Skip to Content

What is Red Velvet?

We are all familiar with red velvet cake – that brightly colored, wonderfully moist treat, best topped with a luscious creram cheese frosting. But have you ever stopped to wonder… what IS red velvet and how did that name ever come about?

Red Velvet Sheet Cake Photo

A quick history of red velvet cake

The true history of red velvet cake is unclear, although there are recipes dating from the 1800s that contained – amongst other ingredients – buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa.

When buttermilk and vinegar are used in a recipe together, a reaction takes place that reveals the red anthocyanin (pigment) in cocoa. This would have made the finished cake look red in color, hence the name (although original red velvet cakes were probably nowhere near as brightly colored as they are today)!

Red Velvet Sheet Cake Picture

This reaction wouldn’t work with just any cocoa. Much of the cocoa we buy today has been ‘dutched’. This means that it has been treated with an alkalyzing agent, which weakens its taste and changes its color. Un-dutched cocoa, on the other hand, would have turned red.

It has become more common in recent years to add some kind of food coloring to chocolate cake and call it red velvet. But the buttermilk and vinegar in the original recipe did more than just turn the cocoa red – they also gave the cake an incredibly fine texture. This is where the ‘velvet’ part of the description came in.

So a true red velvet cake is exceptionally soft, with a red color that comes naturally from a reaction with un-dutched cocoa. 

Red Velvet Waffles Image

How red velvet cakes are made today

Red velvet cakes are highly popular now, particularly since one featured in the movie Steel Magnolias in 1989.

Whilst original red velvet cakes didn’t contain any food coloring, they often do today. In fact, a Texan company called Adams Extract started selling red food coloring with tear-off recipe cards for red velvet cake during the Great Depression. 

Red Velvet Sheet Cake Pic

During the Second World War, bakers – struggling with their meagre rations – would color the cake with beet juice. You can still sometimes see beet juice listed in recipes today. It’s actually a good choice, because it not only gives the cake a fabulous color, but it helps keep it nice and moist too.

Other colorings used include pomegranate juice… and even red wine!

Red velvet can be used for more than just cakes!

There are LOTS of different red velvet goodies on the market these days. You can find everything from pancakes and waffles to candles and tea. You can even get red velvet vodka!

Red Velvet Thumbprint Cookies Image

Red Velvet Cookies make the perfect festive treat – the color is just so appropriate! Or how about whipping up a gorgeous Red Velvet Crème Brûlée – ideal for Valentine’s Day, or just  for a little indulgence!

If you’re a cheesecake fan, make sure you try the Cheesecake Factory Red Velvet Cheesecake – it seriously tastes as good as the original. 

And don’t miss our recipe for Vegan Red Velvet Cupcakes – the ultimate treat for two!