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).

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Comments

  1. 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. 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!

    1. 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 here.

      1. 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.

    2. This story is in error. The first Red Velvet cake was made with Dutched cocoa and baking SODA. The flour was from soft winter wheat. White vinegar was used to bubble and leaven the cake. It was named velvet because the leavening action of the vinegar reaction creates many more, and finer, bubbles, creating a fine, delicate texture. Vinegar turned the cocoa a SLIGHT HUE of red. The cake was NOT actually red. The original used BUTTER CREAM frosting. I am a Certified Professional Chef and Culinary Historian and promote accuracy.

  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!

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

      Beth

  4. 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???

    1. 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!

      1. There is such a difference in flavor between the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel – red cake and what is currently being sold as a ‘Red Velvet Cake’. The Waldorf-Astoria cake is buttermilk and shortening based recipe that lends its flavor to a whole different sensation than the red dyed chocolate cake being sold as ‘Red Velvet Cake’. The icing between the two also contributes greatly to the vast difference between the two. The Waldorf-Astoria cake icing has a flour and shortening roux base which can take some experience to master. The Waldorf-Astoria red cake has been a family staple for decades and will never be replaced by the current versions of the ‘Red Velvet Cake’ in our family as we are thrilled and biased to the flavor and smoothness of the original Waldorf-Astoria red cake.

  5. 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.

    1. 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….

    2. 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

      1. 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. 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. 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).

    1. 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.

      1. 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. 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? :)

    1. 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. 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!!)

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

    2. If you leave out the red dye, how do you get a white or vanilla-looking cake? What happens to all the cocoa powder?

  11. “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 ;-)

    1. So, it was purely a marketing strategy by Adams Extract to get more penny-pinching wives to buy their red food coloring during the Great Depression, and nothing more? And the “Velvet” came from the fine, smooth crumb? Got it. Thanks!

  12. I got this recipe from my mother-in-law back in the 60’s. At that time she was a hair dresser and did a doctor’s wife’s hair. The doctor’s wife went to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on vacation and she came back with this recipe which the recipe cost was on her bill when she checked out of the hotel. She told my mother-in-law that since it cost her so much that she was going to share it. Since both people are now passed, I cannot confirm this story to be true but I will believe my mother-in-law. She made this cake for every birthday and then my husband had to have it every year, then my two sons and now their children are in the family tradition of red cake for birthdays.

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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

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