Origins of Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

This post has been updated. Originally published October 17, 2006.

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 & Company, 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 & Company, 1989.

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

Comments

  1. There are a lot of comments put forth, all sounding oh-so-very authoritative, but without a single one claiming to have actually made the cake themselves, including the original author. Did you people ever track down the truth? I’m assuming this article was posted in very early 2010, as per the date of the first comment, but contrary to the date listed at the top. In the intervening 8½ YEARS, hasn’t anyone (author, website owners, commentators) bothered to actually follow the legendary recipe using buttermilk, natural non-Dutch processed cocoa, and vinegar (word for word, no tweaks, no dye) to definitively find out if the result is indeed reddish and velvety? All this scientific and intellectual conjecture is just that, guesswork, without having actually made the product in question. This should have been done before the article was ever published in the first place, especially in the case of a subject with so much heresay and urban legends attached. I don’t have any more of a reliable answer as to the origin and/or final result of following one of the older, more authentic recipes than when I began. Please clue us in. That is, after all, one of the reasons we patronize this website in the first place. Thanks.

    1. Max, thanks for your pointed comment. The article is referring to the cake known as “red velvet cake,” a term coined much, much later than the 1880s. Velvet cakes had been around for quite some time before the red velvet cake took off, but it had a brownish hue, much like a chocolate cake. We didn’t need to test the original recipe because we knew the result–it wouldn’t be anywhere near as red as the cake we now know.

      It seems as if the cake that became known as red velvet cake appeared in the 1930s, and the Waldorf Astoria played an crucial part in its popularization. You can read a full account of it in this New York Times article.

  2. Red Velvet Cake is the most delicious cake ever, I have about three different recipes but buttermilk and cocoa is constant.

  3. I’ve often wondered about how the cake came about because quite a few of my friends don’t like chocolate cake, but red velvet is their favorite (it’s not nice to confuse the blonde). I always figured that it was a grandmother or a mother who decided to add red food coloring to chocolate cake to get either their grandchildren or child to eat it.

  4. I also obtained the recipe for “Red Waldorf Cake” from my mother-in-law in the 1960’s. We live in Ohio. I made this special cake for my husband on his birthday and sometimes at Christmas. They got the recipe when they stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The recipe I have for the cake is pretty much like the ones listed on the website – except for the frosting we cook the flour and milk in a double boiler, let it cool. Combine the butter – straight from the refrigerator (not softened) with powdered sugar and vanilla. Add the cooled flour/milk “roux” to butter mixture until consistency of cream cheese. Also, we bake the cake in 2 – 9 inch cake pans and when cooled, split the two layers into four and then frost. (Use toothpicks as a guide and then slice with dental floss or heavy thread.)
    Red velvet cakes seem to be all the rage in 2016 but none of them taste anywhere as good as my home made Red Waldorf cake.

  5. I work at a bakery in NYC and we use apple cider vinegar in our red velvet cake. It creates a chemical reaction with the cocoa powder and voila! It is red!

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