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What is red velvet?

Cream-Filled Red Velvet Cupcakes

The term “red velvet” gets tossed around a lot these days.  It is  – arguably – the hottest cake flavor out there if you watch food focused TV programming where all the presenters go ga-ga over a slice of the cake. But for every time I hear the praises of red velvet cake sung, I also hear someone complain about a bland cake, a cake with too much food coloring and a cake that just gives you an excuse to eat cream cheese frosting because it is better than the cake itself. So what is red velvet?

Red velvet cake usually surfaces as a buttermilk cake with a lot of red food coloring in it to give it its distinctive color. The exact origins of the cake are unknown, and there are plenty of theories out there that try to explain how the cake got to be red. The original red velvet cake is said to have had a reddish hue that was caused by the reaction between natural cocoa powder and an acidic ingredient, like buttermilk. You can observe a slight reddish tint in chocolate cupcakes made with these two ingredients. Even a small amount of cocoa powder will tint the cake more brown than red, however, so even if this classic recipe began in this way, it really is the red food coloring that makes it what it is today. Since the color is so distinctive, it is easy to translate the cake into other recipes, like whoopie pies and pancakes, in addition to cupcakes and cakes.

Most red velvet cakes, in a nod to the traditional origin story of the cake, contain buttermilk and a very small amount of cocoa powder. These ingredients give the cake a subtle, yet distinctive and delicious flavor that is not quite chocolate and not quite plain vanilla. The cake is usually topped off with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting, which adds even more flavor to the cake and gives it a high contrast red and white finish.

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  • Liz @ Blog is the New Black
    December 9, 2010

    I agree, always tried to figure out “what” RV is! 🙂

  • Belinda @zomppa
    December 9, 2010

    Ah. Thank you for this! I’ve always wondered….

  • nossi
    December 9, 2010

    I thought the original red velvet had to do with dutch process cocoa which is treated with a base, and therefore the cocoa was more red, than natural acidic cocoa?

  • Lauren at KeepItSweet
    December 9, 2010

    i love red velvet cake – thanks for posting this. don’t some versions also incorporate beets for the coloring?

  • sharon
    December 9, 2010

    It wasn’t always a cream cheese frosting. My recipe from about 50 yrs ago uses a cooked white frosting that is whipped to the consistency of whipped cream. Plenty of red foold coloring, tho’ – a whole bottle.

  • Pattyk
    December 9, 2010

    My recipe also has a cooked creamy, white frosting that is not too sweet, and makes a red velvet cake. The combination of flavors and color is the best.

  • Krystal
    December 9, 2010

    I just made 4 doz red velvet cupcakes for a wedding, and could not for the life of me, figure out what made them so amazing like I’ve always heard. They were easy to make, and didn’t taste much different than a chocolate cupcake–less mild, yes, but not amazing. Thanks for posting all the information!

    -Krystal @ recipesofcheapskate.blogspot.com

  • Jessika
    December 10, 2010

    The redness is more of effect than it’s about flavour. If you give some time into kitchen chemistry (which I haven’t) you could probably calculate the best ratio buttermilk and cocoa. I’ve seen a recipe that used mild vinegar, regular milk and cocoa powder. Can’t remember where I saw it though.

  • Bethany
    January 27, 2012

    This is the best description I have seen on the internet. Thank you. I don’t like desserts that are called red velvet but merely dyed red — what a disappointment these are. I think it’s like what you said “not quite chocolate, not quite vanilla” with the added slightly sour taste from buttermilk.

  • Alex
    November 29, 2014

    I always thought it was chocolate 😄😄😄😄😄

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