The History of Red Velvet Cake & A Retro Velvet Cake Recipe

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day! I have always loved the concept of Valentine’s Day, and whether you’re single or partnered, I hope you do, too. Valentine’s Day doesn’t need to be commercial, it doesn’t need to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be limited to romantic love. This year, think of Valentine’s Day as an excuse to show your love for the people who matter most in your life.

Since I love to bake, I decided to bake red velvet cupcakes for my Valentine. The only problem? Red velvet cake recipes call for red food coloring (ie. Red #40 and/or Red #3).  Red #3, also known as disodium 2 (2,4,5,7-tetraiodo- 3-oxido- 6- oxoxanthen-9-yl) benzoate monohydrate, has more recently been replaced by Red #40, a chemical derived from petroleum, also known as 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-, disodium salt, and disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate)These don’t sound like foods, do they?

Since artificial food coloring has been linked to ADHD, thyroid cancer, chromosomal damage, asthma, migraines, and a variety of other symptoms, artificial food coloring is an additive I try to avoid. So I set to work researching red velvet cake to find out how I could create it authentically and naturally — without the use of artificial food coloring.

The origins of the first red velvet cake are as mysterious as they are romantic. As Southerners tell the story, the red velvet cake came about in the South during the Civil War. The cake has certainly become something of a Southern tradition, showing up at Juneteenth celebrations and even making appearances at traditional Southern weddings.  New Yorkers claim the cake was invented in the 1950s at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

Wherever the cake originated, recipes for Red Devil’s Food cakes began appearing in American newspapers in the 1930s. What do a 1938 Los Angeles Times recipe, a 1946 Joy of Cooking recipe, and a 1956 Betty Crocker recipe all have in common? They don’t use food coloring. The deep red color we know so well today was not part of the original red velvet tradition. There is speculation that the name came from a reaction between alkaline ingredients (baking soda or powder) and acidic ingredients (natural cocoa, buttermilk, and vinegar) that produced a subtle, earthy, rust-brown hue.  Another theory suggests that brown sugar, which was originally called “red sugar,” was a prominent ingredient in the original recipe, and thus influenced the name. One thing is for sure: Red velvet cake was not born red. The color may seem important today, but recipes dating back to the late 1800s for Velvet Cake make no mention of the color red. Velvet was a reference to the fine crumb texture.

The most likely story for the roots of red-colored velvet cake as we know it today comes from a food coloring manufacturer, The Adams Extract Company. To combat slowing sales during The Great Depression and encourage consumers to find new uses for food dyes, The Adams Extract Company advertised their red food coloring under large color illustrations of red-colored cakes, and included a cake recipe with every purchase of a bottle of Adams Red Color.

My search for dye-free red velvet cakes returned recipes calling for beets instead of red dye, and bakers’ claims that lemon juice can preserve that beet-red color during the baking process. Please let me know if you find an all-natural recipe that actually produces a color you identify as red. I read reviews of countless recipes, and concluded that the only way to achieve that deep, blood-red color without artificial coloring is to use so much natural coloring (pomegranate juice, beet roots, etc.) that you risk altering the flavor of the cake.

But if you love red velvet cake, you know it’s not about the color.  Red velvet cake is known for its sweet, tart, and savory taste. This Valentine’s Day, let’s not take the name too literally.  Be retro, be traditional, be old-fashioned — be natural. Make that red velvet cake brown.  Recipe below.

Tips to achieve a reddish-brown hue naturally:

  • Choose a recipe that calls for both distilled white vinegar and buttermilk. (The chemical reaction is said to deepen a reddish tint.)
  • Use all-natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder.
  • Replace the food coloring with a mixture of pureed beets and lemon juice (at a ratio of 4:1, beats:lemon juice).


[Dye-free Retro Red Velvet Cake]


  • 1 1/4 cups white flour
  • 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder *
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large cage-free egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 1 tsp white distilled vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup cooked beet (about 1 small beet, boiled and pureed)
  • 1 tbs lemon juice

* For a more authentic rust-brown hue, be sure to look for natural cocoa powder and avoid Dutch-processed.

[Cream Cheese Frosting]


  • 4 oz. cream cheese (1/2 package), softened
  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup organic powdered sugar (Trader Joe’s sells organic powdered sugar.)
  • Optional Garnish: strawberries or chopped pecans


  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line 12 muffin tins with cupcake liners.
  2. Puree (cooked) beet.  Add lemon juice and mix.  Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.
  4. In a large bowl, mix softened butter, buttermilk, (beaten) egg, vanilla, and vinegar.  Add beet-lemon mixture.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until smooth.
  6. Divide equally into 12 lined muffin tins.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely.
  8. To frost: Mix cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until smooth.  Slowly add powdered sugar and gently mix until incorporated.  Beat until light and fluffy.  Frost.

Now, don’t forget to share your cupcake creations with your Valentine(s)!

Categories: Recipes, Baking, & Cooking

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I don’t know of any all-natural way to make cake red, but thanks for your tips! I can’t wait to try them out.

    Great post!

  2. Such an interesting article! I’ve been hearing about the problems with red food dye recently on the news. I can’t wait to try your recipe, it’s really the taste that counts anyway, not the flavor!

  3. some people have reaction to beet sugar. in 60’s we had pink sugar, you would know it was not is not as sweet and so the amount used must be changed. have you noticed choc fudge just isn’t as good as Granny made, she used pink sugar.Please remember “pinch of salt”=amount between thumb and two of four fingers =1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon -summer, winter variation what you need and how it cooks. “a pinch or two”!

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