Ingredient Intelligence

What Is Red Velvet Cake? Here’s What You Should Know About the Beloved Dessert.

published Feb 8, 2023
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shot of a red velvet cake on a cake stand
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

You’ve likely already heard of red velvet cake — after all, you can probably find just about any traditional dessert or sweet with a red velvet version. But what is red velvet cake? Where did it originate? Why is it red? Is it just chocolate cake with creative marketing? Is there actual velvet involved?

Fear not, dessert-loving friends — we’ve got answers. Before you try your hand at making a classic red velvet cake or testing out some of our favorite red velvet cake recipes, let’s get you up to speed on one of America’s most popular treats. 

Credit: Photo: Eric Kleinberg; Food Stylist: Kristina Vanni

What Is Red Velvet Cake?

Red velvet cake is, at its core, a cocoa-based cake in which using vinegar, baking soda, and buttermilk give the cake a smooth, tightly crumbed texture with a subtle, tangy flavor. There are a few variations on how to give red velvet cake its signature red color, although today the use of red food dye is the most popular method. 

Red velvet cake is typically garnished with either boiled milk or Ermine frosting (popular with World War II–era bakers as a way of conserving butter and sugar) or cream cheese frosting (currently the most common frosting option for modern red velvet cakes) and sometimes whipped cream frosting. 

Is Red Velvet Cake Just Chocolate Cake?

While red velvet cake is technically a cocoa cake, there is a key difference between standard chocolate cake and red velvet cake. Chocolate cake recipes traditionally use Dutch-processed cocoa, while red velvet cake uses unprocessed cocoa, a more acidic ingredient that produces a deeper, more intense chocolate flavor. Red velvet cakes also generally contain both buttermilk and vinegar, which, when combined with unprocessed cocoa, make for a tighter crumb texture and a tangier flavor than traditional chocolate cake. 

Why Is Red Velvet Cake Red?

The “red” in red velvet cake is multifaceted — historically, the red tint in the cake came from either the chemical reaction between unprocessed cocoa and vinegar (according to Southern Living) or the use of beet sugar. As the cake grew in popularity and mass-market mixes were developed, however, red food dye became the more commonly used technique to create the cake’s color. 

The History of Red Velvet Cake

Like many longstanding recipes, the exact origins of red velvet cake are up for debate. “Velvet” cakes using the aforementioned cocoa, vinegar, baking soda, and buttermilk gained popularity in the late 1800s United States, first through the Chocolate Mahogany Cake and later, the red velvet cake, as bakers began using natural cocoa that turned cakes a deep red color.

According to Southern Living, the first recorded recipe for a red velvet cake was published in 1911 as a combination of the mahogany cake and the also-popular Devil’s Food cake (in which chocolate is used instead of cocoa). 

The distinctive dessert made enough of a splash that in the 1930s both Toronto’s Eaton Department Store and the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City began serving the dish, notes Southern Living. Each would claim it as their own, although most historians acknowledge that the cake was already well-known by then.

The Waldorf-Astoria did, however, spark the growth of the dessert as a readily available mass-market dish, after Texas businessman John A. Adams — founder of the Adams Extract Company — dined with wife Betty at the Waldorf-Astoria. Adams decided to develop an artificial dye to replicate the cake’s red color — and as World War II forced bakers to ration certain ingredients, including unprocessed cocoa (for which they instead turned to beets!) — the dye took off. 

According to the Washington Post, box-mix and Adams-dyed red velvet cake cornered the market, making it easy enough to produce that it soon began appearing “on school lunch menus and at church socials.” The cake’s popularity at the latter gathering made it a 20th-century staple and particularly saturated across the Great Plains and in the South — the two regions most commonly associated with the dessert.

Red Velvet Cake–Inspired Recipes