Who invented the red velvet cake?

Unknown. However it seems that it’s been around in one form or another since the about the 1930’s. In those days it was something of a regional specialty, being closely tied to the State of Texas, especially the City of Austin and most especially the Adams Extract Company. Adams manufactured food colorings, and one of the company’s favorite promotion techniques was to give away copies of recipes that used colors — lots and lots of colors. They spread around quite a few copies of their red velvet cake over time.

By the 50’s and early 60’s red velvet cake had burst its regional boundaries and had spread all over the West, Northwest and Midwest. By that point it just may have reached the East, especially the City of New York and most especially the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but that’s a subject for another post.

Red velvet cake is and always was a novelty. Odds are it was originally created for the holiday season, a bright red buttermilk cake that was meant to look Christmas-y. Its popularity peaked in the 60’s, when other-worldy looking foods were all the rage in the States and housewives delighted in bright molded fruit salads, cube-shaped savory aspics and spherical potted meat dumplings.

Red velvet all but went the way of ketchup-pistachio cake (I know, but it actually existed) before it regained prominence in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. It was “a thing”, as the kids like to say, all through the 90’s, until it’s popularity seemed to explode about five years ago. Since then red velvet has been pervasive, and so has the rumor that there was once a version that didn’t use red food coloring. Alas red velvet and two ounces of red coloring go hand-in-hand. Such is life in America, where we like to play with our food almost as much as we like to eat it.

15 thoughts on “Who invented the red velvet cake?”

    1. That’s an excellent question. Yes, it seems that even the very old recipes have at least a little cocoa in them, probably to give the old recipes some alchemical mystique versus actual flavor. I think a little more cocoa is important, just to give it an identity from a flavor standpoint.

      Thanks Chana!

      – Joe

  1. This is what I’m wondering: why not ditch the cocoa, since that seems to be the main thing competing with a truly red color, and add a few drops of chocolate essence or flavoring? This way you get the flavor profile along with the bright red color, since the red food coloring will have less to contend with. Sacrilege?

    Please note: I have never used chocolate essence, and I have never made (or eaten, for that matter) red velvet cake. I guess I don’t really understand the whole red velvet thing. As usual, your posts are enlightening.

    1. Thanks, Chana!

      To me the reason for the cocoa is quite simply flavor and texture. Cocoa powder effects both. Some recipes call for as little as two tablespoons which, to your point, hardly seems worth the time. A quarter cup is enough to change the dynamic of the cake from a standard yellow butter cake. Yes it does detract a bit from the color, but I sorta like the darker shade. A few recipes out there use white cake as a starting point instead of yellow cake, giving them an even brighter color, then add very, very little cocoa so as not to pollute it. I think I’d find the color (even more) alarming and the cake boring…to the taste at least. But that’s me!

      – Joe

  2. it’s interesting to see the history, but now I’m interested in that ketchup pistachio cake. care to tell us what that was?

    1. Hey Joey!

      The only place I’ve seen it referenced was in a book I own called “The Gallery of Regrettable Food.” The book shows the illustration/photo from the original recipe card, but not the recipe, darn it. Apparently it was thought up by one of those recipe cards-of-the-month companies that were around then and mostly disappeared in the 80’s. I wish I had the formula because I’d try it for sure. What I can say is that it looked like a standard ketchup cake ( which is eerily similar to red velvet cake now that I think about it: http://www.heinzketchup.com/RecipeDetail.aspx?id=1438 ) though with a green pistachio-flavored frosting. I may actually have to give it a go now, since I guess I’ve pretty much figured it out!

      – Joe

      1. In a similar vein, my mom once – and only once – made tomato soup cake, following a recipe that may well have been taken from the label of a can of Campbell’s. Twenty-five years later or so, it remains a classic three-word joke between me and my sister.

  3. I think we should spice things up with that ketchup cake and switch out ketchup with Texas Pete sauce or Tabasco for some zip. It does look eerily like a red velvet cake but you still have to add all that color so what’s the point of the ketchup? LOL

    You are alone in wanting to try a red cake with green frosting and ketchup and pistachio combo.

    They have argued taste with red coloring and you can find red coloring in cake decorator stores with no taste to it. I wonder if that would alter the red velvet cake to “taste” different?

  4. Um it was double Dutch coco it had reaction with vinegar and soda

    1. Hey Chef Tim!

      I’ve never been able to replicate a reaction like that. If you can, please send pictures!

      – Joe

  5. Coco was used in the original cake for color before red food dye. The vinegar in the recipe reacts with the coco to bring out the red tones natural to Coco. In most cases Coco is still used out of tradition more than flavor

    1. Hey Valarie!

      Thanks for writing in! I’ve heard that many times, and I wish I could say I believed it. A year or so ago I spent a week attempting to create just such a reaction with no luck…not even a slight tint of red. You can see some of the results here:


      By all means, if you can generate even a tiny amount of red color from a combination of cocoa, acid and heat let me know! I will post the results and consider the myth un-busted!


      – Joe

  6. SO I am wondering did it originally have a cream cheese frosting? I know the wardolf recipe had a buttercream right? But before that was it cream cheese or did that develope later? I think cream cheese is the best and only way to eat it. My boyfriend prefers buttercream. He said buttercream was the original way it was made. I would love to know if that is true.

    1. Hey Michelle!

      From what I recall the records that I found didn’t mention frosting other than it was usually white. My feeling is that if cream cheese frosting was original someone would have mentioned it somewhere, since it would have been an oddity for the time. My feeling is that some form of buttercream is what went on the first red velvets, but that’s just me. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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