While both red velvet and chocolate flavors are very popular in a variety of desserts, many people do not know what exactly is red velvet. Many assume that red velvet is simply chocolate cake dyed red, but there is so much more to both the flavor and the history of red velvet and its unique color.
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What are the Ingredient Differences?
The key difference between red velvet and chocolate comes down to their ingredients. Chocolate cakes (and most other chocolate desserts) get their chocolatey flavor from cocoa powder and/or melted chocolate and recipes typically call for a significant amount of chocolate.
On the other hand, red velvet has a stronger vanilla flavor, with only a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, along with the addition of buttermilk, vinegar, and of course, red food dye. The buttermilk and vinegar give the cake a tender crumb and a slightly tangy flavor as well.
Flavors in Red Velvet vs Chocolate
Because of the ingredient differences in chocolate and red velvet cakes, they each have a very different and distinct flavor profile.
Chocolate cake is widely enjoyed and known for its dense and rich flavor. Most chocolate desserts have large amounts of cocoa powder and/or melted chocolate bars giving them an intense chocolate flavor.
Red velvet on the other hand is far more complex. It has a vanilla base, but with the raw cocoa powder it has a soft and velvety crumb and a subtle chocolate flavor. With the addition of buttermilk and vinegar there is a subtle tanginess.
What Icing are they Paired With?
Red velvet is most known for being paired with cream cheese icing which pairs so nicely with the slightly tangy cake flavor. On the other hand, chocolate cake recipes tend to have a chocolate frosting.
Both chocolate and red velvet cakes can be paired with ermine icing. Ermine frosting is known as the original red velvet icing. It’s a boiled milk frosting with its main ingredients consisting of milk, butter, granulated sugar, and flour.
What Makes Red Velvet Red?
Red velvet gets its distinct color from the chemical reaction of natural cocoa powder and vinegar, which gives the cake a slightly reddish hue.
Red velvet cake was invented in the 1800’s. At the time, cake flour did not yet exist which is what bakers use today to create cake with a very tender and light velvety crumb. So at the time, it was common to use vinegar to help tenderize cakes.
Today, many cocoa powders are dutch-process meaning the natural acidity of the chocolate is neutralized, and the powder bears a darker shade. Before this process was common, natural cocoa powder was the only kind used in baking. Thus when the natural cocoa powder and acidic ingredients (vinegar and buttermilk) are mixed, you get red velvet.
Historically, red velvet cake was not as bright red as you envision now. Today, food coloring is most often used to get that distinct red color and with dye, you can really get a nice vibrant shade of red.
However, if you want to go the natural route to get a bright red color, you can use beet juice, beet powder, dried hibiscus, or even pomegranate juice. Keep in mind you might get a slightly different flavor in your baked goods with these substitutes.
Where does the "Velvet" come from?
Let’s start with the term “velvet”. Just as pound cakes or sponge cakes have specific techniques and ingredients that differ from each other, velvet is a style as well.
This style of cake originated in the Victorian Era (circa 1820-1900) when bakers added a small amount of cocoa powder to a vanilla buttermilk cake base. This small amount of powder gave the cake a nice light crumb, but was not enough chocolate to classify this as chocolate cake. (There are chocolate velvet cakes too, but velvet is most commonly associated with red velvet.)
The History of Red Velvet
Red velvet originated in the 19th century when velvet cakes became popular. Bakers begin to notice that when the cocoa powder was combined with the vinegar (as we discussed earlier) a reddish-brown hue was formed in the cake. However, at this time the term red velvet was not a common term but was known as a mahogany cake.
As time went on the recipe was passed around kitchens in the United States in the early 1900s, but it picked up fame in the 1930’s when the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City added it to its menu.
During World War II, cocoa powder was scarce which meant that it was challenging for bakers to get the red hue in their red velvet cakes. After dining at the Waldorf-Astoria, a businessman John A. Adams decided to capitalize on this trend. The Adams Extract company manufactured a red dye and created a similar red velvet recipe that featured that red dye making the recipe far more mainstream.
Now, most modern recipes use red food coloring to achieve the deep red color of the classic red velvet cake
Red Velvet Cake vs Devil’s Food Cake vs Chocolate Cake
Another fun fact is about the relationship between Red Velvet Cake and Devil's Food Cake. While Devil’s Food is more widely thought of as chocolate cake, it shares many similarities with red velvet. Both cakes use cocoa powder, while chocolate cakes have heavier ingredients such as melted chocolate and cream.
While red velvet and devil’s food share the cocoa powder, they differ in other ingredients which separates the two. Red velvet tends to use liquids such as buttermilk and/or vinegar. Devil's food uses coffee, water, or sour cream and has an increased amount of baking soda. However because of the cocoa, both cakes are light and airy with a tender crumb, as opposed to the more heavy and dense traditional chocolate cake.
I hope this inspired you to try a red velvet cake recipe or another fun red velvet dessert! It has such an interesting history and such a unique look. But for those of you that are die-hard chocolate fans, I don’t blame you either. Both red velvet and chocolate desserts are delicious and you can really get creative with these two flavor profiles. Happy Baking!
Red velvet is very common during Christmas time or Valentine's Day due to the red color. However, it can really be enjoyed at anytime of the year!
Traditionally, no. If you want a traditional red velvet cake, then use the natural cocoa powder and buttermilk/vinegar combo to get that slight red color.
However, most modern recipes rely on food coloring to dye the batter red, so you can substitute any color for the red. For example, blue velvet is another popular kind of dessert. Heck, you could do green for St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations!
Do keep in mind that some colors may be more appetizing than others, so proceed with caution here 🙂
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