Red Velvet Cake


Red velvet cake is a classic dessert that’s always a crowd pleaser. This recipe uses buttermilk for added tanginess and to activate the baking soda for light and fluffy cake. It also includes vegetable oil and sugar for moist cake layers.


The cake’s signature color is a result of a chemical reaction with natural cocoa powder and acidic vinegar. It is commonly paired with white cream cheese frosting.


The story behind the origin of red velvet cake is a bit murky. But what is clear is that the modern cake originated as a way for struggling Americans to create something attractive and fun within their means.

Around the 1900’s recipes with cocoa as the main ingredient started popping up in cookbooks and popular magazines. Then, in 1943, the Joy of Cooking (by Irma S Rombauer) debuted a recipe for red velvet cake.

This was also around the time that Adams Extract, a company which made food colorings, began distributing recipe kits with a bottle of their dye. While the company can’t claim that they invented the recipe, it can say that they certainly helped popularize it.

The dye was used to give the cake its signature crimson color. Before World War II, natural cocoa powder had a tendency to turn red when combined with acidic ingredients like vinegar and buttermilk. When the process for creating cocoa changed and the anthocyanins in the cocoa powder no longer turned red when interacting with acids, bakers began using beet juice as a way to achieve a vibrant red color in their cakes.

Rumor has it that the first person to add food coloring to a chocolate cake was an African American pastry cook working in the kitchen at Manhattan’s storied Waldorf Astoria Hotel. This was a time when back of the house kitchen jobs were often held by black staff while head chefs were white.


Few cakes have a more colorful—and contested—history than Red velvet cake. Although the name “red velvet” may suggest that this is a type of chocolate cake, the signature flavor and texture come from a combination of ingredients that creates its iconic tangy and red hue.

The first ingredient is buttermilk, which is a key to the light and airy texture of this cake. The acid from the buttermilk helps activate the baking soda in the batter, which leads to the leavening of the cake. It also helps bring out the red tones of the cocoa powder used in the recipe.

Natural cocoa powder contains anthocyanin, which turns a dusty maroon color when it reacts with acid. In the original recipes of devil’s food and other classic chocolate cakes, the acid from vinegar was used to bring out this color, but at some point during World War II, the manufacture of cocoa powder switched to Dutch processing, which prevents the anthocyanins from reacting with acids. This change is credited with the popularity of modern versions of these cakes, which now rely on the use of red food coloring (affiliate link).

If you choose to make your own frosting, cream cheese frosting is the traditional choice for this cake. Its tanginess complements the light and airy texture of the cake. For the best results, use full-fat blocks of cream cheese if possible. The lower-fat versions sold in tubs tend to have a higher moisture content, leading to runny frosting.


The acidic nature of buttermilk and vinegar paired with natural cocoa powder creates the reddish hue of this cake. As the recipe spread throughout the country in the 1910s and 1920s, bakers began to use red food coloring (affiliate link) to intensify the color. According to Stella Parks in her award-winning cookbook Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, this was due to government food rationing and the availability of non-Dutch processed cocoa powder that reddened when mixed with acidic ingredients like buttermilk.

Unlike chocolate cakes, where the flavor comes from melted and cooled chocolate, red velvet cake has very little actual chocolate in it. The red is a byproduct of the acids in the buttermilk and vinegar, which create a moist and tender crumb.

The amount of acid needed to cause this reddening remains a topic for debate among chefs. Some, including Bobbie Lloyd of New York’s famed Magnolia Bakery, ascribe the red tint to a reaction between the acidic buttermilk and non-Dutch processed cocoa powder and the alkaline baking soda. Others, however, downplay the role of cocoa in this red tint and insist that the acidic ingredients are what gives the cake its signature crimson hue.

Regardless of which argument you choose to believe, one thing is for sure, this recipe is delicious. The cake itself is tangy and light, a perfect pairing for the rich cream cheese frosting. If you prefer a traditional icing, the Adams cake kit included a recipe for ermine, a roux-based frosting made with milk, flour, butter flavoring and sugar.


When baking red velvet cake, it is important to bake it in a pan that will ensure even cooking and removal from the oven. A standard 9-inch round pan works fine, but a springform or bundt cake pan will also work. Also, make sure to line the pans with parchment paper. It is a good idea to spray the pans and parchment with a nonstick cooking spray before placing the batter in them.

The first recipes labeled as red velvet cake appeared in the Victorian era. At the time, cake flour wasn’t yet available, so vinegar was used to tenderize cakes. When this acid was combined with non-Dutch processed cocoa powder, it gave the cake its distinctive reddish hue. During World War II, when Dutch-processed cocoa was rationed, cooks used other ingredients to add color to their red velvet cakes.

Today, most recipes use red food coloring to achieve the bright scarlet color of the cake. But if you prefer, you can make the cake with natural red dyes such as beet juice or powder, pomegranate powder, or cranberry powder.

Red velvet cake is a popular choice for birthdays and wedding receptions. It’s also a great dessert for Valentine’s Day, as the deep crimson hue symbolizes the passionate love of the holiday. And, if you are celebrating Juneteenth, a red velvet cake is perfect to honor the enslaved African-Americans who were freed on that historic day.