The History of Red Velvet Cake

Red velvet cake is a showstopping dessert perfect for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or birthdays. This recipe features two layers of tender, flavorful cake paired with cream cheese frosting.


The crimson color of this classic recipe comes from natural, non-Dutch processed cocoa powder and buttermilk, plus acidic vinegar and red food coloring. Creative home cooks have whipped up variations using beet juice, cranberry powder, and other natural food dyes.

The History

Red velvet cake is a popular choice for Valentine’s Day and holiday celebrations. However, it is not as widely known that this beloved dessert has quite a history behind it.

The first mention of a red velvet cake comes from the 1800s when recipes surfaced that called for the use of cocoa to create cakes with a more velvety texture. Over time, bakers began to add vinegar and baking soda to these recipes to aid in the leavening process. The acid from these ingredients reacted with the un-Dutched cocoa to give the cakes a natural red tint. This may have been the inspiration for the name red velvet cake.

During World War II, when ingredient rationing was prevalent, bakers turned to a different hack for coloration – beet juice. This natural dye helped to add color and excitement to recipes as cocoa became scarce.

Eventually, the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City started serving their version of the cake and got credit for originating it. Research, however, shows that the cake was already popular in some states and parts of the South prior to this time. As such, a Texas-based company named Adams Extract was responsible for popularizing the cake nationwide by releasing a recipe kit that included both red food coloring and butter flavoring (which was used as a substitute for butter that was being rationed during WWII). The kits were sold in grocery stores across the country.

The Ingredients

Red velvet cake is a showstopping dessert that’s perfect for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July. It’s a tangy and buttery chocolate cake with a subtle hint of cocoa that’s paired with an amazing cream cheese frosting. This classic recipe is surprisingly easy to master at home.

The ingredients that make up this show-stopping cake are simple and easy to find at your local grocery store. You’ll need sugar, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa powder and red food coloring (affiliate link). You’ll also need butter, eggs and buttermilk.

It’s important to use room temperature butter and egg yolks so that they combine with the other wet ingredients well, creating a light and fluffy texture. You’ll also want to beat the egg whites separately to incorporate air and create a silky, velvet-like finish on your cake.

The acid in the vinegar, baking soda and buttermilk reacts with the natural cocoa (not Dutch-processed) to tenderize the cakes and give them their signature color. This reaction was even more noticeable during World War II when ingredient rationing led some bakers to creatively use beet juice for their cakes. When the cake is baked, you’ll know it’s ready when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean and the cake springs back. Let the cake cool completely before slicing and frosting.

The Recipe

The best red velvet cake is more than just vanilla chocolate cake with red food coloring – it’s a special blend of cocoa powder and buttermilk that’s softer than most cakes with a subtle tang from the butter. And it’s all smothered with dreamy cream cheese frosting that’s also light and fluffy.

As mentioned above, traditional recipes for red velvet cake do not use food coloring, but instead rely on the acidic reactions of buttermilk, vinegar and non-Dutched cocoa to make the cake its signature color. The vinegar and baking soda leaven the cake, while the acid in the buttermilk and the anthocyanins in the non-Dutched cocoa turn it that deep rust color that we know as red velvet. The process is what may have inspired the name “devil’s food cake.” When cocoa processing changed and it no longer turned cakes that dark, food coloring companies like Adams Extract began selling their own versions of red velvet cakes.

This recipe uses both white vinegar and lemon juice to help the baking soda leaven the cake, as well as anthocyanin-rich natural red food coloring (affiliate link). You can substitute the food coloring with a bit of liquid or gel, but it won’t be quite as vibrant and will have a slightly different flavor. The natural color also means the cake needs to be refrigerated if you’re serving it right away, but will keep for several days in the fridge once the frosting is on.

The Finishing Touches

Red velvet cake is a classic American dessert that is often served during Valentine’s Day. It’s also popular during holidays like the 4th of July and Christmas. This moist and fluffy cake is traditionally paired with a light cream cheese frosting.

This red velvet cake recipe is easy to follow and comes together quickly. It’s made using a mix of dry and wet ingredients. The butter and sugar are creamed first before eggs are whisked in. Then, the flour and cocoa powder are added. The acid from the buttermilk and vinegar are what gives this cake it’s signature tangy flavor.

To get the iconic red color, we’ll use food coloring. You can use liquid or gel food coloring (affiliate link) to achieve the bright shade. If you want to omit the food coloring, make sure that your cocoa powder is non-dutched since some modern versions are alkalized and won’t turn the traditional deep red color without the help of food coloring.

It’s important to prepare your cake pans before baking so that the layers bake evenly. I like to line them with parchment paper. This makes it easy to pull the cakes out of the pans once they’re baked. Once the cakes are cooled, they can be stacked and frosted. For a more dramatic effect, you can add a layer of crumb coating. This is simply a layer of crumbs that’s spread over the top of the cake.