Red Velvet Cake

With its deep crimson layers topped with thick tufts of white frosting, red velvet cake cuts a striking figure. But this beloved dessert has a long and contested history.


Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel claimed the recipe, while ritzy Canadian department store Eaton’s credited it to socialite Flora Craig Eaton (a claim Southern bakers contest). But how did this beautiful dessert come to be?


When most people think of red velvet cake, they envision a rich, creamy dessert with a bright red color. But the truth is, red velvet cake has much more humble origins.

While the exact date is uncertain, we know that this iconic dessert started appearing on menus in the 1930’s. The Waldorf Astoria in New York City and Eaton’s Department Store in Canada are both credited with adding the dish to their menus, but it had been in the works well before this.

During the 19th century, many cake recipes with cocoa began to surface. These cakes were often given the name devil’s food or mahogany, and they were colored by a natural chemical reaction between acidic ingredients like buttermilk or vinegar and cocoa powder. When the acidic ingredient hits the cocoa powder, it reveals the anthocyanins that give the food its color.

During World War II, food rationing limited the availability of certain ingredients. Adams Extract, a company that produced food grade dyes, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of these cakes by selling red food coloring. Many cooks used this to tint cakes, cookies and other foods, as the color did not fade or bleach when exposed to heat. The popularity of these cakes continued to grow, and in 1948 Freda DeKnight published her cookbook A Date with Dish, which included a recipe for red devil’s food cake that used both buttermilk and red vegetable dye. This is the earliest documented evidence of red velvet cake on African American tables, and it suggests that dyed cakes were popular in this community long before food dyes became readily available.


Red velvet cake is a classic American cake made with buttermilk, cocoa powder, and of course, red food coloring. The cake is tangy and tender with just a hint of cocoa flavor, topped with silky cream cheese frosting that complements it perfectly.

Originally, the reddish hue of this cake came from the natural reaction of a few key ingredients: vinegar, buttermilk, and non-Dutch processed cocoa powder. When the acids in these ingredients react with the anthocyanins in the cocoa, they give it a subtle red tint. Unfortunately, most cocoa powders today are alkalized and do not have the same reaction with acidic ingredients as they did in the past. So now, bakers rely on red food coloring to achieve the vibrant hue we associate with this cake.

White vinegar is used in this recipe to activate the baking soda and add acidity, which helps the cakes rise. During World War II, ingredient rationing led to some recipes calling for beet juice, which reacted with the acids in buttermilk and vinegar to create the signature ruddy color that is still often seen today.

This cake also calls for vegetable oil, which helps the cake stay moist and light while the cakes bake. If you don’t have any, you can substitute it with more butter, or even use melted coconut oil instead, which will provide the same effect.


Red velvet cake is a crowd-pleasing dessert with layers of cocoa-flavored moist batter tinted red with liquid food coloring and topped with creamy, tangy cream cheese frosting. It’s a show-stopping cake perfect for Christmas parties and Valentine’s Day celebrations and can be covered in glaze, confectioners’ sugar or even chocolate ganache.

The original recipes of this cake had a dusty maroon color that was caused by acid reacting with non-Dutch cocoa powder, but the modern version uses red dye to get the bright scarlet color that is now so iconic. When using red dye, be sure to sift the cocoa powder first. This eliminates clumps of cocoa and makes for a lighter cake.

Another tip for making a lighter cake is to let the eggs come to room temperature before baking. This also helps the cake rise more evenly. Finally, use a cake leveler to smooth the tops of the cake layers for an attractive finish.

If you’re looking for a more natural way to make this cake, try replacing the liquid red dye with paste or gel food colors. Watkins makes a red food coloring that is safe for most recipes and can be used to create a vivid cake without affecting the flavor. Other options include using beet powder, pomegranate juice or cranberry powder, although they may not give the same magenta shade as standard red velvet cakes.


There are a number of ways to make this cake. The classic version calls for a combination of buttermilk, vinegar and red food coloring (affiliate link) to create the color. It is also possible to make it without the color, although it may not turn out as vibrantly. The acid in the buttermilk and vinegar helps to bring out the natural red anthocyanins in non-Dutched cocoa powder, causing the cake to be slightly tinted a rusty or scarlet color. This was a common practice before the 1920s, when Dutch processing was introduced to cocoa powder and the anthocyanins began to fade. A dye company called Adams Extract then created a recipe for the cake that used red food coloring to achieve the fire engine-red we see today.

For a more natural variation, try using beet juice or powder to color the cake. This is a great option for Juneteenth celebrations, since the color red is often associated with this holiday that commemorates the freedom of enslaved people.

Another fun variation is to add some white chocolate into the batter. This creates a richer, more fudgy cake that is still quite lovely. The same recipe can also be made into cupcakes for an easy breakfast treat or a special Valentine’s Day dessert. You can even freeze the cake or individual slices wrapped tightly in plastic for up to a month before thawing and serving.