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What Is Red Velvet Cake? Here’s Valentine’s Day’s Favorite Flavor, Demystified

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Red velvet cake is basically synonymous with celebration—Valentine’s Day in particular. With its lively red hue and tangy, stark-white icing, red velvet is an attention-grabbing showstopper that demands an occasion. But what is red velvet cake and where did it originate? The answer, as it turns out, is more convoluted than you might think.

24 Red Velvet Recipes to Bake Now


What Is Red Velvet Cake and What Makes It Special?

Named for its red, velvety appearance, red velvet cake has an interesting flavor profile. Not quite vanilla, not quite chocolate, it strikes a balance as a tangy buttermilk cake with a hint of chocolate in varying amounts of cocoa powder. The addition of oil and, on occasion, cake flour, yield the siren-red cake’s tender crumb. A swirl of cream cheese frosting adds a sweet, zingy finish.

The History of Red Velvet Cake

The legendary Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and the storied Eaton’s Department Store in Toronto both lay claim to the invention of red velvet cake, but the dessert did not appear on either menu until the 1930s. According to Kim Severson at The New York Times, early versions of red velvet cake first appeared in the 1800s Victorian era. At the time, cocoa powder available in raw form, and so when paired with an acid, like buttermilk, yielded a rich burgundy color.

The red hue as we see today wouldn’t appear until World War II, when red velvet cake really took off. Following the government's clarified food dye regulations under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Adams Exact Company of Dallas, Texas, began selling red food dye to the masses. To promote it, the company distributed recipes for red velvet cake with ermine frosting. Cream cheese would make an entrance in the 1940s.

Red velvet cake truly catapulted into the American dessert canon to the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias.” Yep, it was that armadillo cake. A decade later, the beloved Magnolia Bakery opened in New York City’s West Village, selling red velvet cupcakes. We haven’t been able to get enough ever since.

Our Favorite Red Velvet Cake Recipes

Want to try your hand at this beloved dessert? Here are four of our favorite red velvet cake recipes for you to try. Because whether or not it’s Valentine’s Day, we’ll always take a slice.

red velvet whoopie pies
ERIN MCDOWELL

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

Now this is one the kids will love for the school Valentine’s Day party. Tuck one into their lunchbox or send a whole tray to the classroom.

red velvet lava cake
PHOTO: LIZ ANDREW/STYLING: ERIN MCDOWELL

Red Velvet Lava Cakes

Whip up something fancy for dinner for two. With a dreamy molten chocolate center, these red velvet lava cakes are the perfect way to end a romantic evening.

red velvet martini
PureWow

Red Velvet Martini

Red velvet for the grown-ups right here. With some cake-flavored vodka, homemade cream cheese frosting, crème de cacao and grenadine for the color, you’ve got a romantic pre-dinner drink.

Red Velvet Cake

Of course, you have to try out the classic, and this red velvet cake recipe doesn’t disappoint. Two layers of tender cake are swathed in a tangy cream cheese frosting that’ll have everyone fighting over the last slice.

Red Food Dye Alternatives

If you’re searching for natural food coloring as an alternative to artificial dye, there are several ways to achieve this in both store-bought and DIY fashion. However, keep in mind that the final shade of red may differ from the electric hue we’ve come to expect. If you’re deriving your red from another food, like a freeze-dried fruit for example, you’ll also want to take into account the flavor it may impart.

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