The intriguingly dark color of red velvet cake has fascinated foodies since its origins in the early 1900s -- and everyone else after the blood-red hue became a punchline in the 1989 movie "Steel Magnolias." There's no question the color of red velvet cake differs dramatically from current neon-colored confections. A chemical reaction once explained the deep red, but modern cooks achieve it by tempering the brightness of food coloring with the traditional addition of brown cocoa.
The most pervasive theory about red velvet cake's creation is that bakers played up the chemical reaction between cocoa powder and either buttermilk or vinegar. Cocoas of the time contained compounds that, when combined with an acidic ingredient, turned reddish -- or dark red, factoring in cocoa's own brown color. Cooks may have also played with beet juice as a red colorant, again with the cocoa's brown darkening the beet's pinkish hue.
Modern recipes rely on red food coloring to put the "red" in red velvet cake. Even when the recipe includes buttermilk or vinegar, the ingredients' acidity doesn't react with the Dutch cocoa used today. Dutch cocoa is processed to be pH neutral. But the red coloring does not result in the vivid red batter you'd get when baking a standard white cake recipe. Instead, keeping the addition of the cocoa alters the coloring's bright red to the traditional crimson color.
When making a standard red velvet cake, you pour the batter into two or three pans, bake the layers separately and finish the cake with a cream cheese frosting. To achieve the classic color, 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder are combined with the other dry ingredients. In the wet ingredients mixing bowl, you'll whisk 1 tablespoon red food coloring in with the other ingredients. If you're not satisfied with the color after it bakes, adjusting the amounts of either the cocoa powder or the food coloring may lead to a more pleasing hue.
If you dislike the dark shade of traditional red velvet cake, the simplest option is to leave out the cocoa powder. This will also allow you to use less food coloring because you won't have to compensate for the brown of the cocoa. For the brightest of red cakes, leave the amount at 1 tablespoon, or decrease it for a less vivid color. Because cocoa powder is not used to tenderize modern velvet cakes, you are unlikely to have to compensate for its omission.
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