“Knowing the effects of excessive food colouring in the diets of children, it’s worth knowing the alternative.”

by Emma Chow

It seems as though brightly hued red velvet cake has been the bake shop front-runner for several years running now. My four year old insists that it is his ‘favourite’ (even though everything is his favourite when he happens to be eating it), and whenever we visit a fancy cupcake shop, it is his choice every time. But the origin of this cake is much simpler and more natural than today’s Red Velvet Cakes which can be dyed shocking red for the sake of it. Knowing the effects of excessive food colouring in the diets of children, it’s worth knowing the alternative.

Red Velvet Cake is actually a simple cocoa flavoured cake that has been coloured with red food colouring. Prominent food, chemistry and history writer Harold McGee among other food experts has suggested that the red colour was originally achieved through the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk with cocoa powder. Cocoa powder contains anthocyanins, which is a pH indicator. The more acid present in the mixture, the more red the cocoa will become.  It is said that during wartime, the use of beet sugar would have caused the cake to have a reddish hue. However, sugar beets are actually white in colour and do not produce a red sugar.

While today most cocoa powder is ‘Dutch-process’ and has been treated with alkalising agents for a milder, smoother flavour and a darker colour, prior to this process cocoa powder is acidic. Cocoa powder that has not been treated with an alkaliser is actually pale brown. The smooth yet crumbly texture of Red Velvet Cake also comes from the reaction of buttermilk and vinegar with alkaline baking soda which creates carbon dioxide gas, resulting in many tiny bubbles. In modern Red Velvet Cake recipes, baking powder is often used rather than baking soda because of the lesser amount of acid in the recipe due to alkalinised cocoa which fails to effectively activate the baking soda. Also in modern recipes, red food dye is required to achieve the red colour. I think it’s worth sourcing gel food colouring. If you want the bright red hue, you’d have to use nearly the whole bottle (50mls) of water based red food dye that you find at the supermarket. While gel food colouring is a little more expensive, you only need a scant teaspoon or less to get colours that don’t fade during baking. Because this is a concentrate, it will last you ages longer than the water based stuff.

The following recipe is adapted from one of the old fashioned recipes that preceded Dutch-process cocoa. The reason this recipe has both baking powder and baking soda is so that you have a back-up. If you are able to source non-Dutched cocoa powder, then follow the recipe as normal but you won’t really need the back-up baking powder as the baking soda should activate properly. But it doesn’t hurt to have it there. It doesn’t affect the flavour at all, as the cake is strongly cocoa flavoured. You also will not necessarily need any amount of food colouring if you are using non-Dutched cocoa. This small amount of food dye ensures you get the red hue that would be achieved with normal acidic cocoa in an old fashioned cake. If you also chose to reduce the amount of cocoa powder, the red colour would intensify.

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1 ¾ cups plain flour
¼ cup cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup oil
1 cup caster sugar
1 egg
¾ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon red gel food colour
1 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoons vinegar


  1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Prepare one 20-25cm diameter round cake tins, preferably spring-form, with grease and baking paper.
  2. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt and whisk together.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil and sugar, then add the eggs one at a time.
  4. Add the food dye to the buttermilk. Add vinegar to buttermilk. Be slightly horrified at the colour. Imagine if you added more colour! If you really want a very red cake, add another half teaspoon of food dye. But it really isn’t necessary.
  5. Add dry ingredients and buttermilk mixture alternately to the egg mixture and whisk together just enough to combine the ingredients with no lumps. Make sure you scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to make sure there are no hidden flour pockets.
  6. Pour mixture into prepared pans, and bake for 30-35 minutes or until the centre is set. Allow to cool before removing from pans.

Top with the following simple cream cheese frosting.

Quick cream cheese frosting

Sometimes when I have leftover cream cheese in the fridge, I will make a cake just so I can make this frosting. Sad, but true. This is a much less sweet, more creamy and zesty version of the frosting. It lacks the sort of grainy sugar texture you get ordinarily. 300g cream cheese 3 tablespoons icing sugar 3 tablespoons butter, soft Juice and zest of half a lemon Beat together butter and cream cheese until smooth. Beat in icing sugar, followed by lemon zest and juice. Adjust sweetness and sour to your taste. Frost the cake.

Can’t find buttermilk? Make a buttermilk substitute at home

Buttermilk is the liquid bi-product of butter-making. It is slightly acidic and low in fat. For a substitute for buttermilk in baking, add a teaspoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a cup of milk. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. It will have curdled and thickened slightly. Alternatively you can use ¾ cup of plain, unflavoured yogurt with ¼ cup water.

About Emma Chow:

Emma Chow

I am 28 years old, mother of two little boys aged 4 and 6 months. I’m of Chinese Malaysian background, but I was born in Australia and am an embarrassment to my mother as I only speak English and my only interest in my heritage is the food. I live in the Dandenong Ranges in Avonsleigh. I faffed around with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Creative Writing before becoming a pasty chef’s apprentice. I was inspired to learn about pastry after spending a couple of months in Europe eating far too much and getting very fat. After quitting my apprenticeship (because of some awkward circumstances) I worked as a chef in various cafes, catering businesses and an organic store. In the middle of all that I had my babies. But cooking professionally can make it hard to put the love in cooking at home so I traded it all in and am doing a Graduate Diploma in Counselling.

Working in commercial kitchens has taught me how to manage time, budget and waste in the kitchen. I try to use every bit of an ingredient I can and hate to throw out anything unnecessarily. The leftovers in our house are always eaten! At the end of the week our fridge is nearly empty. Commercial kitchens are dirty, noisy, hot, dangerous places. The work is gruelling and at the end of the day you’re exhausted, you stink and you’ve seen things you may never want to see again. When I was 35 and a half weeks pregnant with my first child, on my last day at work I had to do a weekend breakfast shift in the fancy café where I was employed. I cooked the hot breakfasts solo despite my giant belly and managed to pour some of a tray of just baked beans onto myself. It was hot enough that baby kicked me so hard and to this day I still have a scar on the left side of my stomach. Crazy job, don’t recommend it.

I’m probably a bit too obsessed with cakes and sweets, so please excuse me if my posts are a little on the sugary side.


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