Kitchen Experiments: All-Natural Red Velvet Cupcakes

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Red velvet is one of our all-time favorite flavors, be it cake, cupcake, or whoopie pie. But we always cringe a little when we pull out that bottle of red food coloring, mostly because it feels like cheating. There’s got to be a more natural product we could use, don’t you think? First up, pomegranate juice!

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The finished cakes were more brown than red. (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Pomegranate juice is powerful stuff, capable of dying our hands for days and ruining a nice shirt with a few splatters. We love it’s deep red color and figured it would be a good place to start with our all-natural red velvet experiments.

After reading through the comments from this post on why Sarah Rae’s pomegranate cheesecake didn’t turn pink, we decided on a strategy. First, we reduced one cup (8 ounces) of pomegranate juice down to 1/4 cup. At this point, it was thick, syrupy, and deep deep red. We hoped that this concentrated juice would dye the batter more effectively than juice straight from the bottle.

A few comments also suggested that acidic batters would help retain the red color, which we verified in our trusty copy of On Food and Cooking. Between the buttermilk and the white vinegar, we figured we had our bases covered on this front!

But, here’s where the trouble (and disappointment started). We mixed one and a half tablespoons of pomegranate concentrate into the buttermilk and vinegar. It turned light pink, and we knew that wouldn’t cut it. We mixed in another tablespoon and…it was still pink. A lovely lavender-esque shade of pink, but pink none the less!

We didn’t want to risk adding much more liquid to the recipe, so we decided to stop there and hope that mixing it with the cocoa powder would deepen the color toward red.

Unfortunately, the mixed batter turned out just as light and brownish-pink as we’d feared. The color darkened somewhat in the oven, but the resulting cupcakes were definitely dull brown and not at all red. At least they were still delicious with their crown of cream cheese frosting!

So pomegranate juice seems to be out. We could try concentrating it further or using more of it, but we fear that we’d still have to use an awful lot of it before we saw any significant color change. And at that point, the flavor would start to be affected.

Next time we’ll experiment with beet juice. We’ve read that this is what was used before commercial food coloring became available. We suspect that the cake will still be more brown than red, but it’s worth a try!

Do you have any suggestions or advice?