If you have even a remote familiarity with sweet desserts, there is little doubt that you have at least heard of red velvet cake. It has an exquisite, luscious appearance that makes you feel that you are partaking in the most delectable of desserts.
You may know it from its red, crimson, red-brown, or scarlet coloring. There can be variations to the recipe but the main ingredients tend to be buttermilk, flour, sugar, butter, cocoa powder, and some kind of cream cheese-based icing. Beetroot can be used as well but it isn’t mandatory.
Red velvet cake is known for being a very soft kind of cake that is airy in nature and can be served as a “fancy” dessert. It became known around the same time that devil’s food cake was introduced and some believe that red velvet cake was introduced as a result.
The question remains, however: why is red velvet cake actually red? And the answer is kind of simple in nature.
Why Is Red Velvet Cake Red?
Originally, red velvet cake was made with buttermilk, vinegar, and cocoa powder. The chemical reaction that takes place between the cocoa powder, the buttermilk, and the vinegar is the reason.
This is because the cocoa powder contains an ingredient known as anthocyanin. This is a pH-sensitive antioxidant that has a natural reaction to acids, thus creating that red tint that red velvet cake has become known for.
Enter Adams Extract, a company that produced food coloring. Adams Extract was naturally looking to sell more food coloring, so they came up with an ingenious marketing plan: create a recipe for red velvet cake that required quite a bit of their red food coloring.
The result was obvious: a bright red color to the cake that we now associate with red velvet cake to this day. That’s not to say that the cake can’t be the crimson or maroon color that we see from time to time, though. It really depends on what your recipe happens to be.
The “Velvet” Isn’t About the Color
It’s funny that the “red” portion of “red velvet” became the aesthetic focus that we consider. This is because the velvet name was actually in reference to the texture. A quality red velvet cake is smooth and, you guessed it, velvety in nature.
The texture of the cake was influenced by the ingredients that were used to make these types of cakes. While some recipes for red velvet cake have varied throughout the years, they all had some combination of baking soda and either buttermilk or vinegar.
Because vinegar and buttermilk are both acidic, when mixed with the baking soda, they create bubbles. When those bubbles are created, they are what wind up fluffing up the cake and making it both smooth and light in texture.
What’s also unique about red velvet cake is that the buttermilk and vinegar will react with the cocoa powder in the cake mix as well. This is due to the aforementioned anthocyanins. You can find these compounds in things such as red cabbage.
They can be used to indicate pH levels since they get redder and redder in the presence of acids that are a bit stronger in nature. This is the same active ingredient in cocoa that gives red velvet cake the red finish that we all know.
Cocoa Powder Has Changed
Now, most types of cocoa powder that you will find in the stores are processed with what is known as an alkalizing agent.
This is a base that is meant to neutralize the acidity of the cocoa powder. It is also the reason why most of the recipes that you will find using cocoa powder will specify what type of cocoa powder you will need to use for that cake.
The alkalizing agent in the cake changes the way that it responds to the baking powder or baking soda. That alkalizing agent will make it either get too fluffy or fall flat entirely.
This is what keeps it from developing that red tint that you see what it gets mixed in with the vinegar or buttermilk.
Even if you manage to get hold of an older recipe for your red velvet cake, you won’t get the same results because of that alkalizing agent that is now commonly implemented in the cocoa powder.
Keep in mind that red velvet cake was created back in the Great Depression and the terms weren’t exactly comparable (brown sugar was called “red sugar,” for instance) so things are a little different.
How Can Red Velvet Be Used?
What is great about red velvet is that it doesn’t have to be used as the traditional icing-covered cake that we traditionally think about. It actually has a wide array of uses and implementations so that you can create the concoction that fits your wants best.
Red velvet, for instance, can be used in not only desserts but breakfast items as well. Red velvet pancakes are now a popular breakfast option that uses vinegar and cocoa powder to create that red coloring that makes the pancakes really pop.
You can also use red velvet in things such as cookies and cinnamon rolls, too, using the cake mix. Really, red velvet can be used in any way that you want it to be used and creates the same rich, velvety texture that made the cake such a popular option.
Confusion with Chocolate Cake
Believe it or not, red velvet cake was confused with chocolate cake for quite a long time.
It might seem crazy because of the red food coloring that gives red velvet its appearance whereas chocolate cake is naturally a dark brown color. This was mostly due to the ingredients that get used in both types of cake: buttermilk and vinegar.
Both types of cake also contain cocoa powder, which added to the mistaken identity of these cakes. The difference here is that chocolate cake does not contain that combination of vinegar and buttermilk that gives red velvet cake its distinctive texture.
They both have a similar taste due to the cocoa powder but it is that vinegar-and-buttermilk combination that makes red velvet cake a finer, more rich texture and flavor than buttermilk.
So despite the fact that they taste somewhat similar in nature, there is no real similarity between the two types of cake.
How to Make a Red Velvet Cake
The recipes can vary depending on where you look or who you go with but there are general principles to a red velvet cake that make it what it is.
Most of the recipes that you will find use vanilla, eggs, butter, some kind of red food coloring, buttermilk, vinegar, and cocoa powder. There are interchangeable ingredients that can be added or removed but these are your foundation for red velvet cake.
You’ll want to start by gathering all of your ingredients together and preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure that you use grease or a cooking spray as well as flour in your round cake pans to prevent sticking.
If you don’t use something to prevent sticking, your entire cake can fall apart and that would be positively disastrous for the results.
Begin by mixing together sugar and butter until the texture is both light and fluffy. Add in your eggs and beat them for about a minute or so before adding in your vanilla and beating that until the mixture is completely blended together.
Next, add in your food coloring, cocoa powder, and around two tablespoons of water and beat it until you have an egg creamed mixture that you will eventually combine with salt and flour. You will want to alternate between adding buttermilk and flour textures to the batter, beating it on a low to medium speed as you do so.
After you have created the batter, you will want to spoon it evenly into as many cake pans as you have created batter for. When your oven is fully preheated, you can place your cake pans into the oven and bake, somewhere in the 22- to 28-minute range. It can all depend on the type of stove that you have.
While it bakes, you can make your frosting. This is just some milk and flour cooked in a saucepan and cooled in the fridge.
You then beat it with sugar, butter, and a little bit of vanilla. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of creating your own frosting, you can just pick up a cream cheese frosting that has already been prepared at the store.
When the cake has finished baking, all that is left to do is coat the top and sides with your frosting and you will be ready to enjoy a delicious, smooth, velvety cake that has been enjoyed by millions throughout the years.
And it is far easier to make a red velvet cake than you may have realized. So get to baking and start enjoying red velvet cake as millions others have.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.