You’ve probably heard of red velvet cake, the classic Southern dessert vividly tinted with red food coloring and a hint of cocoa powder. But what about white velvet cake, its lesser-known counterpart?
A cousin of red velvet, it couldn’t look more different, but the cakes themselves are similar. As their names imply, both styles of cake are distinguished by their plush, tender, velvety crumb. And both white and red velvet cakes also include buttermilk, which contributes to their signature tang while also helping with leavening and overall texture. The primary differences are in their color and flavor: The omission of food coloring and cocoa powder in white velvet cake sets it apart from its brighter, more chocolate-flavored counterpart.
It’s often hard to say exactly when a specific style of cake came into existence, but most historians believe that velvet cakes date back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when white velvet cake was popularized by a number of magazines in the late 1860s and 1870s. During the late Victorian era, velvet cakes were aptly named for their velvety, delicate texture, compared to the coarser-crumbed cakes that came before them. In fact, it’s very possible that white velvet cake preceded its more popular red counterpart. According to baker and cookbook author Stella Parks, devil’s food cake, a rich chocolate cake, also existed during this time, and sometime in the early 20th century, the two cake styles likely merged to create the first iterations of what we now refer to as red velvet cake: a velvet-style cake made with cocoa powder for a subtle chocolate flavor and classic reddish hue.
Somewhere along the way, red velvet cake emerged as the dominating style, and white velvet cakes faded mostly into obscurity. But though lesser known today, white velvet cake offers more versatility than red velvet and is the ideal tender buttermilk-based cake for any occasion. At first glance, this white velvet cake may seem like any other white cake recipe, but this particular cake owes its soft and satiny texture to a few key ingredients and steps.
Buttermilk: As mentioned earlier, buttermilk is the signature ingredient that gives white velvet cake its distinctive light, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Buttermilk is a cultured dairy product, much thicker and more acidic than milk. Buttermilk’s high acidity works in baked goods to break down gluten strands and protein structures that begin to develop when the flour is mixed with liquid, resulting in a more tender mouthfeel. Buttermilk also contributes to leavening — the acidic buttermilk activates the baking soda, and this reaction produces carbon dioxide, which gives the cake more lift and lightness.
Cornstarch: There’s also cornstarch, which acts as a tenderizer here. The addition of 1/4 cup (28g) of cornstarch reduces the gluten content in the recipe, resulting in a softer, fluffier cake. Basically, the combination of all-purpose flour plus cornstarch acts as a substitute for cake flour, lowering the protein content and leading to more tender layers.
Egg whites: Though most red velvet cake recipes use whole eggs, this white velvet recipe relies on egg whites only. Using just whites instead of whole eggs gives the cake a creamy white color to match its name.
Butter + oil: The combination of butter and oil in this recipe gives you the best of both worlds: Butter lends rich flavor, while oil ensures a moist texture.
Flavorings: In this recipe, the trifecta of vanilla extract, almond extract, and lemon juice powder gives white velvet cake that signature nostalgic bakery flavor. Lean into this old-fashioned sensibility and choose a classic frosting to accompany: Cream cheese or ermine frosting both pair beautifully with this cake.
Lastly, this recipe relies on the reverse creaming method, which results in a tight, soft crumb. After the dry ingredients are mixed together, the room-temperature butter is beaten into the dry mixture, limiting gluten formation. Once the mixture looks like coarse sand, the liquid ingredients gradually get poured in, yielding a smooth batter that bakes into a delicate cake. The resulting cake also has less doming and a sturdy texture, making it ideal for stacking and layering.
It may just be that red velvet cake has been in the spotlight for too long. Now, it’s white velvet cake’s time to shine.
Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.