It's more than food coloring.

Red velvet cake: You know it, you love it, you crave it. But do you know what it actually is—and how it’s different from regular ol’ chocolate and devil’s food cakes? (Because it actually is a completely different thing!) Here’s what you need to know:

What Is Red Velvet Cake?

Red Velvet Ice-Cream Cake
Credit: Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Red velvet cake is a traditionally crimson-colored chocolate layer cake with cream cheese icing. It’s usually made with a combination of buttermilk, butter, cocoa, vinegar, and flour.

Thought to have originated sometime in the Victorian Era, red velvet cake was initially a high-brow dessert reserved for the elite or for special occasions.

Modern recipes often rely on food coloring to enhance the cake’s signature red hue (Beets were used during the Great Depression), but many experts believe the color comes from a chemical reaction: Natural cocoa powder contains anthocyanin, a compound found in fruits that creates dark-colored pigments. When anthocyanin interacts with an acid, like the vinegar found in red velvet cakes, its color becomes reddish.

The true source of the pigment is a source of debate among historians and food scholars, though. Other experts believe the cake’s name comes from its use of brown sugar, which used to be referred to as red sugar.

The cake owes its velvety texture to almond flour, cocoa, or cornstarch, according to The New York Times. These ingredients break down the protein in flour, resulting in a smooth and silky cake.

Red Velvet vs. Devil’s Food

Red Velvet Cake Getty 10/1/19
Credit: DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

There’s a widely believed myth that red velvet is just devil’s food with food coloring. This couldn’t be further from the truth—unique ingredients used in each traditional recipe make them two completely different cakes.

Devil’s food cake is a dense, rich type of chocolate layer cake. Its name comes from a simple fact: It is, quite literally, the opposite of the light and airy, white or yellow angel food cake. It’s often made with sour cream and coffee to ensure a dense texture and intense chocolate flavor.

It also typically calls for Dutch-process cocoa (cocoa that has been treated with an alkalizing agent).

Red velvet cake’s signature tang comes from vinegar, an ingredient that isn’t often found in devil’s food or classic chocolate cakes, and buttermilk. Red velvet recipes almost always call for natural cocoa to enhance its red color.

Red Velvet Recipes


Red velvet transcends just cake—the distinctive, tangy flavor has made a name for itself throughout the wonderful world of desserts. Check out some of our favorite red velvet recipes, from cake to pancakes to cookies:

Find even more red velvet recipes here.