James Beard Award-winning Cookbook Author

Recipe and Story: Red Velvet Cupcakes

These crowd-pleasing cupcakes are as delicious as they look. The startling contrast between the crimson-colored cake and the white frosting just draws people in. The advantage of a cupcake over a slice of cake is that there’s more frosting to cake ratio.  Maybe that’s why cupcakes are always a big hit, especially with kids.

The many stories about the origin of red velvet cake are just that, stories. For the fascinating true story, read on.

Stella Parks, writing in Gilt Taste says that so-called Velvet Cakes began appearing in cookbooks in the last decades of the 1800s.  “Velvet” identified a cake that had an especially fine crumb, and the word “red” referred to red sugar, or what we know today as brown sugar. Chocolate found its way into cakes in the late 1800s, and we know today that the anthocyanin pigments in cocoa react with acids such as buttermilk and vinegar to give cakes a reddish hue. But this chemical reaction wasn’t nearly enough to impart the blazing red common in today’s red velvet cakes.

Enter John A. Adams, owner with his family of a business that made food colorings and flavoring extracts. Begun in 1888, the business fell on hard times in the 1930s during the Depression.  In an effort to boost sales, he added his red dye to a velvet cake, made a huge color photo of it, and began hawking his products in groceries all over the Midwest and parts of the South. Given the nation’s bleak mood at the time, Red Velvet Cake became a sensation.

Adams provided a recipe for his cake along with a purchase, and over time the recipe has been tweaked and labored over by countless food editors and home cooks. Ms. Parks has devised her own recipe for Red Velvet Cake, shunning the dye in favor of red wine.

Now it’s my turn. I do add red food coloring but only 2 teaspoons instead of tablespoons. I also add enough cocoa to give the cakes a definite chocolate taste, and I use a generous combination of butter and shortening for tenderness. These cupcakes have that velvet cake hallmark: A fine crumb.


Red Velvet Cupcakes

The startling contrast between the crimson-colored cake and the white frosting just draws people in. The advantage of a cupcake over a slice of cake is that there's more frosting to cake ratio.
Course Dessert


  • Stand mixer



  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour spooned into dry measuring cups and leveled (6 ¾ ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder measured after straining
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk (shake well before measuring) in a 1-cup glass measure with pouring spout
  • 2 teaspoons red food color
  • 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick) slightly softened
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening I use Earth Balance
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar light or dark
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature


  • 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 stick; at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar (12 ounces) strained


  • Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Line a 12-cup standard-size muffin pan with cupcake liners.
  • Assemble all ingredients.
  • In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.
  • Combine the buttermilk, food color, and vinegar in the measuring cup.
  • Beat the butter and shortening in a stand mixer with the flat beater on medium speed until creamy, about 1 minute.
  • Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat in well.
  • Gradually add the granulated sugar—sprinkle it in slowly and steadily—while beating on medium speed.
  • When all the sugar has been added, scrape the bowl and beater and beat 4 minutes on medium-high speed. The sugar and butter will climb up the sides of the bowl, so stop 2 or 3 times to scrape the bowl down. The mixture will look fluffy.
  • Beat in the eggs on medium speed one at a time just until smooth.
  • On low speed alternately add the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the liquid in 2 additions, beating only until smooth. At first the batter may look curdled.
  • But after all the ingredients are incorporated it will look smooth and creamy.
  • Divide the batter into the prepared pan using two soup spoons or an ice cream scoop.
  • Bake about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Tops of cupcakes will spring back when gently pressed.
  • Cool cupcakes in the pan 10 minutes, then remove them and cool completely on a wire rack.
  • For the frosting, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla on medium speed with the flat beater only until smooth and creamy. Scrape bowl and beater often.
  • Add the strained confectioners’ sugar and beat on low speed until completely incorporated and frosting is smooth and thick. Don't beat on high speed or the frosting will be too airy.
  • Either frost the cupcakes with a narrow-bladed metal spatula or pipe the frosting through a pastry bag with a star tip.
  • Let stand until set, about 1 hour. Cupcakes are best when very fresh.
  • Store leftovers in a tightly covered container. I wash and dry the clear deep rectangular plastic boxes (1-pound size) that held organic spinach or salad mix and use them.
Keyword Cupcake




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