red velvet roll cake with cream cheese frosting

The Science of Red Velvet (+ Cookie Recipe)

Colour is so important in food. A colour can make or break a food (or drink for that matter). But it also gives you a cue as to what flavours to expect. Research has shown repeatedly that the colour of your drink for instance will greatly influence how well you’re able to perceive its actual flavour.

So no wonder foods like red velvet cakes & cookies exist. These bright red foods likely attracts us immensely, especially since it’s generally paired with a pure white topping. A good contrast.

If you’ve never made a red velvet cookie though you might not realize that the flavour of red velvet is actually very much chocolate! I for sure (I know it’s only an n=1) had eaten various red velvet foods, without realizing that they’re chocolate flavoured. That red had definitely impacted my perception! But why on earth did we decide to make red velvet chocolate foods?

Where does red velvet come from?

Bright red colourings are still quite a recent invention. Before the advent of artificial red colourings, most red colours weren’t that bright red. Instead, most natural colours, such as those from beets or red cabbage or somewhat more toned down. Only midway into the 20th century did (artificial) food colouring become more common. These were also the days of the advent of the red velvet, which started in the US.

In the 30s and 40s, colour manufacturers in the US tried to come up with ways to sell more of their food colourings. A common marketing method at the time was to share recipes and organize baking contests. It seems that red velvet started rising through the ranks because of it. Red velvet cakes started winning competitions and it became more of a staple. Nevertheless, it’s real huge rise to fame only came at the end of the 20th century. Nowadays this has resulted red velvet variations of just about anything (including Oreos!).

We’ll likely never know for sure why this red cake was actually a chocolate flavoured one. It might have just been a cake the flavour company enjoyed or it might have had a slightly reddish glow of itself because of the cocoa. Fact is, this bright red cake is a chocolate cake.

Cocoa & red colours

Some people state that back in the day the cocoa powders you could use would actually turn a slight red by adding an acidic ingredient to them. It would have been the same as the reaction of red cabbage colour to acid. Nowadays, they don’t do so anymore (we tested it, cocoa powder + vinegar has the same colour as cocoa powder + water).

Whether it did so in the past, it’s hard to find proof of it. Fact is that cocoa processing has evolved in the past decades. Fact is also that cocoa beans do contain some of those coloured molecules that can be brought out to a certain extent. Whether it’s as bright red as the current day red velvet, I have my doubts.

What about the velvet?

So where does the velvet come from? Velvet cakes were actually in existence well before the red velvet itself entered the scene. These cakes had a finer, lighter texture than others thanks to the use of low protein flours such as almond or corn flours (current cake flours are also low in protein).

Red velvet cookies that don’t have enough food colouring, so they turned out brown. They still taste the exact same!

What is red velvet?

Red velvet is quite a broad term but the most common theme is that red velvet products contain some sort of slight acidity (e.g. by adding buttermilk or vinegar), a hint of cocoa (but not too much) and often cream cheese frosting of some sort (which can be overly sweet). That said though, even more important is that bright red colour, preferably with some white.

red velvet cookies

Red velvet cookies

Yield: 25 cookies
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

These might not be exactly red velvet, they sure are red. A with any red food, the main challenge is to really make that red colour shine. Using an artificial flavour definitely is the easiest way to go here. However, if you'd like to go more natural, you might wan to use both more of the colour and make the dough somewhat acidic.
This recipe is based on one of Sally's Baking addiction.


  • 200g flour
  • 20g cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 115g unsalted butter
  • 150g brown sugar
  • 50g granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 10 ml milk (or vinegar*)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp red food coloring


  1. Mix all the ingredients into a consistent dough. It's easiest to do so in a stand mixer. No need to do it in a specific order, just add it all together!
  2. Leave the dough to rest in the fridge for a few minutes.
  3. Use a spoon to portion out parts of the dough into small humps of dough.
  4. Bake the cookies in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 15 minutes. I prefer my cookies crunchy versus chewy, if you prefer chewy, take them out of the oven a few minutes earlier.


*If you're using natural food colours chances are that your batter may not be as bright red as you like. Since the colour very much depends on your exact colourant used there is not one guidelines. However, a good start will be to use vinegar. This lowers the pH-value and for beet & cabbage based colours this helps bring out the red (read why here).


Patent No. US 8460739 B2, Process for making red or purple cooca material, link

Patent No. US 8709524 B2, Process for preparing red cocoa ingredients, red chocolate, and food products, link

Severson, Kim, Red Velvet Cake: A Classic, Not a Gimmick, May 12 2014, New York Times, link

Spence, Charles, 2015, On the psychological impact of food colour, Flavour, 21, 4, 1, 10.1186/s13411-015-0031-3, link

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