What is Red Velvet Cake?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
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  • Last Modified Date: 11 December 2018
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Red velvet cake is a dessert popular in the American South, where it most likely originated. It is similar in flavor and texture to yellow cake, but contains cocoa and typically gets its trademark color from red food coloring. Recipes for this cake vary widely, and its color can range from a deep red-brown to a somewhat off-putting fuchsia.

The exact origin of red velvet cake is not known. A 1972 cookbook, James Beard's American Cookery, tells that the addition of acidic ingredients like buttermilk and vinegar react chemically with cocoa to produce a reddish shade. Though Beard's recipes use food coloring, cocoa used to be less alkaline than it is now, so it is possible that cooks began adding red food coloring to mimic the effect of acidic ingredients on older types of cocoa. Not all recipes use food coloring, however; some prefer boiled beets. This cake traditionally has white cream cheese frosting.


Red velvet cake was the subject of a 1960s urban legend in which a customer at New York's Waldorf-Astoria was sold a recipe for the dessert at a whopping price. The tall tale is accompanied by the supposed recipe, passed on the friends and acquaintances as revenge against the store. However, this story has been around since the 1940s at least, and the type of dessert and the priced charged for the recipe vary with the times. In the most current version, it is Nieman Marcus who sells a chocolate chip cookie for $250 US dollars (USD).

While the cake is more down-home comfort food than haute cuisine, it is increasingly popular in commercial bakeries. It made an appearance in 1989 in the movie Steel Magnolias, and Texan singer Jessica Simpson notoriously had one at her wedding. Though some chefs are horrified at the quantities of food coloring involved in the red velvet cake, the dessert seems here to stay.


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Post 6

It occurs to me that, as heretical as it sounds, to get a good strong chocolate flavor in the cake, a baker might fill the layers with a thin chocolate ganache. A teaspoon of instant coffee or espresso powder dissolved in a little hot water would also kick the flavor quotient up.

One could put the cream cheese frosting over the ganache, between the layers. It's worth a thought.

Post 5

Red velvet cake is kind of a hard balance to strike. You want the red color, but it should have a good chocolate flavor, too. The advent of concentrated gel and/or powder food coloring does make it a lot easier to get the red color with less food coloring, and still maintain the chocolate flavor.

I've found the gel or powder colorings available most places where baking supplies are sold, like Michael's. If they sell cake decorating supplies, they usually sell these kinds of food coloring. They're worth looking for. But a red velvet cake, in my opinion, also needs a good, strong chocolate flavor to be a good cake. And cream cheese icing is always preferable to buttercream. The slightly tangy flavor is a good complement to the sweetness of the rest of the cake.

Post 4

I think Red Velvet Cake is so bland, it is almost tasteless. I can distinguish "sort of" a chocolate flavor, but it is so bland, I think it is a waste of time, unless a person is looking for an appearances only type of cake where flavor does not really matter.

Post 3

Sunny27- I agree with you. I recently went on a luxury cruise and they sold red velvet cup cakes in a little bakery counter.

They said it was one of their most popular flavors. So I think the red velvet cake is more widely accepted and mainstream now.

Post 2

Anon44392- I agree with you. In fact, I love the taste of red velvet cake. I prefer the cream cheese frosting over the butter cream. To me it is not as sweet and tastes better.

Post 1

When done properly, red velvet cake is not tacky--just when it is baked in the shape of an armadillo. Red velvet cake has been around for quite a while.

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