Red velvet cake is a beloved treat for countless Americans. The moist layers and tangy cream cheese frosting make it an ideal dessert for birthdays, holidays, or any other occasion. But what exactly makes it so distinct? Is it the vibrant scarlet color or is it the unique flavor?
The first thing most people notice about a red velvet cake is its color. The bright red hue is thanks to a chemical reaction among a few key ingredients. Before this happened, the cakes had a more dusty maroon color that was achieved through natural means. For instance, Chowhound notes that during World War II when rationing was common, beet juice was frequently used in cakes for both its color and added moisture. The use of unprocessed cocoa in addition to the beet juice gave the cakes their reddish tint—though it wasn’t quite the intense red pop we’re used to today.
During the 1920s, food dye was introduced to the recipe. This was done primarily to increase the brightness of the cake but also because it was more appealing than the rusty brown color that was naturally occurring (see photo above). It wasn’t until the 1940s when more alkaline, or “Dutch processed,” cocoa became widely available that the cake got its modern bright scarlet look.
Although many places claim to have invented the red velvet cake—including the Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Park Avenue, the Adams Extract company, and Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—it remains unclear who actually created it. The mystery deepens even further when you consider that the hotel’s chef allegedly tried to pass on his secret recipe to a woman in the 1950s and demanded a $350 fee for it! The woman reportedly shared the recipe out of anger, and it spread from there.
It would be easy to believe that a cake with such an iconic and well-loved history is hard to recreate at home, but it isn’t. It’s actually a fairly simple process that requires just a few steps. The trick is ensuring that the cake is not over-baked or under-baked and to using just the right amount of buttermilk and vinegar. With a little practice, you’ll be baking deliciously moist and tender red velvet cakes in no time!
This recipe makes two 9-inch cake layers. If you’d like to bake fewer layers, simply reduce the recipe. To bake, preheat the oven to 350°F and grease and line two 9-inch round cake pans. I recommend using parchment paper to ensure an easy release from the pans after baking.