The curious history of the red velvet cake

Gen Z has had it enough with the chocolate truffle and pineapple cakes that so dominated our childhood, and for want of a better alternative, it is the red velvet cake that is trending on the charts now. And while store bought red velvet cakes with cream cheese frosting and strawberries for décor maybe the perfect way to celebrate one’s birthday or ring in the New Year; nothing can beat a good homemade red velvet cake.

And since the cake is getting only more and more famous with each passing day, it only makes sense to learn a bit about the interesting history behind this interesting flavour.

The origin of the red velvet cake:

Red Velvet Cake
red velvet cake with cream and strawberry

The velvet cake dates back to the Victorian era, where it was a fancy dessert enjoyed by the upper classes. The term ‘velvet’ in itself suggested how the cake was a delicacy in itself, with a soft and velvety crumb.

Fast forward to the Second World War, when foods were scarce and hence were rationed. Bakers of those times had no options but to use boiled beetroot juice to enhance the colour of their cakes and make it more visually appealing. Additionally, since beetroot was cheap, it acted as a great filler in a lot of recipes, and also helped to retain moisture. This is how the cakes ended up being red, and hence the name ‘red velvet cake’.

Red velvet cake
Red velvet cake on a white wood background. the toning. selective focus

Interestingly, traditional recipes never called for any artificial food colouring. Instead, the red colour was a result of the beetroot juice, as well as due to the unprocessed cocoa powder that was used back in those times. (Cocoa powder these days is Dutch-processed, which means that it is alkalinized to remove the acidity of the cocoa powder). That is to say, the cocoa powder was acidic, and contained what is known as anthocyanins. These anthocyanins are naturally occurring pigments that turn red in the presence of an acid. And since a traditional red velvet cake will always call for acidic ingredients such as buttermilk and vinegar; the cake batter is red as a result of this scientific reaction.

However, it was not long before the red velvet cake was highly commercialized, and Adams Extract, a company from Texas, introduced the red food colour to popularize the cake and bring it to kitchens across America. In fact, the original recipe of the cake is extremely popular in New York’s famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which has gone as far as to call the red velvet cake the ‘Waldorf-Astoria Cake’. Many, however, argue that it is a southern recipe, and a traditional red velvet cake will always call for a French style roux icing, which is also known as ermine icing. These days, however, cream cheese frosting and buttercream frosting are much more popular and synonymous with the red velvet cake.

Of late, the cake and its mini version-the red velvet cupcake- has gained much popularity in Europe and the USA.

Also read Japanese CheeseCake Recipe

Popular versions of the red velvet cake:

Ice cream with red velvet cake dessert
Ice cream with red velvet cake dessert – Color Filter Processing

Variations of the red velvet cake are also gaining a lot of popularity these days, with home bakers and chefs across the globe adding their own innovation and personal touch, from the red velvet cake to the red velvet icecream cake, and from the keto red velvet cake to the vegan red velvet cake. Not only this, the flavour has increased so much in popularity these days, that it is not uncommon to come across red velvet cookies, red velvet brownies, red velvet brownies, red velvet shakes and smoothies, and so much more. Red velvet protein powders, waffles, alcohols, etc. are also gaining more and more popularity these days, and the flavour and scent is now also used for candles, soaps, air fresheners, etc.

You can easily make a red velvet cake at home from scratch, using just basic ingredients; though all modern recipes will definitely call for lots of food colour. This is because the cocoa powder these days is all Dutch processed, and in the absence of any natural scientific reaction; a colouring additive is needed. Moreover, with the commercialization of the flavour, most people tend to associate a good red velvet cake with a stark bright red colour, and anything less fancier than that is discarded on the grounds of not being authentic enough.

But to face the bitter reality, such huge amounts of artificial food colours are not really that good for our health, and if you saw the amounts of food colouring going in, you too would definitely avoid consuming a red velvet cake from a store. So, the next time you head out to buy a red velvet cake, make sure that you don’t just go on looks and colour, but prefer an authentic place which is probably serving you a much more genuine and healthier, though less appealing version of the dessert.

Also read Veg Cake Recipe to Enliven Summer

Baking the perfect red velvet cake at home:

If you are planning to make one at home, nothing can be better for you. Look for recipes that call for beetroot juice, since that is the ideal and original way to do it; but if you really cannot, stick to unprocessed cocoa powder. Some food colour, in limits and moderation, would do no harm; but be sure to buy one from a genuine brand, to limit the intake of harmful chemicals in your body.

Here is a super easy red velvet cake recipe for you to try at home:


½ cup unsalted butter

½ cup caster sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla essence

1 ¼ cup flour

1/8 cup unprocessed cocoa powder

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

1 tsp. red food colour


  1. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar till light and fluffy, and add the egg in parks.
  3. In a separate bowls, mix together all the dry ingredients, and add half of this dry mix to the first bowl.
  4. Alternate with the buttermilk, vinegar and food colour, beating well to combine.
  5. Pour the batter in a greased cake tin, and bake for around 30 minutes, or till a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Until then, happy baking!

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