It all comes down to business.
Red velvet cake makes an appearance in my home every Thanksgiving and Christmas. We would order the same cake from Piccadilly’s every year until the cafeteria chain slowly disappeared. Once our go-to store had closed, I took it upon myself to continue the tradition by making the cake—dressed in cream cheese frosting and chopped pecan pieces—from scratch. Most of the recipes that I've come across call for between one to two ounces of red food coloring in order to achieve the cake’s signature claim to fame. Typically, when I dye any dessert, a few drops of coloring is enough to yield a vibrant hue. However, this is not the case for red velvet cake—one ounce or more IS the whole bottle of coloring, and then some. It got me thinking, how did this classic cake arrive at the point where an entire bottle of food dye needs to be dumped into the batter?
There are a few different accounts on how and why red velvet cake adopted its color. It starts with the O.G. of cakes called velvet cakes (sans the red) that dates back to the 1800s. The New York Times notes that these cakes used ingredients such as almond flour, cocoa, and cornstarch to break down the protein in flour, resulting in cakes with a silky crumb texture.
The use of cocoa powder is a key piece of the story. Natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed) contains, anthocyanin, a compound found in plants (such as raspberries, blueberries, and purple cabbage) that creates dark-colored pigments, from red to black. When anthocyanin interacts with an acid, it changes pigments to a reddish color. This means that when cocoa powder interacts with acidic buttermilk and vinegar, it yields a dark red pigment. Most red velvet cake recipes also call for baking soda as the leavening agent. When mixed with buttermilk, baking soda creates gas and air giving the cake a “velvety” fine crumb texture. Between the velvet texture and red pigment, the red velvet cake was born.
It’s also noted that brown sugar was once referred to as red sugar, and “red sugar” was also a possible source of the naming of red velvet cake.
Now, let’s circle back around to how food coloring ended up in red velvet cake. John Adams owned a flavor extract and food coloring company and was looking for new ways to boost sales. Legend has it that Mr. Adam’s wife had a slice of red velvet cake at the Waldorf Astoria in New York that was sweetened and colored with beets. Another story claims that the hotel used beets primarily as a coloring agent for the cake because they used Dutch-processed cocoa instead of natural cocoa. (Dutch-processed cocoa is alkalized to create a milder tasting and darker colored powder, therefore it bakes dark brown instead of reddish-brown.) Adams decided to mimic the cake with red food coloring instead of beets to sell his products. He featured advertisements of red velvet cake accompanied by a recipe on the boxes of vanilla extract and red food coloring to motivate buyers to use his products for baking. This clever marketing tactic is what lead to the widespread use of food coloring in red velvet cakes today.
With so many varying accounts of how red velvet cake developed its signature look, it's hard to say with certainty when exactly the entire bottle of food coloring became a pillar of this favorite cake recipe.. Of course, history aside, it's easy to see why red velvet remains a crowd favorite—the cake is as delicious as it is eye-catching. If you are looking to bake a red velvet cake, but prefer not to incorporate red food coloring, using beets is a viable way to achieve the classic tone naturally with a hint of earthiness. And according to science, you can leave out a coloring agent altogether and still get a very dark red cake.