What Is Red Velvet Cake?

And what makes it so darn red?

October 07, 2021
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531872131

Red velvet cake with vanilla cream cheese frosting decorated for Halloween.

Photo by: Arx0nt/Getty Images

Arx0nt/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Red velvet cake is a southern staple that's been iterated into cupcakes, cheesecakes, doughnuts and other confections galore. But what exactly is red velvet cake? We rewind history and discus how the ruby red cake with stark white icing was invented and popularized. We'll get into what it tastes like, what makes it red and how to achieve that vibrant color naturally.

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1146227542

Red velvet cupcakes

Photo by: Tetiana_Chudovska/Getty Images

Tetiana_Chudovska/Getty Images

What Is Red Velvet Cake?

Popular in the southern U.S., red velvet cake is a vanilla cake with a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and red food coloring mixed in. Vinegar and buttermilk bring some acid to the batter, adding a bit of tanginess that balances out the sweet cream cheese-butter frosting that is standard. The crumb of the cake is very fine, soft and smooth.

What Flavor Is Red Velvet Cake?

Red velvet cake tastes like very mild cocoa with a slightly tart edge. The cream cheese frosting is the most forward flavor. Perhaps even more important than the taste is the texture: smooth, soft, tender and light with creamy icing.

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1035984990

red velvet cake on marble tray with coffee cup

Photo by: mayina/Getty Images

mayina/Getty Images

What Is the History of Red Velvet Cake?

Historians believe that red velvet cake originated during the Victorian era. Cake flour wasn't around yet, so vinegar was used to tenderize cakes. When vinegar was combined with non-Dutch processed cocoa powder, the cake turned a reddish-brown hue.

The first recipes labeled as red velvet cake were published in the early 20th century, and as the cake spread through the U.S., southerners started adding another acid to the cake: buttermilk.

At some point before World War II, the process for producing cocoa powder changed, and it no longer turned red when combined with the acids. People still wanted that red cake, so reduced beet juice was added. A southern dye company called Adams Extract ended up popularizing red velvet cake by publishing a recipe that called for his red food dye.

Cream cheese frosting is a much later innovation: the original frosting was a French roux-style buttercream, sometimes called gravy frosting because it starts out with the same type of roux used to make gravy. With the butter beaten in at the end, it is spectacularly light and fluffy, but incredibly time consuming to make. And that’s why cream cheese frosting became the norm.

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Mixing a dough for red velvet cake

Photo by: Dzevoniia/Getty Images

Dzevoniia/Getty Images

What Makes Red Velvet Cake Red?

In today's day and age, the red hue in red velvet cake is typically from red food dye. However, as we discussed above, the color initially occurred when the acidic ingredients in the cake reacted with non-Dutch cocoa powder.

What Is a Substitute for the Red Food Coloring In Red Velvet Cake?

In place of artificial red dye, turn to natural red dyes like beet juice, beet powder (ground dehydrated beets), pomegranate powder or cranberry powder. Just keep in mind that some of these ingredients can affect the flavor of red velvet cake.

What Is Blue Velvet Cake?

Blue velvet cake can be made with almost any red velvet recipe by substituting blue food coloring for red. Adding a tiny touch of red will keep the blue dark instead of turquoise. Blue velvet cake tastes just like red velvet cake but can be enjoyed on festive occasions like 4th of July or a gender reveal party. In this vein, it's not unusual to see green velvet cake, made with green dye instead of red, featured on St. Paddy’s Day.

St. Patrick's Day Green Velvet Layer Cake

The old-fashioned boiled frosting on this greener than green cake for St. Paddy's Day is fluffy, puffy, very white and tastes like marshmallows. The cake tastes just like red velvet.

How to Make Red Velvet Cake and How to Make Red Velvet Cupcakes

Needless to say, there are hundreds of red velvet cake recipes. Some follow the creaming method, where butter and sugar are creamed until light and fluffy, then eggs, then dry and wet ingredients added alternately. The batter is baked, and then the cakes are cooled and frosted. Some recipes use oil instead of butter, and after eggs are whisked into the oil, the wet and dry are added in the same way as for the creaming method.

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Red Velvet Layer Cake

Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Four gorgeous layers are made from two 9-inch cakes, and a super simple cream cheese frosting ties them together.

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FN1014111_CHEESECAKE_01.tif

Red Velvet Cheesecake

Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Chocolate wafer cookies stand in for graham crackers; red velvet swirls through the cheesecake filling.

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Red Velvet-Cherry Cake Roll

Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Cherry cola and the traditional cocoa powder-red food coloring combo bring the color and the flavor of red velvet to this fancy-looking confection. But relax: the roll is much easier than you think.

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FNK_RED_VELVET_MINI_CUPCAKES_H_2.jpg

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Cuter than cute, these mini cupcakes are made with oil and whole wheat flour - so you could basically consider them a snack instead of a treat.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Our second red velvet layer cake is two layers instead of four, making it just a bit easier than the first. But it has all the hallmarks of classic read velvet.

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