The Mysterious History of Red Velvet Cake

By | July 21, 2022

Ah, red velvet cake. With its deep scarlet interior and decadent, creamy frosting, this dessert with the luxurious moniker is equal parts vivacious and mysterious, bearing a distinctly Southern pedigree. Or is it Victorian? No, no, of course something as enigmatic as red velvet cake could only be born in New York City… right?

Whatever its origins, at least we can all agree that the cake’s signature color comes from intensely saturated red food coloring. No, hold on, I thought it was the result of a chemical reaction with the cocoa powder. Wait, you say your recipe calls for beets?

slice of red velvet cake on plate
Ryzhkov/Getty Images

Plainly, some things need clearing up. But before we get into its history, what even is red velvet cake?

Defining red velvet cake

For the currently accepted “modern traditional” version of red velvet cake, we chatted up David Dial, born-and-bred Southerner and baker-slash-editor of Spiced blog.

His definition: “I hate to use the word ‘velvety,’ but that’s what it is. It’s a soft cake. Fluffy, depending on the recipe, with just a hint of chocolate.

“It’s one of those things; you don’t realize it’s chocolate until someone tells you. Of course, there’s the bright red color, which now comes from food coloring, but aside from the cake itself, the really distinguishing feature is the cream cheese frosting, with a slight tang. These seem to go really well together.”

Sure, this is what we’ve presently come to know as red velvet cake, but like many other enigmatic foods, it can shape-shift into numerous forms — from cupcakes to truffles to macarons.

And while a chocolatey, crimson-colored cake and cream cheese frosting are pretty standard, some cakes don’t call for chocolate at all, use a boiled milk icing (known as ermine frosting), or even get finished off with a white chocolate drizzle. It’s kinda hard to put red velvet cake in a box (metaphorically speaking).

The history

So when did this tender wonder hit the culinary scene? Unlike the dessert itself, there’s no slicing red velvet cake’s history into perfectly cut pieces.

“It just kind of appeared, like in a movie,” says Dial, who credits the appearance of red velvet cake, in the form of an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the 1989 chick flick Steel Magnolias, with its growing popularity north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Some reports go that velvet cakes (of any color) originated as far back as the late 1800s, made with rich ingredients like plenty of eggs and almond flour — though these confections may have looked more like pancakes or biscuits than the frosted layer cake we know today.

The early instances of the term “red velvet cake” in print are numerous. In the 1940s and 1950s, The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the cookbook The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, the Adams Extract company (one of the first food coloring manufacturers), and Canada’s Eaton’s Department Store all included red velvet cakes as recipes or menu items.

What we do know for sure is that red velvet cake has steadily risen in popularity in the United States from about the 1950s forward, with particular fervency in the American South. It’s gradually earned its place in the canon of classic American desserts, becoming the unofficial pastry of the reddest of holidays, Valentine’s Day.

Now that we’ve taken a peek into red velvet’s history, let’s break down each of the major players in its storied life, element by element.

The cake

“Velvet” was a term used in Victorian England to describe cakes with a fine crumb and a soft texture, distinct from other confections such as pound cakes and sponge cakes. Again, these cakes called for rich ingredients like eggs, buttermilk, almond flour, and vinegar (which helps with leavening and moistening).

Food historians believe that a sister to red velvet cake — devil’s food cake — was born around the same time. It was often referred to interchangeably with the now-distinct RVC (yeah, we’re giving it its own abbreviation).

Devil’s food was made in a similar style, using deeply saturated chocolate to produce its signature dark color and a fiendishly memorable name (though it was sometimes also called “mahogany cake”).

The color

If there’s one thing you can always count on from red velvet cake, it’s its striking ruby color. This scarlet hue has an interesting history of its own.

Red cakes became especially popular around the time of World War II. Because of the rationing of supplies, beet juice or even pureed beets were often added to cakes for both color and moisture.

Plus, during this time, the availability of Dutched or Dutch-process cocoa was limited. (Dutching is a process that deepens the color and takes some of the bitter edge off of natural cocoa.) Non-Dutched cocoa was lighter in color, and reacted with certain acidic ingredients in cakes, such as buttermilk, to produce a slightly red color.

Finally, the advent of artificial food coloring for home use came about from the aforementioned Texas-based company Adams Extract, making it even easier to create the cake’s red color.

These days, you can make your own signature red velvet cake using all sorts of coloring agents. Our recipe uses red food coloring, but if you’re concerned about the health effects of artificial dyes, you can experiment with beets, beetroot powder, or even pomegranate juice for that perfect crimson blush.

The icing

Some genius in the annals of history was responsible for pairing a bold red cake with a bright white icing — but sadly, the world may never actually know who that was.

Early printed recipes for red velvet cake often called for a roux-based, boiled milk ermine icing. Now, though, this is more commonly replaced with the less labor-intensive (and creamier) cream cheese frosting. It’s a one-two punch that upholds the classic color contrast while adding a desirable tang.

Of course, if you’re feeling feisty, you could always mix things up by topping your cake with a whipped cream frosting, a simple buttercream, or a white chocolate ganache.

Bottom line

While red velvet cake’s past may be mysterious, its future is not, as it remains a staple for bakeries and bakers in both the South and the North. According to Dial, it still has the ability to dazzle, no matter where it’s served: “When I make it for friends, it always gets some attention. It’s just an attractive cake. When you cut into it, it’s such a fun, ‘ooh!’”

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