Red Velvet Cake is a form of dessert cake very popular in the American south.
The term is usually taken these days to mean a chocolate cake with a reddish hue to it, covered with cream cheese icing. The oldest recipes we’ve been able to find, though, use a cooked frosting based on a white sauce of flour and milk.
By today’s standards of decadent chocolate cakes, the cake doesn’t taste very chocolatey, it just mostly looks it. Most recipes have only a small amount of cocoa in them.
Typical base ingredients include cake flour, eggs, vanilla, and cocoa, with the fat being either oil, shortening or butter. Most recipes use baking soda as the leavener, and either buttermilk or milk and vinegar (or buttermilk *and* vinegar to cover all bets) being the catalyst to start the baking soda reacting. Some recipes may use baking powder as well as the soda.
A final, essential ingredient is the red colouring, which comes either from red food colouring, or from the addition of red beetroot to the recipe. The beets can add moistness to the cake, while the cocoa masks any earthy taste from them.
Occasionally, you may see the name applied to vanilla cakes, no cocoa at all, with red food colouring in them.
Myth: Red Colouring Caused by Reaction Between Cocoa and Baking Soda
Some people, including American food expert James Beard (notably in his book “American Cookery”), have theorized that the red colour comes from the interaction between the cocoa and the baking soda. But none of the basic, natural ingredients in the cake will cause a reaction that causes a red tinge or even a red hue in the cake.
Neither Cocoa, either dutched or undutched, nor even pure grated unsweetened baking chocolate, will interact with baking soda and turn red. Baking soda is an alkaline, needing an acid (thus the buttermilk or milk with vinegar) to cause it to react. Chocolate is not acidic; dutched cocoa borders on alkaline.
You can’t even cause a reddish colour by boiling the soda and chocolate together (in fact, the boiling water changes the chemical composition of baking soda, making it even more alkaline.) You will see an initial frothing upon mixing baking soda and cocoa with boiling water, but that is the baking soda reacting to the boiling water, and there will still be no colour change once the frothing dies down and you can see your liquid.
Another theory is that the red is being produced by the interaction of the chocolate with the acid in the vinegar or the buttermilk. This is easily disproved as well. Take cocoa, either dutched or undutched, or take grated unsweetened baking chocolate, and add pure white vinegar, which is a very harsh, acidic vinegar. There is no colour change, even when boiled.
Cocoa contains small amounts of naturally occurring vegetable pigments called “anthocyanins.” It is anthocyanins that make blueberries blue, and raspberries red. Anthocyanins are red in the presence of an acid; blue or bluish-green in the presence of an alkaline (base.) If there were enough of the anthocyanins in the cocoa to have any effect strong enough to be visible through the overall brown of the cocoa, the brown of the cocoa plus the bluish-green would in fact turn the cake grey, not red. But there aren’t enough anthocyanins in cocoa.
When cocoa beans are first harvested from their pods, they are cream-coloured, turning purple quickly in the presence of air. This is caused by the anthocyanins in them. Cocoa beans are let sit to ferment for about six days, during which stage most of the anthocyanins in them turn to quinones, which in turn interact with proteins in the beans to produce a brown colour. Any remaining anthocyanins break down and turn brown when exposed to heat.
So, plain and simple, the red colour is caused by — drumroll here — the addition of the red food colouring, which has been in the recipe from the very start.
No one knows for sure the origin of Red Velvet Cake. One school of thought attributes its origin to the American South.
Another myth, almost certainly no more than that, applies the same Waldorf Astoria origin as is applied to Devil’s Food Cake, cookies, and other desserts: a person in the restaurant there likes the dessert, asks for recipe, and gets it, but accompanied by an eye-popping bill for the recipe.
The myth certainly started early, by 1962:
“Refreshments were provided by Mrs. William Hugo, Mrs. Jack Wickard and Mrs. Jack Wilson, each baking the $300 Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake.” [Webb Windsock column, by Wilma Butera. In Big Spring Daily Herald. Big Spring, Texas, USA. 11 February 1962. Page 15.]
“Recipe for Waldorf Red Velvet Cake.” [Flanary, Mildred K. “Forte in Lots of Orchids.” Independent Press-Telegram. Long Beach, California, USA. 4 March 1962. Page W-B.]
The first recipes we have record of date from summer 1960. References to it include terms such as “new”, “unusual”, “sensation.” The recipe may date back into the late 1950s perhaps, 1958 or 1959, at a time when inexpensive artificial food colourings were firmly established at the supermarkets.
Literature & Lore
“Any time you see a new recipe making the rounds among people whom you consider good cooks, you can be pretty sure it is extra good…. ran across one the other day which is a favorite of Gladys Stroup and she got it from Dorothy Wagerie… they refer to it simply as a red velvet cake… I plan to try it just as soon as quail season sets in, but if you want to make a stab at it now, here is the recipe….
½ cup batter
1 ⅓ cups sugar
¼ cup red food coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup buttermilk plus 2 tablespoons (buttermilk)
2 ⅓ cups cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon soda
Cream shortening and sugar, add eggs. Make a paste of coloring and cocoa; add to creamed mixture. Add buttermilk alternately with flour. Add soda to vinegar and add to mixture. Bake 350 degrees 24 to 30 minutes in two 8-inch pans. (I don’t really understand the “24” but that’s what the recipe says, so…) Now the frosting….
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups milk
1 ½ cups butter
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
Cook flour and milk until thick, stirring constantly. Cool well. Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla until very fluffy; add first mixture and mix until consistency of whipped cream.
They offer a few hints.. for instance, take out 2 tablespoons of flour if you don’t use cake flour… half the frosting will be enough for 2 layers if you don’t care for lots of filling… or you can make it in 3 layers if you like.. or if you get discouraged you can chicken out and go buy a box mix…” — Thompson, Bette. All Around the Town column. Amarillo Globe-Times. Amarillo, Texas. 27 June 1960. Page 16.
[CooksInfo Editor: Gladys Stroup, a woman rancher; Dorothy Wagerie, assistant cashier, American National Bank of Amarillo]
“Premium Winners at Fair…. Red Velvet Cake, first $3, William E. Baker, 235 Center Street; second, $2, Helen Cordell, Route 2.” — The Frederick Post. Frederick, Maryland, USA. 29 September 1960. Section 2, Page 9.
“Red Velvet Cake: This unusual and interesting cake is highly edible as well as highly decorative. The recipe was given for use in this column by a Mrs C.M. Holmquist, although she said it was given to her by a friend….” — “Off and On Main Street” Column by L.M. Hays Daily News. Hays, Kansas, USA. 27 February 1961. Page 2.
“NEW RED VELVET CAKE. The Grill Room has baked another cake! A cake so tempting you’ll want to try it right away. In appearance, it looks like an ordinary layer cake, smothered in rich butter icing — but cut into it and there’s a surprise! It’s red… a rich, melting festive red that will look luscious served with vanilla ice cream. EATON’S new Red Velvet Cake keeps fresh and tasty for days. Try it on your family now — serve it often! Special, each. 79 cents. No Delivery, Third Floor, South, Dept. 1100k.” — Eaton’s Department Store advertisement. In: Winnipeg Free Press. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. 21 June 1961. Page 52.
“RED VELVET CAKE IS A SENSATION: Our mail the past few months has contained daily requests for the new Red Velvet Cake. So we have set to work collecting all the variations and have at last perfected a sensational cake. This cake promises to be as popular as the famous German chocolate cake because it is so beautiful and so easy to make.
VELVET COLOR: The cake is just what the name implies. It has a deep rich red color just like red velvet. The icing is creamy white and when the cake is sliced it is unlike any cake you’ve ever made. When you serve it, it is certain to be a conversation piece. While the cake is excellent served alone, we think its color and flavor go well with some of the wonderfully good fresh summer fruits. In your friendly supermarket you’ll find peaches, apricots, pineapples, bananas, blueberries, melons for making into balls, and many other fruits. Why not serve Red Velvet Cake with fruit to top off a simple summer supper.
RED VELVET CAKE
1 cup shortening
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup red food color (4 ½ oz. bottles)
2 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
Cream shortening and sugar until very fluffy. Add whole eggs, one at a time. Beat 1 minute after each egg. Very carefully mix in food color. Sift together flour, cocoa, salt, soda. Mix buttermilk, vanilla, vinegar. To creamed ingredients, alternately add dry and liquid ingredients, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat on medium speed of mixer after each addition. Turn into 3 8-inch greased and floured round layer pans. Bake in moderate oven, 350 degrees, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans. When cold, ice as follows:
RED VELVET CAKE FROSTING
1 cup milk
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup butter
1 ¼ cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
In glass jar shake together milk and flour until smooth. Cook over medium heat until thickened and smooth, stirring constantly. Cool. Beat together softened butter, sugar and vanilla. Add first mixture. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Mixture looks like whipped cream. Fill and frost cake layers.” — Kitchen Know-How Column by Nancy Carter (based in Atlanta, Georgia.) Appearing in: The Lima News. Lima, Ohio, USA. 30 July 1961. Page B-7.
“THE temptation to have one last word on the saga of the red velvet cake is too much. The fuss never got as much newspaper space in Eastern Canada as it did in the Western provinces, but there is one delicious fact we haven’t found mentioned even in the carefully detailed report issued by the Consumers Association of Canada.
The CAC summed up the story in its latest bulletin as follows: “The fad for this cake is said to have begun when a Vancouver women got the recipe from a New York Hotel. Soon the cake was being baked in thousands of kitchens in all the western provinces. Food and Drug authorities first came across the cake in Winnipeg, where it was being baked and sold by two leading stores. The cake was analyzed and found to contain very much more than the one part in 3500 of artificial food colour permitted under the Food and Drug regulations; and, placed under seizure, the cake was recalled from sale.”
The authorities also found that a printed recipe for the cake was being distributed by a Winnipeg manufacturer along with a two-ounce bottle of food colour. While the food colour, as such, met the regulations, the amount in the recipe did not and the manufacturer was stopped from distributing the recipe. The report reveals that the original recipe called for cochineal which is now expensive and difficult to obtain and therefore has been largely replaced in recipes by synthetic food colourings. Any such colourings are meant to be used very sparingly and the red velvet cake called for two whole ounces of the stuff. Eating an occasional piece of such a cake would not necessarily be harmful but the frequent and prolonged intake of such abnormal quantities of food colouring might have undesirable consequences.
The Food and Drug Directorate is studying the possibility of placing some warning statement regarding excessive use on the labels of food colour preparations. If cochineal was the only one, the answer would be simple. The truth would surely discourage excessive use of this colouring because — it is made from Red ants.” — Levason, Madeline. “Woman’s Way” column. Winnipeg Free Press. 10 August 1961. Page 13.
[CooksInfo Editor: The columnist makes three errors in her otherwise amusing column. (1) The “New York Hotel” alludes to the Waldorf Astoria myth; (2) The recipe seems to have originated at the very end of the 1950s, when artificial food colouring had already well and truly displaced natural; and (3) while cochineal extract comes from an insect, it is not an ant. Modern recipes have gone back to calling for the same relative amounts of food colouring as did the original recipes, presumably because modern food colourings have been deemed safer.]