The Myth of the “Red” Chocolate Cake

This is two tablespoons of cocoa powder combined with two tablespoons of water and a teaspoon of baking soda. If you look closely you can see that an interesting chemical reaction is taking place. See there? Right along the edge where the mixture meets the dish? A little reddish tint. Look close now…see it there?

Of course you don’t. There’s nothing happening. Well maybe something is happening, but certainly nothing that’s going to turn chocolate red, not even a little. Yet there’s a persistent myth in American baking culture that chocolate cakes, with a little chemical manipulation, can be made to look reddish. “Red” velvet cakes, “red devil” cakes, “devil’s food” cakes, are all supposed to be reddish because the chocolate they contain is reacting with…something-or-other. Soda. Acid. One of those.

I’m not entirely sure why this myth has persisted so long. Maybe because it’s a hard claim to positively disprove chemically. Like coffee, chocolate contains scores (maybe hundreds) of chemical compounds we know next to nothing about. Maybe one of them might react with something to make it sort of, er…reddish. Maybe? No, not really. We’ve already seen what chocolate does combined with a large quantity of a kitchen alkaline. Here’s the same chocolate-water mixture combined with a tablespoon of vinegar (acid).

Still nothing. What if we put large quantities of both in there? Looks like my polluted brain. But at least something’s happening this time, even if it isn’t red. I snapped this picture just before this goop bubbled and foamed all over my work surface. What a mess.

So how did the idea of a red chocolate cake get started? It’s a darn good question. The only thing that occurs to me is that way back in the earliest days of chocolate, indigenous peoples in the Americas combined liquid chocolate with crushed achiote (annato), a bright red dye, to give it a ritual blood-like color. Perhaps this is where the myth of the red chocolate originated, but I can’t say for certain. All I know is you can’t turn chocolate red with anything you commonly find in a kitchen. Other than lots and lots of red food coloring.

36 thoughts on “The Myth of the “Red” Chocolate Cake”

  1. And to think that I’ve been selling this idea to quite some people… Not to mention I’ve taken pride in having a very scientific approach to the baking world and here this post proves that maybe I should practice the virtue of humility with a little more conviction. Anyhow…
    But why do (some) chocolate cakes have a reddish hint still?

    1. Hi Silviu!

      I think what we’re seeing, honestly, is just shades of brown. But as far as humility goes, I’m with you, I need to practice it more. Fortunately I have several thousand people out there scrutinizing everything I write, telling me when I’m wrong. I don’t like it when it happens….not one little bit.


      – Joe

  2. My understanding is that the “reddish” reaction only happens with unDutched cocoa. I’ve never tried it, and honestly I don’t even *like* Red Velvet cake, but I do like food stories 🙂 I think the cake would probably have been more of an auburn than the neon red cakes you sometimes see.

    1. This is un-Dutched, I should have said that. . It’s Dutched cocoa that’s hard to find these days, but I should try to find some and repeat the experiment!

      Thanks, Gloria!

      – Joe

      1. Make I make a tiny request here for an explanation of dutched versus undutched cocoa? I’ve never heard of this before, and no idea which one of both I have been using when I bake.

        Many thanks in advance 🙂

        1. You certainly may!

          I’ll answer this on the blog if that’s OK, since there are surely other readers who will want to know.

          Thanks for the great question, Fleur!

          – Joe

  3. I’d always heard it was due to the first one being made for the holidays and the red color was to make it more festive. Sounds like I’ve missed out on all the great chocolate myths.

    1. I’d heard something similar about red velvet as well. In some places it’s a Christmas time cake.

      Lately it’s become a very hip anytime cake. Honestly I think it’s pretty darn good!

      – Joe

  4. Hi Joe,

    This is so interesting! I’ve always wondered why people put so much coloring (2 ounces! Holy smokes) and so little cocoa powder in that cake. It tastes so much better the other way around.

    Thanks for showing your cocoa experiments – the ‘polluted brain’ one made me laugh out loud!

    So, the trick question – do you actually like red velvet cake?

    1. I do I have to say. It’s a novelty cake more than one to be savored solely for its flavor and texture. I guess kitsch value has to count for something!

      Great comment, Fleur. Thank you,

      – Joe

  5. I agree with Fleur about the amounts of red some people uses… just yesterday I bought a red velvet cupcake that was kind of neon red and almost none chocolate flavor. To make it worse, it was frosted with tons of crisco “buttercream”, I just couldn’t eat it… Are you going to try different frosting? or are you sticking to cream cheese?

    1. I think I may do a seven minute. Personally I don’t care much for cream cheese frosting. Plus I’ve already done it. 😉

      – Joe

      1. The one thing I did appreciate about my Red Velvet Cake explorations was the traditional (apparently) boiled milk/Ermine/roux frosting. I like it; it’s not too sweet. And I’ve made it using custard powder instead of flour too. That is also yummy.

  6. Hah! This was the reason I hunted down non-Dutched cocoa powder, getting someone to bring me some from the US. No wonder I failed to find any hint of redness in any of the cocoa powders I experimented with. And I have to say, Red Velvet Cake is vastly overrated in my opinion. Another triumph of appearance over content.

    1. That’s a for sure. It’s really a novelty sort of cake. To be enjoyed for its wacky appearance as much as anything.

      – Joe

  7. Growing up in the south, we had red velvet cake all the time. Birthdays, every church “covered dish” dinner, Christmas, etc. I was never really a fan. This was in the mid 80’s. Imagine my surprise over the past few years when every “in” bakery or cupcake maker crows about their red velvet cake. What’s the big deal? Give me a caramel cake any day. But ONLY one made with genuine caramel icing. 🙂

    1. I grew up in the South too but the most vivid memory of Red Velvet Cake was due to my sister. She was dating a guy who loved it. I think she baked one every other week. Took me YEARS to even consider making one after so many of those cakes being made so frequently. But Southerners do love their desserts and that cake is common at events. I’d take my Mom’s fresh coconut cake over the red velvet for showy and taste any day.

    2. Agreed (I’m a transplanted Southerner, too)! It was just another Sunday/potluck cake, and nothing special. Its current popularity mystifies (and kind of irritates) me! I’ll make it occasionally, because it’s pretty, and an occasion sometimes calls for bright red cake. However, if people want chocolate cake, I’ll never understand why they don’t just make chocolate cake.

      I will say that I’ve had success with using only one oz of red food coloring – I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy that 2nd bottle of food coloring. The cake still turns out bright red.

        1. Hmm. I’m not quite sure. The last time I made the recipe I made cupcakes, but I think it originally specified a 9X13 pan.

  8. I’ve frequently made a very red chocolate cake based on a carrot cake recipe, substituting finely shredded beetroot and adding cocoa powder. Screws with the heads of a roomful of straight-arrow social workers in staff meeting every time. g. b.

  9. Maybe the red is because chocolate is so tasty good, and things that are good are evil, and the devil wears red? It’s that Catholic upbringing – the Irish side, not the French – showing. Sorry.

    1. I’ll bet the idea of temptation has something to do with it, Naomi. That’s a good catch…one Irish Catholic to another.

      – Joe

  10. Nigel Slater’s “Moist Chocolate Beet Cake” is really to die for, and achieves a red-velvet effect without the food coloring. I made it this year for Christmas, and everyone loved it (and thought it was red velvet). It has a rich chocolate flavor, and a hint of vegetal beet-y-ness that I loved for its depth. I served it with whipped creme fraiche, which aped the tang of cream cheese frosting but was more ethereal. Delicious: I can’t say it enough!

    I highly recommend it to anyone wanting a festive cake without the coloring, or anyone wanting a chocolate cake at all, for that matter.

  11. I’m a member of a baking group in Facebook and someone posted something about RVC. Boy, let me tell you, I was ripped a new one when I dared to say that there’s nothing special about that cake other than the huge amount of artificial coloring in it. It is NOT a rich chocolate cake, as many people seem to think. (Just goes to show how our vision will overrule our taste.) One of the main points of home baking is being able to control what goes into it and keeping it real, so the idea of then dumping a bunch of chemicals into a cake seems crazy to me. However, red coloring does seem to have a stronger flavor than other colors, and I have to admit I sort of like it. I can’t help wondering if that really is the “secret” to the cake!

    1. It may not be the complete secret to the flavor of the cake, but it certainly contributes…albeit in a subtle way. You’re mostly right that it’s not a whole lot more than a butter cake dyed red!

      – Joe

  12. The color of cocoa mixed with water and an acid/base is one thing, but what’s the color of the finished brownie or cake? What about if it’s mixed not with the acetic acid of the vinegar but with the lactic acid in buttermilk? And is that natural cocoa or Dutch-process? This myth is hardly busted.

    1. Hey Travis!

      You’re completely right that chemistry being what it is, this myth is not definitively busted. However in the years that have elapsed since the post was published no one has yet managed to send me a photo of (nor a repeatable formula for) a cake that clearly turns red, or even reddish, on the action of cocoa alone. If you can produce one by all means send it along as I’ll be very interested!

      Thanks for weighing in on this. Cheers,

      – Joe

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