What Is Red Velvet Cake, Really?

The combination of vivid red and pristine white icing is certainly striking inside a bakery case, but I've never been able to point to red velvet cake's exact flavor. It's... well... chocolate? Plus frosting? While we're asking questions, what constitutes red velvet cake—besides its color—in the first place?

Perhaps because of this confusion, red velvet cake has its critics. Orange Is The New Black's Officer O'Neill goes on a rant against red velvet at a bakery in season three: "In your heart of hearts, you know as well as I do, red velvet is bullshit. It tastes like Play-Doh. It is not velvety. And the only thing that's good about it is the cream cheese frosting, which is meant to live on top of carrot cake, like God intended. Red velvet isn't a thing."

But it is a thing, and has been for decades. Stella Parks of Bravetart fame claimed in a segment on The Splendid Table last week that the cake has its roots in the Victorian era. There was a "velvet cake" with a smooth, soft crumb, as well as a "dense and fudgy" chocolate cake made with egg yolks. Parks claimed that around 1911, the two recipes converged and a "velvet cocoa cake" was born.

But that doesn't explain its signature red hue. To find out, I got in touch with the people most responsible for red velvet cake's explosion onto the home baking scene: the Adams Flavors, Foods & Ingredients company, based in Gonzales, Texas. As manufacturers of red food coloring, among other products, the company heavily promoted home-baking recipes for the cake, which derived its hue from their bottled dyes.

The company tells me it began including recipe cards for red velvet cake in its food-coloring packages sometime between the 1920s and 1950s, and also featured the recipe on tear-off displays inside grocery stores. Though Adams doesn't have an exact date for its invention, the company says red velvet cake was promoted heavily during the 1940s and '50s and again beginning in the 1980s.

Before the debut of food coloring, though, red velvet cake was likely more rust-colored, not the vivid red we recognize today. And the velvet portion of its name referred to the light texture of the cake, not the frosting.

"Traditionally, red velvet cake had a buttermilk or vinegar component that activated with the baking soda to make it super fluffy or velvety. Plus the cocoa powder wasn't alkalized, so that would turn it a reddish-brown color when those combined," says Amanda Rockman, corporate executive pastry chef for New Waterloo hospitality group in Austin, Texas.

But who invented this distinctively hued cake? There are as many origin stories as there are recipes.

The Adams company credits Betty Adams, the wife of third-generation owner John G. Adams. Other historians credit bakers at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. After a few decades, the cake became associated with the American South, and then with Sex And The City favorite Magnolia Bakery.

"I think it's like pizza; everyone wants to claim it," Rockman says. "It probably came from some mom in like, Virginia, who went to bake a cake but had buttermilk instead of regular milk and then boom, red velvet cake."

Modern versions play with the ingredients a bit, but always keep the iconic, red-and-white colors intact. Using beet or pomegranate juice to dye the cake is one contemporary tweak; or using whipped goat cheese icing for a more savory version; or even using red wine in the batter.

However you bake it, bakers say the reason for its enduring appeal is simpler: Most people say it's all about the frosting. Betty Adams' recipe calls for ermine icing, a boiled milk icing made with flour that's also sometimes called flour buttercream or butter roux icing. Today, most red velvet cakes are made with a lightly tangy, sweet cream cheese version. Either way, this cake is mostly just a vehicle for that sweet, pristine white frosting.

"If we went back in a time machine and made yellow velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, we'd be all about that cake," Rockman says. "Red velvet cake is just a vessel for the cream cheese frosting, which is just what people want."