Seeing Red Over the Origins of Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

After heading down countless dead-end alleys and hitting walls in her search for the history of red velvet cake, frustrated reader Cathy Nolan turned to us.

While no one know exactly when and where Red Velvet Cake originated, a story (and a recipe) began circulating around the United States in the 1920s about a cake that supposedly was served at the restaurant in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Here’s an account of this urban legend as it appeared in Jan Brunvand’s book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W.W. Norton, 1989):

Our friend, Dean Blair, got on a bus in San Jose one morning and shortly after, a lady got on the bus and started passing out these 3 x 5 cards with the recipe for “Red Velvet Cake.” She said she had recently been in New York and had dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria and had this cake. After she returned to San Jose, she wrote to the hotel asking for the name of the chef who had originated the cake, and if she could have the recipe.

Subsequently she received the recipe in the mail along with a bill for something like $350 from the chef. She took the matter to her attorney, and he advised her that she would have to pay it because she had not inquired beforehand if there would be a charge for the service, and if so, how much it would be. Consequently, she apparently thought this would be a good way to get even with the chef.

Because of this story, and similar variations, Red Velvet Cake is also known as Waldorf-Astoria Cake, $100 Cake, $200 Cake, etc.

There’s also a scientific myth associated with Red Velvet Cake. It has sometimes been asserted that the cake’s red color comes from a chemical reaction between the baking soda and the chocolate in the recipe. This is the result of a simple misunderstanding of the chemistry involved. While cocoa powder contains anthocyanins (red vegetable pigments) they are only red in the presence of acids –they turn blue-green in the presence of bases. When cocoa is mixed with the baking soda, a base, the combination should turn the cake an unappetizing brownish-gray. It doesn’t, of course, because the anthocyanins are present in very small quantities, and any color shift is masked by the more prominent brown of the chocolate. The red color of the cake comes from a much simpler source: large amounts red food coloring.

The supposed red color resulting from the baking soda/cocoa combination also appears in connection with Devil’s Food Cake. I wonder if Red Velvet Cake was created because Devil’s Food Cake doesn’t look nearly as red as its name would suggest. This is akin to some folks adding green food coloring to Key Lime Pie because it doesn’t appear “limey” enough.

References
Beard, James and Thollander, Earl. James Beard’s American Cookery. New York, Budget Book, 1996.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 1997, (rev. 12004).

Article © 2002–2009 Gary Allen. All rights reserved.
Visit Gary’s Web site, On the Table.

About Gary Allen

Our food history editor, Gary Allen, teaches food writing and various food and culture courses at Empire State College, has been vice-president, newsletter editor and webmaster for the Association for the Study of Food and Society. His books include The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and the anthology Human Cuisine.
His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, a volume in The Edible Series of Reaktion Press, will be published in May 2012. He’s currently at work on another book for the same series—on sausage. Visit him at his website, On the Table, and blog, Just Served.

Comments
Comments
  1. Deborah Welton says:

    I ate Red Velvet Cake for the first time in my life. I am not usually a fan of chocolate, but this cake was DELICIOUS!!!!! There was a creamy white frosting and the cake was so moist. So, just letting you all know…. this cake is to die for……

  2. anika says:

    Dear Gary, thanks for the information on the chemistry of cocoa and baking soda. It’s also often said that natural cocoa powder can be leavened with baking soda while Dutched/alkalized will have no reaction with baking soda, thus requiring the use of baking powder.

    From what you said about the insignificant quantity of anthocyanins in cocoa powder, it seems that, in reality, natural and alkalized cocoas probably act mostly in the same way. Is that correct? Thanks in advance!

    • gary says:

      Hi Anika,

      I think we’re talking about two different issues.

      Anthocyanins are pigments, and have little or no effect on leavening.

      For baking soda to work (release CO2), it requires the presence of an acid. You can see this easily by dissolving some in plain water. You’ll see little or no bubbles. Add a small amount of vinegar and watch out!

      Normal, unDutched cocoa is slightly acidic, so it could react with baking soda in a similar way, albeit more gently. Dutched cocoa has been treated with an alkaline substance that renders it chemically neutral or even alkaline — so it no longer contains an acid to react with the baking soda.

      This may be more chemistry than you wanted — but, if not, you can read more at http://www.hersheys.com/nutrition-professionals/cocoa-powder/composition/physical-properties.aspx.

      • Staci says:

        The chemical reaction in red velvet cake is between natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder and either buttermilk or vinegar. Most modern recipes call for sour cream instead, which doesn’t result in a very red cake. Find a recipe that calls for buttermilk or vinegar (but no red dye). Don’t expect a fire-engine red cake, though. It’s more a deep red-brown–but definitely red.

        Incidentally, if you use natural cocoa, the same reaction can be seen in the Moosewood 6-Minute Chocolate Cake, which is not a red velvet cake but does include vinegar. I recommend using Trader Joe’s natural cocoa powder.

  3. I found this very interesting! I have often wondered the origin of the Red velvet cake. I read on other posts on different blogs that the cake has a more southern tradition than a New York one. Either way, it can be a delicious cake when made well!

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      I agree, Steve. Red Velvet Cake is my absolute favorite, and I always think of it as a Southern treat…

      Beth

  4. sue says:

    I have not tried this recipe but I think red velvet cake is horrible! All I can imagine is the taste of red dye!!! I looked up the history as I thought it would have been a really old recipe that used tomatoes or beets in the cake. Why would red dye make a cake taste good???

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      That’s a curious question, Sue! All cakes should taste great. That’s why we’re especially glad Bea Vo’s recipe doesn’t use artificial red dye–you still get that beautiful color without a funky taste. It might just change your stance on red velvet cake, too!

  5. Greg Patent says:

    Stella Parks in the October 2, 2011, issue of GiltTaste tells the true story of Red Velvet Cake. Velvet cakes, named for their fine-texture, go back to at least 1873. Red Velvet Cakes came about in the depression era and were “invented” by John A. Adams, the owner of Adams Extract Company. To bump up sales he added 2 bottles of red dye to a cake recipe (along with vanilla and butter flavoring) and exhibited a large photo of the cake at his displays in groceries in the Midwest and parts of the South. The cake became a sensation.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Thanks, Greg. That could very well be true! Although we are still a little hesitant to embrace any one story as gospel truth, given that it happened so long ago….

    • JaY says:

      Adams started in 1888 if you wanted the right numbers ..1873 would be incorrect..and it was out of Texas originally…call adams they are still around :). Renee he is pretty much right. And most of everything was dated even “so long ago”. Sawwy

      • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

        By way of explanation, Jay, I guess my background as a newspaper writer and editor has me hesitant to state anything as fact that I haven’t thoroughly vetted myself. But I see what you’re saying and yes, even so long ago things were dated. Very happy to consider this as very likely story the story of how it all began!

  6. heydummies says:

    Food coloring doesn’t have any taste, or you can use beets, but that takes forever. Even if you don’t “dye” it at all, it still tastes the same with cream cheese icing. Name it “velvet cake” and call it a day.

  7. To my understanding in the origin of the red velvet cake it came from Russia. The people there at that time were limited on what they could have and buy. They would save their scraps of breads, rolls or other things that could be used. When there was enough it was combined together and mixed with even some vodka and the other ingredients in order to make a cake. Red food coloring was used to make the combination more appealing so the different colors of the natural colors would not show. This became a recipe used often for all birthdays, holidays, and celebrations. This story was passed down to me from my mother who would have been 85.

  8. Gary Allen says:

    That’s a really interesting twist, Darcy… the connection with beets has often been made, and Russians DO like their beets. Any idea where your mother heard the story?

    Virtually all of the earliest references to the cake point to the American south as its birthplace, but I suspect the true origin will always be a mystery (unless a recipe is discovered in a hidden chamber in one of the pyramids).

    • Well, my mother received the story from her mother and so on and I believe my grandmother’s maden name is Burgland and my mother’s Malcom and mine Wilson so it is quite possible. Another lil tidbit was that there was an abundunce of red food coloring because it was not used often so it was one of the things on the list of things received with there other stuff monthly as an insult and reminder because it was red as its dictators referred color. So they turned it around. I guess like when life gives you lemons make lemonade. But unfortunately I do not have any absolutes for these findings.

      • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

        Darcy, many, many thanks for enlightening us, we’d never heard this story before. With far too many sad things in life on the news each night, it’s nice to be able to believe in something lovely like this. And yes, as you say, when life gives you lemons…

  9. cmgifford says:

    My understanding is that the traditional red velvet cake got its name from the reaction btwn: vinegar, or buttermilk, and the cocoa powder. Sometimes vinegar and buttermilk were both added, resulting in a deeper red coloring. what dya think? :)

    • sanscravat says:

      Anthocyanins do get redder in the presence of acids, which makes sense. Unfortunately, the acids you mentioned are neutralized by baking soda to produce the leavening CO2. Even the pH remained low enough for that color shift, there’s nowhere near enough anthocyanin in the cocoa to account for the intense coloration of these cakes.

      Chemistry is certainly involved, but I suspect it occurs primarily in some dyeworks (which, I’m guessing, are not in the South, but in New Jersey — the Garden State where most artificial colors, flavors, and aromas grow best).

  10. Susan says:

    I often don’t use the dye, and I get a white or vanilla looking cake, but the taste is great! it is different than a regular cake, the vinegar and buttermilk give a very different flavor. You don’t need coloring to really enjoy it…..(Although I will say that around the holidays I color one layer green, one red and leave the other white and it makes a great presentation!!)

    • David Leite says:

      Susan, I agree the color adds no flavor or flavor appeal. But I think the red and green is festive for the holidays.

  11. JaY says:

    “The cake of a wife time”..was the marketing title which was on the cover cards of this free recipe at it’s time.. It was Adams extract ;-)

  12. I love that the cake in the picture isn’t TOO red, it means there wasn’t a ton of food coloring used!

  13. Tracy says:

    I think you will find that the original recipe includes beetroot for the colour and makes the cake moist.

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