While cocoa powder is the basic ingredient in powdered hot cocoa mix, the two are not interchangeable in recipes for red velvet cupcakes or other baked goods. Cocoa powder is made from ground cacao beans, while hot chocolate mix contains cocoa powder along with other ingredients such as sugar and flavorings, which would likely alter the flavor and texture of the cake batter.
Red Velvet Cupcakes
While the origins of red velvet cake and cupcakes are somewhat obscure, the early versions turned red naturally from a chemical interaction between cocoa, vinegar and buttermilk. Today, red food coloring gives the batter its signature color, while a relatively small amount of cocoa powder imparts a mild chocolate flavor. Although red velvet cupcakes call for less cocoa powder than other chocolate cakes, substituting powdered hot cocoa mix is not recommended, because it would add extra ingredients not called for in the recipe or add extra amounts of those already called for, such as sugar.
Hot Cocoa Mix Ingredients
The list of ingredients found on the package of one popular brand of hot cocoa mix includes modified whey, the liquid that is left after the cream is separated from milk, and maltodextrin, a sweetener and thickening agent. Hydrogenated coconut oil is a fat that also lengthens shelf life, while calcium carbonate adds salt to the cocoa mix. Other substances contained in hot cocoa mix and not found in pure cocoa powder include artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame, an acidity regulator called dipotassium phosphate, and emulsifiers, such as carrageenan and diglycerides, that help product stability. All of these ingredients could have adverse affects when added to a recipe for red velvet cupcakes, affects that aren't noticeable until after baking.
Cocoa Powder Facts
Cocoa powder is made from chocolate liquor from which 3/4 of the cocoa butter has been extracted. The cocoa solids that remain are processed into a fine powder that falls into one of two categories: natural unsweetened cocoa powder or Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powder is very dark and bitter and imparts a deep chocolate flavor to baked goods. Dutch-processed cocoa powder has a reddish-brown color and milder flavor and dissolves easily in liquids. Because the two different types of cocoa powder react differently when blended with other ingredients, it's important to use the variety called for in a recipe.
Unlike cooking, where the choice and amounts of ingredients can be manipulated according to the cook's tastes, baking is a more exact science. Recipes for cakes and cupcakes, as well as all other baked goods, call for specific amounts of ingredients based primarily on how they work together during mixing and baking. There's a wider margin for error when substituting one ingredient for another in baking. Unless you are a veteran baker or you aren't bothered by alterations in a cake's flavor or texture, it's always wise to follow recipes to the letter for best results.
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