Why are red velvet cupcakes so popular?

An article at San Francisco site Mission Local seeks to understand why red velvet is so popular. I almost always find that when I ask cupcake bakery owners which flavor is their best seller, it's either red velvet, or red velvet is in the top three.

Mission bakers agree, people love red velvet cupcakes.

Regardless of whether the handsome red desserts are purchased on the street from Sweet Construction’s cookie cart or in miniature at Mission Minis, red velvet is quite possibly the region’s most popular cupcake flavor.

It could be the velvety texture, enhanced by the chemistry of buttermilk, which makes a fine crumb. Or perhaps it’s the cream cheese frosting, although that’s used only on more modern red velvet cakes – old-fashioned ones have butter cream frosting.

Or maybe it’s the seductive red color, emotionally appealing even though it has a negligible relationship with the cupcake’s flavorings.

“People enjoy food with their eyes,” said Christine Bruhn, a food scientist at UC Davis. “It’s part of the total package.”

Contrary to the wishful eating of some cupcake consumers, there’s no cherry or raspberry component in red velvet. There is a lot of food coloring– this recipe has six times as much food dye as chocolate powder – and whatever flavors result from the chocolate, vanilla, buttermilk, sugar, flour, and eggs.

Red velvet’s intense color is a purely visual experience.


It is possible that the red velvet’s hue had a natural origin. Dutch process cocoa is alkalized to neutralize the pH of naturally-acidic cocoa. Some cooks have theorized that low-quality cocoa could be so far alkalized that it might turn reddish in a cake. It’s the same chemistry that makes an Oreo cookie black, according to Neuhaus.

However, Neuhaus has an unrelated theory why the cake is so popular. It’s the superior texture, which comes from using buttermilk—or, as he puts it, “fake buttermilk.”

“The buttermilk in the store has absolutely nothing to do with butter,” Neuhaus said. Real buttermilk is the watery leftovers when cream is churned to butter. It’s not whitish, it doesn’t have flakes of butter, and it isn’t very sour.

Personally, I'm not such a red velvet fan, but I think that has more to do with me not loving cream cheese frosting. What do you think, red velvet lovers? Is there a secret to this colorful cupcake?


Alison said…
I agree with you on not being such a fan of cream cheese frosting. When I make red velvet cupcakes (or cake) I always use buttercream frosting (which I LOVE!) :-)
Attempted Cook said…
Traditional Red Velvet (such as the famous Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet) uses a cooked flour frosting. Sounds gross, but is really good :)

I think Red Velvet is one of the flavors that not many of us grew up with, or was such a special occasion treat, that it adds to the "indulgence" factor of cupcakes.
Rhi @ Look Cupcake said…
We actually don't make a red velvet because of the amount of food dye. I just don't feel right doing that to people's kidneys! My personal stance is, "red is not a flavor."

And, yes, buttermilk is a magical baking substance.
A Cup Full of Cake said…
I read on a blog once that red velvet cupcakes are merely a vessel to eat 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cream cheese frosting. That the actual cake itself is no big deal but the cream cheese frosting makes them all that more worth it. Funny
Jennifer said…
I don't know why red velvet is so popular. Maybe I've never had a good red velvet cake (or cupcake)? I guess it's the lack of distinct flavor, it has cocoa - but isn't really chocolate. And all that red dye? I would expect more flavor from a cake that brightly colored. My friends always get red velvet cupcakes from the local shop. I'd prefer almost anything else.
Lucy said…
I *hate* cream cheese icing, but I love red velvet cake something fierce. Magnolias (I know, just hear me out) makes my favorite red velvet I've tasted thus far. They use a cooked flour frosting that comes out like whipped cream. Try getting a slice of cake rather than a red velvet cupcake, I feel the texture is often better. Ivy Bakery also offers a choice on their red velvet cupcakes, between cream cheese and buttercream icing, though I wasn't really a fan of the buttercream.
Anonymous said…
hey i love red velvet i made (and tasted) for the first time 2 wks ago- everybody loved them they were a great hit!
annaangela said…
I love cream cheese frosting. The red velvet cake/cupcake...not really. I've wondered why it was so popular. When my friends raved about it, I think I asked about a billion questions on how it's made or what's so special about it. I thought there was some sort of special ingredient. Nope. It's just food coloring. All the hype for nothing. Just give me that frosting :-)
Melissa Jarquin said…
Why are red velvets so popular? Here are a few thoughts!
Jessica Lew said…
I heard that Red Velvet cupcakes are expensive and popular because they are hard to make. Don't think so eh?