What Are Red Velvet Cupcakes?

Jillian O Keeffe

Red velvet cupcakes are small versions of a traditional cake from the southern states of America, primarily a red sponge with cream frosting. Initially, the red color of the cake came from a component of cocoa, but modern versions may contain artificial coloring or pigments from beets. Essential ingredients, apart from cocoa, include vanilla and an acidic ingredient like vinegar or buttermilk.

Red velvet cake gets its vibrant color from food coloring.
Red velvet cake gets its vibrant color from food coloring.

Baking is a form of chemical interaction of ingredients, and sometimes a new combination of ingredients results in a cake with a distinctive appearance. Red velvet cupcakes are an example of the unexpected colors a cake can have with the addition of specific ingredients. Basically, a red velvet cake is a sponge cake that is flavored with vanilla. The red color that is an essential part of the cake originally came from the small amount of cocoa that went into the batter.

Baking soda is typically an essential ingredient when making cupcakes.
Baking soda is typically an essential ingredient when making cupcakes.

Cocoa contains many different chemicals, one of which is called anthocyanin. This chemical is a pigment, which means that it has a color. When the anthocyanin in the cocoa comes into contact with an acidic substance, the color becomes redder than usual. As one of the other regular ingredients of red velvet cupcakes is an acid such as buttermilk or vinegar, this allows the redness of the cake to develop. Too much cocoa gives the cake a brown chocolate tint, which can cover the red, so only a few spoons of cocoa powder are used in a typical batch of a dozen red velvet cupcakes.

Different ways of manufacturing cocoa powder were in fashion over the years, and the newest ways tend to add alkalinity to the cocoa during the processing time. Modern cocoa, therefore, may be less able to impart redness to red velvet cupcakes than previous varieties of cocoa. To make up for the lack of redness, bakers were able to add artificial coloring in the form of a few drops of red food coloring, although some bakers prefer to use natural sources of pigments such as those red colors from beets.

Commonly, the red sponge of the cupcakes are covered with a thick layer of frosting, usually white or cream in color to contrast with the scarlet of the cake itself. Frosting made from cream cheese, butter and icing sugar is one option, and butter-cream, which is merely icing sugar and butter together, is another. Typically, a red velvet cupcake has a hint of chocolate and a hint of vanilla in its flavorings. Other essential ingredients include baking soda, flour and sugar. Butter and eggs add richness and creaminess to the sponge.

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