Why Is Red Velvet Cake Red?

The tale of how this uniquely American dessert got its striking hue requires a bit of a history lesson. 

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You may have heard it said that red velvet cake is just chocolate cake with the addition of red food coloring, but that is actually not the case. The cake's classic red hue actually came as a by-product of the combination of ingredients used to create its signature "velvety" texture. Let's look at the layered history of this iconic cake.

The Origins of Red Velvet Cake

Red velvet cake has a rather lengthy origin story. In fact, it dates all the way back to the Victorian era. Starting in the 1800s, cooks began adding cocoa powder to cake mix to soften the protein in the flour. Before this, cakes had a drier, more crumbly texture. Adding cocoa powder resulted in a lighter, fluffier cake, eventually earning the name "velvet cake."

Meanwhile, another cake that used cocoa powder was on the rise: devil's food cake. This intense chocolate cake was made with egg yolks, resulting in a rich, fudgy cake. According to cookbook author Stella Parks during her appearance on The Splendid Table, velvet cake and devil's food cake crossed in the early 1900s to create the basis for what we now know as red velvet cake.

The recipe rose in popularity during the Depression era, as it used cocoa powder and not chocolate bars, which were more expensive. As the recipe made its way to the American South, buttermilk became a central ingredient. The reaction between the buttermilk, vinegar, and baking soda helped to aid in the leavening process — but it also caused something else to happen.

up close slice of red velvet cake with frosting
Pictured: Southern Red Velvet Cake. Meredith

How Did Red Velvet Cake End Up Red?

Cocoa powder contains an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is pH-sensitive, meaning it reacts to acids and bases. When raw cocoa powder reacts with acidic ingredients such as buttermilk and vinegar, it turns dark red. Although, the resulting cake is more of a ruddy brown color and not the gaudy red color you get from using food coloring.

Today, you're not going to be able to recreate that natural reddish-brown hue with your run-of-the-mill, Dutch-processed cocoa powder. That's because most cocoa powder is now processed with an alkalizing agent in order to neutralize the acidity. In order to achieve the same results today, you'd have to use raw cacao powder. Here's how to make red velvet cake with no food coloring.

The Evolution of Red Velvet Cake

World War II and Beets

Starting in World War II, many baking products were rationed, which led some cooks to use beet juice to make red velvet cake. It not only gave the cake a red hue, but it also made it super moist. You can still find recipes for Red Velvet Cake with Beets today.

Adams Extract Company

The true popularization of red velvet cake is largely credited to food coloring manufacturers. Red velvet cake's bright color had a lot of appeal, and recipes eventually started calling for the use of red food coloring. A company out of Texas known as the Adams Extract Company began selling bottled red food coloring with tear-off recipe cards for red velvet cake. And since their aim was to sell more food coloring, the recipe called for a lot of it, taking the cake from its reddish-brown roots to the eye-catching red tint we know today.

Waldorf Astoria Hotel

Around the same time, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York began selling their famous red velvet cake, dubbed the Waldorf Astoria cake, and the hotel claims to be the birthplace of the cake to this day. At the same time, Eaton's department store in Toronto began selling red velvet cake, crediting Lady Eaton as the creator. But historians generally agree that both of these establishments only capitalized on a cake that was already growing in popularity throughout the country.

Juneteenth

In recent history, red velvet cake has become synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations. Not only does the color red symbolize the bloodshed of the enslaved people who never experienced freedom, but it's also a symbol of strength and spiritual transformation in West African cultures. This is why you'll find tables full of red soda (such as Texas-made Big Red Soda), watermelon, barbecue, and red velvet cake. "A lot of people who celebrate Juneteenth won't celebrate Juneteenth without it," culinary historian Adrian Miller told the Washington Post.

Favorite Red Velvet Cakes

Whether you prefer to go back in time and make the cake the old-fashioned way, or you're a fan of the stunning red color you can only really get from food coloring, we have a lot of red velvet cakes to choose from. And don't forget the cream cheese frosting!

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