The Key Difference Between Red Velvet And Chocolate Cake

To many, red velvet is a familiar flavor that cannot be quite pinned down. Some say with utmost confidence that red velvet is just chocolate with red food coloring. But there is much more nuance to it than that — and it stems far beyond the fact that red velvet is typically topped with cream cheese frosting while the topping isn't so commonly used for chocolate cake. 

The origins of red velvet remain a debated subject: Some credit the iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where other mainstays of American cuisine were born, for creating the beloved dessert in the 1930s while others believe it came about as a result of the introduction of commercial cocoa powder in the 1900s. 

Of course, since one eats with their eyes as much as they do with their stomachs, many bakers add red food coloring to create that iconic red hue. But in terms of texture and flavor, what makes red velvet distinct from chocolate cake?

Red velvet is acidic

The original type of cocoa powder used to make red velvet cake was known as natural cocoa powder, a more acidic version with higher levels of anthocyanin that, when combined with buttermilk, turned batter red. But decades later, a recipe for red velvet made with food coloring additives became popularized, giving red velvet its not-so-natural red hue. If you're adamant about sticking to traditional red velvet recipes, you must use natural cocoa powder instead of Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

The acidic nature of natural cocoa makes it a leavening agent when combined with baking soda and buttermilk. You'll find that this interaction is what makes red velvet ever so slightly tarter and lighter than the average chocolate cake. Furthermore, many recipes call for an extra splash of vinegar to increase acidity and strengthen the leavening process between baking soda, cocoa powder, and buttermilk. This makes the cake generally fluffy, tangy, and tall, while chocolate cake is really just a standard chocolate flavor.

In addition to artificial food coloring, beet juice has also been used to strengthen the crimson tone of red velvet, although many disapprove of the dingy violet hue and the vegetal flavor it gaves the cake.