Red velvet cake is a classic American dessert. It has a shocking color and a tender, velvety crumb. It’s the perfect dessert for a special occasion.
Its vibrant red tint comes from food coloring, which became widely available to home bakers during World War II. Credit goes to a Texas company, Adams Extract, which began selling bottled red dye with tear-off recipes for red velvet cakes.
There are a lot of theories out there as to who exactly created the first red velvet cake. Some say it started in a ritzy hotel in New York City. Others claim it originated in the South. The Adams Extract Company, a manufacturer of food-grade extracts and dyes, says they deserve the credit for introducing it to the US. They marketed their product during World War II when food rationing impacted many ingredients, including cocoa. Cooks were forced to get creative and figured out ways to substitute for cocoa with things like pureed beets.
The color of the cake is created by a chemical reaction between natural cocoa powder (which contains anthocyanins, acid-sensitive antioxidants that react to acid) and buttermilk or vinegar. Adding vinegar or buttermilk to the recipe alters the pH of the batter so that it takes in color more easily. The result is a dark reddish brown cake with a flavor that’s not quite chocolate.
The recipe is said to have first appeared in a 1948 cookbook, A Date With A Dish by Frida DeKnight. The cake then became a table fixture for Juneteenth celebrations in African American communities. It also surfaced in Canada, where it was a specialty of Eaton’s department stores. The Eaton’s version of the recipe was a closely guarded secret, with employees sworn to secrecy.
Red velvet cake is a traditional American dessert that is smothered with cream cheese frosting. The cake is softer than most chocolate cakes, which gives it the name “velvet-like,” and has a subtle tang from buttermilk. It has a cross between a vanilla and a mild chocolate flavor with a little hint of cocoa powder and is typically topped with creamy, smooth cream cheese frosting.
This recipe is easy and quick to make, and the result is picture-perfect! The cake is super moist, and every crumb is tender. It’s a great cake to bake for special occasions like Valentine’s Day or 4th of July, but is also delicious on its own!
The cake gets its color from the acid in buttermilk reacting with the baking soda and bringing out the red tones in the cocoa powder. If you prefer, you can use food coloring gel instead of liquid for more intense colors.
It is important that the eggs, butter, and buttermilk are at room temperature before making this cake, as these ingredients play a key role in creating a light and fluffy texture. You will also want to make sure that the red velvet cake frosting is completely chilled before spreading on it, as this will help it keep its shape. For best results, use high-quality, full-fat cream cheese for the frosting so that it stays creamy and spreadable.
The name red velvet cake came from the texture of the cakes—the cocoa in them gave them a soft, smooth feeling like velvet against your tongue. But the color was also a major selling point. When bakers added vinegar, baking soda, or buttermilk to their recipes to tenderize the batters, the acid in those ingredients reacted with non-Dutch-processed cocoa to give the cakes their distinctive color.
Once the cocoa powder was processed differently, and the acidic ingredients were no longer able to react with it, bakers started adding red food dye to achieve the same effect. The dye is still a big part of what makes a red velvet cake what it is today, but other natural methods could be used as well, especially during World War II when ingredient rationing led some cooks to use boiled beet juice in their cakes.
Today, the cake flavor is vanilla with a hint of cocoa and, of course, the red color from the food coloring. The frosting is typically made of cream cheese and butter, which gives the dessert its signature tanginess. Other popular frostings for red velvet cake include a traditional boiled milk frosting, which is similar to a French roux-style buttercream (often called gravy frosting for its roots in the same cooking process used to make gravy) or even a sweet ermine frosting made with cooked sugar, flour, and whipping cream.
While the first red velvet cakes were a chocolate cake with a faint red tint created by the way the acid in leavening agents like vinegar, baking soda, and buttermilk reacts with natural cocoa, food dyes have long been used to achieve the classic color. The history of these dyes is a fascinating tale of how American bakers and manufacturers created a cake that quickly became popular.
When America entered World War II, ingredients such as sugar and butter began to be rationed. This forced bakers and home cooks to get creative with their recipes. One popular method was to use pureed beets, which would give the cakes a reddish tint while also making them less expensive.
As the cake spread to kitchens across the country, it gained a reputation as a decadent treat. Many believe it was reintroduced to the public by Manhattan’s prestigious Waldorf-Astoria, which claimed to be responsible for creating the recipe. However, culinary journals suggest that the hotel was not the first to serve it. In fact, a version of the cake was reportedly served at ritzy Toronto department store Eaton’s as early as 1948.
While the history of the red velvet cake is a bit of a mystery, it’s clear that it has become an iconic American dessert. Today, bakers can find a variety of versions from many different regions of the country. Some are smothered in cream cheese frosting, while others feature a more traditional French-style icing.