016
oh sorry i read that as 4 eggs for some reason. you could do 6 tbsp AF and 1 tbsp flax
 
Amanda P. February 5, 2016
How does one make beet puree from fresh beets?
 
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 5, 2016
peel and chop the fresh beet into chunks, then use a food processor to puree. it's okay if the puree isn't totally smooth because you will puree them a bit more with the buttermilk and other wet ingredients
.
 
Casey February 4, 2016
2 crème fraîche. Is this tbs?
 
Author Comment
Yossy A. February 5, 2016
yes, sorry about that!