No Dye Red Velvet Cake

No Dye Red Velvet Cake

Tired of tons of dye in your red velvet cake? (Ok, so this particular picture cheats with red dyed decorations, but the CAKE has no dye)

My Adventures in Finding the Perfect No-Dye Red Velvet Cake

I can not stand Red Velvet Cake. There! I’ve blasphemed. I know, Red Velvet Cake is a tradition southerners can’t seem to live without. But to me, it’s always been this awful, dry, tasteless, overly dyed bleh. Well, if you’re in the “I can’t understand what the fuss is about” camp when it comes to Red Velvet Cake OR you can’t have the red dye and don’t mind a much more moist and tasty version, then try this one. WARNING: This is a distinctive cake. It is not your standard, bland tasting, cake box cake. It has a flavor to it that is hard to describe except as very good and very interesting.
I’m such a geek. For those of you who do not know, I’m a programmer by trade and can’t stop researching the science behind things. I spent several weeks tinkering to find the best “red” cake without using dyes. It’s got to do with alkaline and acid. You can mess around with this recipe and you’ll see that little tweaks will give you slightly different results but in general, this will turn out a red, moist, dense, delightfully weird flavored cake.
This version uses less cocoa than my previous trials because, frankly, none made with more cocoa yielded a chocolatey taste and they all turned out less red. I was going for the most red I could get naturally (GO SCIENCE!). Also of note, regular vinegar will give it a distinctly vinegar flavor so use apple cider if you have it. I found that store-bought lemon juice will add more tang, which is interesting in its own way. Not bad at all. I like the real lemon flavor better though. If I were going to mess around more with this more, I might add more vanilla or use vanilla paste and I might try baking the beets just to see if the red was as bright. But I think my adventures in Red Velvet perfection are finished for now.
The real key here is to keep the acidity high and the alkalinity low. Make sure you use 100% pure cocoa powder and not a processed cocoa (like dutch cocoa). The buttermilk is alkaline so if you’re having troubles with the red staying red, you can substitute 8 ounces of cream cheese. But, truthfully, I did not see a difference between the two dairy versions in the final color and I like the flavor of the buttermilk better. I’ve heard sea salt is more acidic than Kosher salt but haven’t tried that yet. I stayed away from table salt in this because there are fillers in it to keep it flowing and being the scientist that I am, I like to reduce the number of variables in my experiments.
I used raw beets because heat is going to break down the chemical that creates the red color so I wanted the least amount of breakdown. You can roast your beets or microwave them, if the flavor is too strong. Every single person, including kids, who have tried this raw beet recipe say it’s good. They know there’s something different but always say it’s yummy. Honestly? I can’t keep this around, it gets eaten so quickly.
I use a German buttercream cream cheese frosting but you can use whatever cream cheese frosting you like. I’ll post the frosting recipe later. It has a custard base and you’ll need to make it a day ahead of time so the custard can cool and then the frosting can set up in the fridge.
I’m sorry about the photos. One: I always frost my cakes too soon so either they’re too warm or the frosting isn’t set up well. Two: I’m lousy at frosting cakes. Three: I take photos with the crummiest camera on the planet with terrible lighting.
The decorations were done by my 13-year-old daughter. I gave her several bags of deco and said, “Have at it!” She did great!
Kudos to Jaime at Sophistimom for giving me the courage to experiment and figure out this version – She’s awesome.

No-Dye Red Velvet Cake

  • 2 medium beets (make 1 ½ cups puree)
  • 3 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, almost normal room temperature
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 ⅓ cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature is better
  • 1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons natural (not dark or dutch processed) cocoa powder
    1. Puree your beets with lemon juice (see below), measure out and add vinegar.
    2. Grease and line 4 8” pans or make a zillion cupcakes.
    3. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. You’ll need two racks, space them evenly.
    4. Cream the butter with the sugar and add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla.
    5. Whisk the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
    6. Alternately add dry ingredients and buttermilk to wet mix. Start and end with dry. Mix just until blended.
    7. Fold in the beets. FOLD in but mix well. You don’t want to break the structure of the cake but you want all the color spread throughout. If you beat the batter at this point, the cake will be flat!
    8. Pour in pans and bake 35-45 minutes until toothpick inserted in center comes out dry. Watch this, you may want to check at 30 minutes, I’ve had them cook quick and cook slow. I think it has to do with the water content in the beets.
    9. Cool for 5 – 10 minutes, turn out on a rack and cool completely. You can wrap and freeze them if you want.

    ** Pureeing beets: This took me one hour to do, so plan accordingly. If you have a food processor, it will take much less time. I used raw beets. I did not peel them, but you can. I diced them VERY fine and pureed them in a blender with the lemon juice. Make them look like baby food! Because you add the lemon juice to the beets in the blender, the amount of lemon juice is somewhat variable. Strive for 1 ½ cups of pureed beets and 3 tablespoons lemon juice. You can have more lemon juice, it won’t kill the recipe. 2 beets the size of tennis balls makes a bit more than the right amount.

    These layers will not turn out very tall. They are low-rise. If you want taller layers, use 3 pans and maybe a few cupcake papers and fill more than 2/3. You’ll have to cook them slightly longer but not much more.

    For different flavor you can make substitutions as follows:

    • Add more cocoa, up to ¼ cup total.
    • Use 8 ounces cream cheese instead of buttermilk
    • Roast your beats whole covered with foil and with ½ cup water in pan for 1 hour at 350 degrees and then peel them and puree them.

    Inside of the Infamous No Dye Red Velvet Cake Why, yes, those are fake dyed red gummy hearts. Sorry, I made this cake for Valentine’s Day as a final tribute to my experiments in finding true red cake. Yes, the cake was that red. I must say, it was quite an adventure!