Red Velvet Cupcakes

Red velvet cupcakes (or cakes) are traditionally red, crimson, or scarlet-colored colored cakes, with fluffy white ermine icing. And aside from my classic coconut layer cake, red velvet has become a recent obsession of my older son. The deep red hue of this popular flavor is visually striking and immediately draws attention. For my kid, it was love at first bite.

What Makes Red Velvet So Special?

The uniqueness of red velvet is not just because of its color, but rather its texture and slightly tangy flavor.  Both moist and dense, with a fine crumb, is what makes red velvet so incredibly satisfying. The addition of cocoa powder to the batter is what adds a rich, subtle chocolatey flavor that is so memorable.

red velvet cupcakes

Red Velvet in History

In the 19th century, “velvet” cake, was a soft and velvety crumb cake served as a fancy dessert. This was in contrast to what had been the more common, coarser-crumbed cake. Around the turn of the 20th century, devil’s food cake was introduced, which many say is what led to red velvet’s invention. The key difference between the two cakes is that Devil’s Food Cake uses chocolate and red velvet cake uses cocoa.

red velvet cupcakes

Chemical Reaction

Before the use of food coloring, the vibrant red velvet color was achieved by a chemical reaction between acidic ingredients (buttermilk) and cocoa powder. The reaction caused the anthocyanin pigments present in the cocoa to develop a reddish hue, giving the cake a distinctive color. However, this reaction alone will not produce the vibrant red color typically associated with red velvet desserts today.

To further enhance the color, some recipes add vinegar or lemon juice to the batter. The additional acid intensifies the reaction between the cocoa powder and buttermilk, resulting in a brighter, more vibrant red color.

red velvet cupcakes

Natural Coloring Agents

When foods were rationed in the US during World War II, bakers used natural ingredients such as boiled beet juices to enhance the color of their cakes. Beets were, and often still are, used to help retain moisture. Adams Extract (and Sterling Crim an executive from the South) are credited with popularizing red velvet cakes during the Great Depression era because they were the first to sell red food coloring.

red velvet cupcakes

 Southern Favorite

In the 1930s, the Waldorf-Astoria, a well-known hotel in NYC, was one of the first to begin serving red velvet cake and thus credited for its invention. But in actuality, they likely only capitalized on a cake already popular throughout the country at the time. The cake itself is not very old, and truthfully, not all that Southern, except for the addition of buttermilk. But invention aside, red velvet is a big flavor favorite in the South and considered a go-to at Christmas and Juneteenth celebrations.  

red velvet cupcakes

In Honor of Eli

Cream cheese frosting on modern red velvet cupcakes (and cakes) is also a factor in the flavors’ popularity. The tangy, yet sweet frosting pairs perfectly with the slightly chocolatey flavor of the cake. The rich, indulgent topping adds yet another layer of visual interest. I developed this recipe for my son in honor of his 18th birthday today (May 4th). Just a few weeks from now we have his high school graduation. These are some happy, emotional, bitter-sweet, celebratory times. Happy birthday, happy graduation, happy everything E!

red velvet cupcakes

About the Author

Andrea Potischman

I am a professionally trained NYC chef turned CA mom and food blogger. I post about real food, with doable ingredient lists that are family friendly.

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