Red velvet, if you please

Store-bought Red Velvet Cupcakes

Store-bought red velvet cupcakes

I encountered red velvet (the dessert, not the fabric) for the first time when my brother and his fiancée were planning their wedding in the hot summer of 2011. They invited me to a swanky and well air-conditioned cupcakery in Muskoka to sample some flavours and, as I’ve convinced myself anyway, to give them some sisterly wedding advice.

I don’t remember all the flavours we tasted that day (though the lemon and Oreo stand out) but I do remember the red velvet. It tasted earthy and alkaline with a hint of cocoa and was topped with a white frosting, but I couldn’t put my finger on what flavour it was supposed to be.

My brother no doubt took pleasure in explaining to me the origins of this mystery “flavour”; red velvet is apparently

made from raw (unprocessed) cacao, which gives it a mild flavour and reddish tinge.

At least, that’s the story he was given, and it holds up – at least in theory. In practice, however, red velvet is generally made with twice as much red colouring as cocoa powder. And while raw cacao might have been red-colour-culprit at the froufrou bakery we visited (though I doubt it), I’ve yet to

Raw cocoa bean

Raw cocoa bean. Photo by Eva Schuster,

see a red velvet recipe that’s not laden with added colour.

Red velvet is a feast for the eyes, generally at the expense of the palate.

Doing some additional digging online, red velvet cake seems to be a southern tradition. Despite being beautiful (and containing up to two cups of butter/oil per recipe) many reviewers call it “dry” and “flavourless”. The cake itself generally includes buttermilk, vinegar (a holdover from the original recipe below), vegetable oil (or shortening), butter and a cream cheese frosting.

As to its origins, the best answer I can give comes from the unknown history of the red velvet cake, to which nearly all online “red velvet” online queries point: it’s a southern cake invented in the 1800’s, originally subtly coloured by the cacao (which would have been less processed than the stuff we use today) mixed with something acidic. Food colouring made crimson waves in the early 1900’s when it was peddled by a man looking to boost sales in the frugal World War I climate.

These days, I can look around my local grocery store and see red velvet popping up in cakes, cupcakes, and cookies. I’ve tried a few of these store-bought concoctions and agree they’re more enticing to the eye than the taste buds.

Disregarding white sugar and bleached white flour for a moment, you could make red velvet cake using natural food colouring. I’m vegetarian, so I avoid this stuff because it’s made from crushed cochineal bugs and because the bottles of colouring I’ve seen don’t list the colour’s source (synthetic/natural). To add fuel to this red-hot fire, recently one of my colleagues had an anaphylactic reaction to red food dye in her salmon…which is just another reason to avoid added colours altogether.

If you’re looking for a more natural red velvet cake recipe, try one of these:



  1. […] We like our food to be beautiful, and to look enticing even if it doesn’t taste all that good (red velvet cake is a prime example). Money is made with processed goods where cheap fillers can displace more […]

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