Here's everything you need to know about red velvet cake, including its history, how to make it, and whether its cocoa content makes it chocolate.

What is Red Velvet Cake?

Red velvet cake is a layered red-colored cake with a white icing and a subtle chocolate flavor. The cake contains such a small amount of cocoa, somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 tablespoons per 2½ cups flour, that it really does not taste like a chocolate cake.

What is Red Velvet Cake Made of?

The main ingredients in red velvet cake are butter, sugar, flour, eggs, unsweetened cocoa, baking powder, sometimes buttermilk, and, most importantly, a generous amount of red food coloring (gel or paste) to give the cake its typical color. Some recipes add cooked red beets to the batter to enhance the red color or vinegar to increase the cake's acidity and aid the leavening process.

What Cocoa Powder is Best for Red Velvet Cake?

When a recipe for red velvet cake calls for cocoa powder, it means natural or unprocessed unsweetened cocoa powder, and not Dutch processed cocoa. Natural cocoa, unlike Dutch processed cocoa, contains the acidity that is needed to react with baking soda to make the cake rise. To help this process along, buttermilk, which is also acidic, is added in most recipes.

What Icing is on Red Velvet Cake?

The most popular icing for red velvet cake is cream cheese frosting, a no-cook icing that is quick and easy to whip up. It's also available ready-made.

The cooked white frosting called ermine frosting, which some people consider the original red velvet cake frosting, is a bit lengthier to prepare. Ermine frosting, also called boiled milk frosting, is similar to European buttercream but without the eggs.

Which icing is better depends on your personal taste, time, and your cooking skills. If you are pressed for time, cream cheese icing is the way to go. But if you want your red velvet cake to have a smooth, buttery frosting, head to the stove and top your red velvet cake with ermine frosting.

Slice of red velvet cake with the remaining cake on a stand in the background.

What is the History of Red Velvet Cake?

The history of the red velvet cake is not fully clear. Its origins are most likely during the Victorian era in the 19th century. In the 1920s, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel started serving the cake and thus spread its fame.

The popularity of red velvet cake got a major boost during the Great Depression when the Texas-based company Adams Extract, one of the first to sell red food coloring and other flavor extracts, introduced point-of-sale posters and tear-off recipe cards for red velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cake Recipes

This classic red velvet layer cake is made tender with buttermilk. It's topped with a fluffy cooked white icing.

Slice of Red Velvet Cake
Photo by Getty Images

"Little versions of classic red velvet cake," says pinkspoonula. "Frost with cream cheese frosting or white frosting."

Red Velvet Cupcakes
Photo by jaydathemaster

Here's a gluten-free version of red velvet cake with the same lovely red color and soft texture that everyone loves, plus a little extra cocoa flavor. It features a wheat-free flour mixture of brown rice flour, coconut and sorghum flours, and tapioca starch. See how it's done:

Check out our collection of Red Velvet Cake Recipes.