Red Velvet Cake

Red velvet cake is a showstopping dessert that’s perfect for Valentine’s Day, the 4th of July, or any holiday. This recipe is silky, tender, and perfectly chocolatey topped with dreamy cream cheese frosting.

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This cake gets its classic red hue from food coloring, but the color originally came from white vinegar that reacted with non-Dutch cocoa powder. Buttermilk adds tang and helps leaven the cake, while natural cocoa powder creates a fine and soft crumb.

Origins

The history of Red velvet cake has a long and complicated story. Its origin is not completely certain, and many people have claimed to be its creator. It is known that it was popularized in the 1920s, when a New York hotel began serving it. The hotel credited itself with creating the dessert, but other sources say it was actually already well known in the South before that time. Around the same time, a ritzy department store in Toronto named Eaton’s started offering the dessert. They attributed it to Lady Flora Eaton, wife of a Canadian retail heir.

Throughout the 1800s recipes surfaced for cakes with a rich cocoa flavor and a deep reddish color. These were often called “velvet” cakes or “red cocoa” cakes. But these cakes didn’t have the vibrant red that we know and love today. That came when food dye became more widely available.

In the 1920s, a company called Adams Extract released a recipe that used its food coloring to really amp up the color of the cake to what we see today. The cake was a hit.

During WWII, as sugar and other ingredients were rationed, cooks needed to get creative with their baking. They found that beet juice gave cakes a natural reddish tint and increased the moistness of the cake. This hack helped families make a delicious and pretty cake while ensuring that their loved ones got enough nutrition.

Flavor

Red velvet cake is a popular dessert for special occasions such as 4th of July or gender reveal parties. However, it can also be enjoyed on other occasions such as a date night or just because you want a delicious treat. It is a rich, moist cake that has a hint of cocoa flavor and a soft texture that feels like velvet against your tongue. The cake is often paired with cream cheese frosting for the perfect combination of flavors.

What makes a red velvet cake red is actually a chemical reaction of a few key ingredients. When acidic buttermilk and vinegar react with natural, unprocessed cocoa powder it releases the red dye anthocyanins. This is similar to the color-changing properties of berries and other fruits. However, most cocoa powder goes through Dutch processing which prevents the anthocyanins from releasing. Hence, why today’s recipes call for red food coloring to achieve the same effect.

In addition to red dye, some recipes use white vinegar to help the baking soda react with the other cake ingredients. The cake is usually also sifted with flour and salt to make it light and fluffy. It’s a simple recipe that is easy to throw together with just a few ingredients.

Ingredients

Preheat the oven to 350F and grease two round cake pans. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together and set aside.

Food Coloring: Liquid or gel food coloring (affiliate link) is needed to get the vibrant red color that is so signature of this dessert. 2 tablespoons will work for this recipe. Cocoa: You can use either Dutch-process or natural cocoa powder, both will yield delicious results. You can also use a mix of the two to give you a little more chocolate flavor.

White Vinegar: It might seem odd to include vinegar in a cake, but this is essential for the leavening process. The acid in the vinegar helps the baking soda react with the non-Dutch processed cocoa to create a leavened cake batter. The same reaction can also be achieved with other acids, like lemon juice or apple cider.

Buttermilk: The buttermilk in this cake gives it a very light and fluffy texture with a fine crumb. It also tenderizes the flour, allowing the baking soda to react with it to make the cake rise.

This is a very special and delicious cake that is perfect for a 4th of July BBQ, Valentine’s Day, or even for a gender reveal party. It’s so much more than just a vanilla cake tinted red, it’s a delicate cross between cocoa and vanilla with a subtle tang from the buttermilk. I highly recommend trying it if you haven’t already!

Preparation

The cake’s classic red hue is the result of a chemical reaction among a few key ingredients. Back in the Victorian era, when cake flour was a rare commodity, vinegar was used to tenderize cakes before buttermilk was available. When combined with non-Dutch processed cocoa powder, the acid in the vinegar caused a reddish tint, hence the name “red velvet cake.” The color was amplified when food dye was added in the 1920s. This was probably done by a Southern dye company called Adams Extract that wanted to market the recipe for its red food coloring.

In addition to the flavor and color, vinegar helps activate the leavening for a light and fluffy crumb. Buttermilk adds moisture and a subtle tang, which makes it the perfect partner for this incredibly moist cake. Cocoa powder provides a hint of flavor without overwhelming the batter with its rich, bitter chocolate taste.

Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day, a birthday, or even Juneteenth (the holiday that marks the freedom of enslaved African Americans), you can’t go wrong with a slice of this beautiful cake. This moist and rich cake is layered with a creamy and velvety smooth cream cheese frosting that makes it the perfect party treat. Served with a side of vanilla ice cream, it’s the ultimate indulgence.