When Great Chemistry Has You Seeing Red

Twenty plus years ago I fell in love. It was initially from a distance. We are told not to put too much weight on appearances. This time, however, I could not help myself; one look and I was smitten. I needed to know more and began my quest for a name and anything else I could discover. The more I learned, the deeper my curiosity and love grew. Eventually we met. The encounter was sweet, enticing, and delightful. My new love was smooth, velvety and… well I’m not the kind of girl to kiss and tell but let’s just say thus began my long-lasting relationship with “Red” – or rather Red Velvet Cake.

It was 1989 while watching the movie Steel Magnolias that I was first introduced to Red Velvet Cake. Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, has a special groom’s cake (a southern tradition) baked for her wedding. It was shaped like an armadillo, which on its own was quite unique, but it was when they cut into the cake that I was entranced. It was bright red inside. Now those of you who know me know I have a bit of a thing for red – ok more than a bit…perhaps obsession would be a more apt description. Naturally when I saw this vibrantly coloured cake I experienced a serious case of dessert lust and perhaps even envy.

Photo By Lyndsay Jenkinson


I started to research this cake not even knowing its name. I soon found out that it was known as Red Velvet Cake. I also discovered the origins of this cake are somewhat sketchy. Some claim that it was originally a Southern (USA) recipe; however, others claim that it originated in the North. The Waldorf Astoria has been laid claim to this recipe in a story which is now regarded somewhat as an urban myth. There are also stories that the cake was the invention of the Eaton’s department store chain in Canada. It was promoted as an exclusive Eaton’s recipe and was a well-known dessert in the store restaurants in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Any Eaton’s employees who knew the recipe were sworn to secrecy and many believed it to be a recipe developed by Lady Eaton herself.

There are just as many recipes (if not more) for this popular dessert as there are stories about its origins. Google Red Velvet Cake and you will find many versions of the recipe and variations on the cake; some are great…some, not so much. If you want to pick the right recipe there are a few things you should know about what makes a successful Red Velvet Cake. It’s all about the chemistry. So grab a stool kids and gather around the lab table…

Photo by Lyndsay Jenkinson

Today’s lesson…


Make sure your kitchen is clean and that you have a good amount of clear space on your counter…get your mind out of the gutter people – this is not that kind of chemistry lesson…ok all suggestiveness aside…

Baking is both an art and a science and Red Velvet Cake is an excellent example of this. Looking at recipes for Red velvet Cake you will notice two things:

  1. Many recipes call for buttermilk rather than regular milk.
  2. Many recipes do not use baking powder, but rather baking soda and vinegar as the leavening agent.

These ingredients are crucial to a good Red Velvet Cake recipe. Why? Well, the red colour of the cake is actually caused by a chemical reaction when combining alkaline ingredients (baking soda,) with acidic ingredients (vinegar, buttermilk) and cocoa powder. Cocoa powder contains pigments called anthocyanin. These pigments are found in several plants and can appear red, purple or blue depending on pH. Because their color changes with pH, anthocyanin can actually be used as pH indicators. In acidic solutions were the pH is <7, the pigments turn pink, purple in neutral solutions (pH ~ 7), greenish yellow in alkaline solutions (pH > 7), and colourless in very alkaline solutions…but I digress…

Photo by Lyndsay Jenkinson

The point I am making is that the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to better reveal the red anthocyanin in the cocoa. Therefore, if the recipe does not call for baking soda, vinegar, and buttermilk it is not the recipe for you. The substitution of baking powder will lessen the red colouring which is such a large part of the cake’s allure. The same can be said if the recipe substitutes regular milk for the buttermilk. Buttermilk also lends the cake a much richer flavour.

Another ingredient found in every Red Velvet Cake recipe today is red food colouring, but this was not always the case. Many years ago natural cocoa was used in baking. Natural Cocoa is acidic and lends itself well to the chemical reaction necessary to produce the red anthocyanin. In more recent years, however, Dutch Processed cocoa powder has taken its place. This processed or refined cocoa is treated with alkalizing agents thus enhancing the cocoa’ brown colour and smoothing out the flavour while at the same time lowering its acidity. The use of a more alkaline cocoa tends to produce a lighter red colour than natural cocoa. It is thought that red food colouring was introduced to the Red Velvet Cake recipe to deepen the colour when using refined cocoa and /or because somewhere along the line the old fashioned red was thought to be just not red enough.

Photo By Lyndsay Jenkinson

One more science note, before you all become bored and start playing with your Bunsen burners… Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is the source of carbon dioxide and is activated by an acidic agent such as vinegar.  This activation releases the CO2 into the cake and leavens the batter, but note the vinegar reacts with baking soda quickly; retention of gas bubbles is dependent on batter viscosity and it is critical for the batter to be baked before the gas escapes. Therefore, in order for you to get the best results from this leavening agent, don’t leave your batter sitting around. Get it into the oven as soon as possible.


Now that you all know more than you quite possibly ever wanted to about Red Velvet Cake, let me introduce you to my velvety desire. Below is the recipe I have used for over twenty years.

Photo by Lyndsay Jenkinson


Cream together:

  • ½ cup (125 ml) shortening
  • 1 ½ cups (375 ml) granulated sugar


2 eggs

Mix together into a paste and add to above:

  • 2 tbsp. (25 ml) cocoa
  • 1 2-oz. (60 ml) bottle of red food colouring


  • 1 tsp. (5ml) vanilla
  • 1 tsp. (5ml) salt

Add alternately:

  • 1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
  • 2 ¼ cups (550 ml) sifted cake flour

Note: Always start with the flour and end with the flour.

Mix together and fold into batter:

  • 1 tsp. (5ml) baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. (15 ml) white vinegar

Pour into two 9” cake pans and bake for 30 minutes @ 350° F (180° C).

Alternately for a 3 layer cake: Pour into three 9” cake pans and bake for 25 minutes @ 350° F (180° C).

For Cupcakes: Line 2 (12-cup) muffin pans with cupcake papers.Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake tins about 2/3 filled. Bake in oven for about 20 to 22 minutes, turning the pans once, half way through. Test the cupcakes with a toothpick for doneness. Remove from oven and cool completely before frosting

For these cupcakes I used Paula Dean’s recipe for Cream Cheese Icing from the Food Network.

Photo by Lyndsay Jenkinson

Red Velvet Cake is typically a three layer cake, but for the purpose of this blog, and for the sake of my waistline, I have chosen to bake cupcakes. This way my small family can enjoy this velvety dessert without having to consume an entire cake and today being Valentine’s Day,  I can give the rest of the cupcakes to unsuspecting “valentines “ , kind of  like cupid!

…now where did I put that bow and arrow.

Photos by Lyndsay Jenkinson

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4 Responses to When Great Chemistry Has You Seeing Red

  1. Sandy says:

    I love it! I’m going to try it as soon as possible!

  2. Brandy says:

    I am doing a chemistry project on Red Velvet Cake and i have been trying to find the Chemical equation for it. Is the one in the picture above accurate?

    • those3chicks says:

      Hi. Thanks for stopping by the blog. 🙂

      I did write these formulas and diagrams. To the best of my knowledge the information is correct. Just note that the diagram in the middle of the page is for the Anthocyanin. The formula “NaHCO3 + H…” in the upper left corner is the formula for the reaction between sodium bicarbonate and the acidcic vinegar. It should not say “baking soda” above that, that was my mistake writing that there. Good luck with your project. I would love to hear how it turns out


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