The beauty of a perfect red velvet cake is in the details. The light, fine crumb; the subtle taste of cocoa; the smooth cream cheese frosting. Combined, these ingredients create an unmistakable treat that is the perfect dessert for Valentine’s Day or any occasion.
There is a long and storied history behind the scarlet-hued confection. Like language itself, it took many voices and mouths to evolve into the delectable treat that it is today. The origins and exact ingredients are a bit contested, but there is one thing that is clear: the richly colored confection is now America’s unofficial sweet for Valentine’s Day.
Unlike a traditional chocolate cake, which uses chemistry to give cakes their distinctive brown color, red velvet cake gets its hue from natural ingredients such as cocoa powder and buttermilk. The natural acid in buttermilk reacts with the cocoa to produce its distinctive reddish-brown color. The buttermilk also adds a deliciously tangy flavor and helps the batter rise. It is believed that the first modern red velvet cakes were served at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and at Eaton’s department store in Toronto around 1940. It’s also rumored that during World War II, when food was rationed, bakers used boiled beet juices in their recipes to make cakes more vibrantly red.
What we do know is that, by about 1950, the cake was on its way to becoming a staple in American kitchens, with particular fervor in the American South. Recipes began to appear in cookbooks, such as The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, and advertisements for the cake began appearing in magazines and newspapers.
It’s also possible that the cake exploded in popularity around that time due to the reintroduction of more alkaline “Dutch processed” cocoa powder, which was less bitter and more easily absorbed by the flour in baked goods. In addition, during the rationing period of World War II, beet juice and other natural colorings were frequently added to cakes because they weren’t subject to the same government restrictions as butter and vanilla extract.
Today, many bakers still use natural cocoa powder in their red velvet cakes. However, the majority of red velvet cakes on the market are made with Dutch-processed cocoa powder because it is easier to find and more readily available. Some bakers even use a mix of natural and Dutch-processed cocoa powder to get the best of both worlds.
The key to making a perfectly red velvet cake is in the ingredients, especially the type of butter. It is important to use unsalted butter so you can control the amount of salt in the cake. It’s also important to use buttermilk instead of milk or water. You can buy buttermilk at most grocery stores and it’s easy to make at home. It is also a good idea to use natural food coloring, which will keep the cake moist and provide the best results. Red velvet cake that is frosted can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. Unfrosted red velvet cakes should be kept at room temperature.