What's the Deal with Red Velvet Cake

Willie Chriesman/Á la Carte Alabama

Red velvet cake is always popular in this part of the country. But particularly so this time of year. Whether layer cakes, sheet cakes, cupcakes, pancakes, cookies, ice cream, milkshakes or even lattes, you usually don’t have to look too far in Alabama for something flavored red velvet. But where did it come from? Why is it called velvet? Why is it red?

When did it first appear?

According to the website Cheesecake.com, velvet cakes have been made since the 1800’s. To soften the sometimes coarse flour, bakers would add cocoa to make for a finer texture. So fine it was like velvet and hence the name. By the 1900s, recipes for red velvet cake and its variations began appearing in print. Its big debut came in 1943 in the classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking—even though author Irma S. Rombauer didn’t express a lot of love for the crimson treat.

Why is it red?

Red Velvet.jpg

Originally, the red tint came naturally. A story from Gizmodo describes how, back in the day, cocoa powder contained anthocyanins, a naturally occurring compound that can turn bright red when combined with acidic ingredients like vinegar and buttermilk, both of which go into red velvet cake. But most cocoa today is processed with an alkalizing agent that neutralizes its acidity. Some tried to replicate the red coloring by using beets in their recipe, but for most of us today, getting that red splendor requires dumping food coloring into the batter.

That was made easier by a guy from Texas named John A. Adams. According to The New York Times, he owned the Adams Extract Co. in Gonzales, Texas, and saw an opportunity after Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to sell more extracts and food dyes. And what would be a better way than red cakes. In fact, the company even came up with a recipe it encouraged people to use (with their ingredients, of course).

Some say it began its current popularity with the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, where it made an appearance as a groom’s cake shaped like an armadillo. No matter. It is still a Southern staple of Christmas, Valentine’s Day and pretty much any other time of the year.

Here is the recipe for what Adams calls “The Original Red Velvet Cake.”

Cake Batter

Prep Time/Cook Time:

15 minutes / 25 minutes


•             1 tsp soda

•             1 cup buttermilk

•             1 Tbl. vinegar

•             1/2 cup shortening

•             1-1/2 cups sugar

•             2 eggs

•             1 tsp. "Adams Best" Vanilla

•             1 tsp. Adams Butter Flavor

•             1 ounce Adams Red Color

•             3 Tbl. cocoa

•             2-1/2 cups sifted flour

•             1 tsp. salt


Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat vigorously. Add flavors to mixture. In a separate bowl make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and blend into shortening mixture. Sift together dry ingredients and add alternately with buttermilk to mixture. Add vinegar to mixture with last part of buttermilk. Blend well. Bake in 3-9" or 10" pans for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool completely. Cover with classic white icing or cream cheese frosting.

Tip: substitute 1/2 cup unsalted butter for shortening and Adams Butter Flavor

Tip: Make your own buttermilk by mixing 1 Tablespoon vinegar to 1 cup milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes.

Recipe source: Adams Extract & Spice Company