High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Pt. 1: Refusing to Accept the Easy Path

A normal person would have just accepted the fact that the recipe for Hummingbird Bakery's red velvet cupcakes worked perfectly fine at high-altitudes without any alterations. Sure, the cupcake tops turned out a little ugly and bloated -- but how big of a deal was that anyway if they were going to end up covered in cream cheese frosting? Especially if the cupcakes' flavor and texture was already perfect?

Alas, my anal retentive personality got the best of me. I decided that I couldn't live with perfect-tasting cupcakes with ugly tops:


I wanted perfect-tasting cupcakes, with smooth lookin' tops (like at sea-level):


In the past, I've determined that leavening agents are normally responsible for bloated, over-expanded cupcakes. But the previous two cupcake recipes I've adapted used baking powder -- was red velvet's use of baking soda going to make things more complicated?

According to the Joy of Baking, baking soda is about four times as strong as baking powder. It is used in recipes that contain an acidic ingredient -- that is, ingredients like vinegar and buttermilk, which also happen to be in the red velvet cupcakes' ingredient list. According to How Baking Works, baking soda will react with the acid (the vinegar and the buttermilk) in the recipe to create salt, water, and the carbon dioxide (the leavener) that lifts the cake up and up. Very cool.

Recall the original ingredients list for Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
A half teaspoon of baking soda really isn't that much leavening agent to begin with at all. I decided to reduce it down to a quarter (1/4) teaspoon of baking soda and see what happened.

The problem was, I wasn't sure if I was also supposed to reduce the vinegar alongside the baking soda. I looked at all my usual sources -- Joy of Baking, How Baking Works, King Arthur Flour Company, Pie in the Sky -- none gave me a clue as to what the appropriate action was. The latter two, where I normally get my first ideas for alterations from, just mentioned reducing the baking soda and nothing else. But I worried that my cupcakes would end up too vinegary/acidic-tasting if I changed the amount of baking soda without changing the amount of vinegar. The 1.5 teaspoons of vinegar was only there to induce the leavening chemical reaction from the .5 teaspoons of baking soda... right?

Sounded like a logical theory at the time. So, using the simple arithmetic logic of ratios, I reduced the vinegar amount corresponding to 5/8ths of a teaspoon for my 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.

The ingredients list was now as follows (changes made in bold):
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 5/8 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
These were my results:


To be perfectly honest, they didn't look all that different from the cupcakes with the original ingredient quantities. A little less bloated, yes. But they still had that old-man, wrinkly top thing going on! Nothing like the smooth, picture-perfect red velvet tops at sea-level.

Grumble.

And how did they taste?

Yurgh! Significantly worse! The cakes had lost its signature Hummingbird crumb and texture. They were now WAY too dry and hard. The flavor was... well... dull and flat. The reduction of the vinegar was a terrible idea. My earlier hypothesis -- that is, that the acid reactant needs to be lowered in conjunction with the baking soda -- was wrong.

Sigh. Maybe I shouldn't have messed with the original recipe in the first place.

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