Red Velvet Cake

In the ’40s, red velvet cake became the belle of party menus across America. It gained popularity after a trip to the Waldorf Astoria by a Texas food coloring and extract company employee.

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It’s said that Adams Extract used the cake to market their product, replacing butter (which was rationed at the time) with a vanilla flavor and red food coloring.

Origins

The first recipes for cake using cocoa began to surface around the 1800s. These cakes, called velvet or red cocoa, used natural dyes like beet juice to achieve the red color. As food production became more industrialized and the use of artificial dyes became widespread, these cakes evolved into the red versions we know and love today.

In the 1930s, Manhattan’s storied Waldorf Astoria hotel reportedly began serving red velvet cake. The hotel receives much credit for creating this dessert, but research shows that they simply capitalized on a cake that was already popular across the country.

As with many famous foods, there are a few competing theories on how this recipe came to be. One theory is that Adams Extract, a company that manufactured food flavoring extracts and dyes, stumbled upon the idea during World War II when food rationing made it difficult for Americans to get the ingredients they needed to bake. Adams started producing recipe kits that included a bottle of their red dye, and the rest is history.

Another theory is that a back-of-the-house cook at the Waldorf Astoria developed this dish. At that time, white head chefs were the only ones who could afford to work at the hotel, and back of the house jobs were usually delegated to black employees. These employees were able to provide the food coloring needed for the red velvet cakes, but they would not be credited because they were not white.

Ingredients

In addition to standard cake ingredients, red velvet cakes typically contain buttermilk, vinegar, and a significant amount of food coloring. The vinegar and baking soda react with the cocoa powder to help leaven the batter, while the acid in the buttermilk helps break up the flour and create a more tender crumb. The food coloring, whether liquid or gel, gives the cake its signature vibrant red color.

While it’s possible to make a delicious and authentic red velvet cake without any dye, it won’t be as vibrant. Historically, the acid in the buttermilk and vinegar would have reacted with the natural cocoa to turn the cake a ruddy reddish hue; however, today’s alkalized cocoa powder no longer reacts with the acids the way it used to. As a result, many bakers opt to use red food coloring in their recipes to achieve the classic crimson look of this iconic dessert.

If you’re able to find unalkalized cocoa powder, it will give your cake a slightly more chocolate flavor than the processed stuff. As for the buttermilk, it doesn’t just add flavor – it also helps to tenderize the all-purpose flour and create a more velvety texture. Finally, the vinegar adds a bit of tang to balance out the sweet vanilla and mild cocoa flavors in this cake.

Techniques

Although red velvet cake may seem intimidating at first, it’s actually a simple cake to make. It’s just a vanilla buttermilk cake with a small amount of cocoa powder added, and that little bit of extra cocoa gives the cake its signature flavor and texture.

To get the fluffy texture of the batter, it’s important to use the creaming method (which means beating lots of air into the fat of the butter and sugar before adding eggs), and to separate the egg whites and whip them to stiff peaks. These then need to be gently folded into the batter. The result is a light, fluffy cake with a fine crumb.

The color of the cake comes from the vinegar and non-Dutched cocoa powder. Originally the reaction between these ingredients created the reddish hue that is now famous, but it was later found that using an artificial red dye could produce the same effect more reliably.

Today, red velvet cake is a wildly popular American cake that’s also widely enjoyed in other parts of the world. It’s a beautiful dessert to serve at a party, especially when it’s layered with a rich, creamy cream cheese frosting. The cake has a unique, distinctive flavor that’s described as slightly tangy with a hint of chocolate. It’s also a very common choice for Juneteenth celebrations, as it’s a reminder of the bloodshed that enslaved people endured and their eventual liberation.

Variations

Red velvet cake is popular, but you can use this recipe to make a white or chocolate variation as well. You’ll want to swap out the food coloring and add a little more cocoa powder (or omit it entirely) to get the right flavor.

Another way to vary this classic dessert is to use different types of frosting. Cream cheese frosting is a common choice, but try whipped mascarpone or vanilla for a more subtle flavor. If you are not a fan of buttermilk, try using milk or water instead.

You can also switch up the color and use pink or orange dye to create a holiday-themed cake for Valentine’s Day or a patriotic event like the Fourth of July. And don’t forget about the countless other variations on this iconic American treat, like red velvet hot chocolate or red velvet cinnamon rolls.

Historians believe that red velvet cake was originally made in the Victorian era when cake flour wasn’t widely available. At that time, vinegar was used to tenderize cakes, and the acid in it caused the anthocyanins in non-Dutch processed cocoa to turn a crimson color. The addition of food coloring further intensified the color, giving it the name “red velvet.” In recent decades, this dessert has become more popular and is now a staple in many restaurants and bakeries—especially in the South.