When it comes to food coloring, I’ll happily take the natural route whenever possible. There are so many beautiful hues in food, so why not use them? Especially for decorated cookies and cakes, I love to DIY. If you want to try it yourself (do it!), read on for our best tips and recipes.
1) Choose the source of color.
Sources for natural colorings can be found all over the place, and many may already be in your pantry or fridge. More on how to turn these ingredients into food coloring below, but here are my favorite sources for certain colors. (The ingredients I used in this post are in italics.)
- Pink: strawberries, raspberries
- Red: beets, tomato
- Orange: carrots, paprika, sweet potato
- Yellow: saffron, turmeric
- Green: matcha, spinach
- Blue: red cabbage + baking soda
- Purple: blueberries, purple sweet potato
- Brown: coffee, tea, cocoa
- Black: activated charcoal, squid Ink
2) Consider the flavor.
One thing that natural food colors have—that commercial colors don’t—is taste. Because the color comes from real food ingredients, a small amount of flavor will remain in the final icing. The more color you add to the frosting, the more it’s going to taste like that ingredient. This may not matter much for ingredients like fruit, matcha, coffee, or cocoa, which are commonly used in baking, but it makes things tricky for ingredients like squid ink and spinach.
3) Keep your expectations reasonable.
The challenge with naturally-occurring food colorings is that they aren’t as intense as commercial ones. So, my best advice is just to accept that off the bat: Your red won’t be pure red, but the colors have unique tints all their own. The key to achieving the most vibrant color is to start with as concentrated of a base as possible. While you won’t be able to achieve colors quite as intense, the goal with DIY colorings is to make them as opaque as possible from the get-go for the best results.
4) Understand powder bases versus liquid bases.
There are two ways to make DIY food colorings: powders and concentrated liquids. Powders are the easiest way to make DIY food colorings because they dissolve easily and are already somewhat concentrated, meaning they can lead to more intense color. You can purchase many fruits and vegetables in powdered form, or you can make your own by buying freeze-dried fruits and vegetables and pulverizing them to a fine powder in a food processor or spice grinder. Some ingredients—like cocoa, coffee, tea, and spices—are naturally in powdered form, and you can add these directly to a frosting. Depending on the ingredient, this can lead to slightly clumpy results, so you may want to dissolve them in a small amount of liquid (milk, water, etc.) beforehand.
The second way is to make a concentrated liquid. The liquid can be pure juice, a strained purée, or water-based: If you have a juicer, use it. It produces the purest liquid that you can reduce to the proper consistency. Pureés are also good, though they may contain some solids (you can always strain it), and a thicker final liquid. I made a purée for the blueberry-based coloring by bringing the blueberries to a simmer, puréeing with an immersion blender, then straining the purée. The water method isn’t the best, but it’s a great way to get color from certain ingredients that need to be infused (for the saffron coloring, I infused the saffron in warm water). Whatever method you use to make a liquid base, you always have to reduce it. When you reduce a liquid, water evaporates—this basically ensures you’re ending up with as concentrated a color as possible and getting rid of of excess water that could negatively affect the recipe you’re adding it to. I reduce liquids until I’ve reached about 1/4 cup.
5) Know that heat can play a role.
I usually use these natural food colorings in cold applications, to tint frostings, icings, and glazes. It should be noted that while many of these food colorings could successfully tint baked goods, like cookie dough or cake batter, heat can be an impeding factor, as many of these colors can change when exposed to heat, becoming duller or browner. It should also be noted that the food colorings themselves should be cooled completely before you add them to any recipe.
6) Add to frosting, then decorate!
Once you’ve made your food colorings, all you have to do is add them to a basic frosting or icing. Just like with traditional food colorings, it’s best to add the color in small amounts gradually until you achieve the color you want. Keep in mind that you can add more powdered coloring than liquid coloring without affecting the recipe.
I love to use these natural colorings to tint royal icing, which I then use to decorate cookies! I decorated these Easter egg cookies (with Amanda Hesser’s sugar cookie recipe) using the flooding technique. You can do it plain, or add simple patterns like dots or stripes. If you add the dots or stripes while the flooded icing is still wet, it will appear flat when dried. If you add the dots or stripes once the bottom layer of icing is dried, you’ll get a more textured effect. If you want to get really fancy, try some of Alice’s marbling techniques to make some stunners.
Add 1 to 2 teaspoons strawberry for every 1 cup of royal icing. You can dissolve the powder in 1 to 2 tablespoons water before you add it if you want to minimize the risk of clumps. (Psst: Speaking of pretty pink glazes, check out these soft yogurt cookies with a raspberry glaze from Molly Yeh.)
Add 1 to 2 teaspoons beet powder for every 1 cup of royal icing. Dissolve the powder in 1 to 2 tablespoons water before you add it if you want to minimize the risk of clumps.
Add 1 to 2 teaspoons carrot powder for every 1 cup of royal icing. Dissolve the powder in 1 to 2 tablespoons water before you add it if you want to minimize the risk of clumps.
Bring 1 cup of water and about 1/8 teaspoon (1 small pinch) saffron threads to a simmer over medium heat. Remove the mixture from the heat, and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain, then return the mixture to the pot. Reduce to 3 to 4 tablespoons, then transfer to a small jar to cool completely. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon yellow color for every 1 cup of royal icing.
Add 1 to 2 teaspoons matcha for every 1 cup royal icing. You can dissolve the powder in 1 to 2 tablespoons water before you add it if you like.
Combine 2 cups shredded red cabbage and 1 1/2 cups water in a small pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Remove the mixture from the heat, and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain, then return the mixture to the pot. Reduce to 3 to 4 tablespoons, then stir in a small pinch of baking soda—this will turn the color from purple to blue! Transfer to a jar to cool completely. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon blue color for every 1 cup of royal icing.
Combine 2 cups blueberries and 1/4 cup water in a small pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer until the berries burst and begin to break down. Use a potato masher to mash the berries, then strain the liquid, discarding the solids. Return the juice to the pot and bring back to a simmer. Reduce to 1/4 cup, then transfer to a jar to cool completely. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon purple color to 1 cup of royal icing.
|6||cups confectioners' sugar, sifted|
|5||ounces egg whites|
|6||cups confectioners' sugar, sifted|
|5||ounces egg whites|
Natural food coloring is a wonderful way to brighten—and flavor!—countless desserts. You can either start with a baked good that already calls for a simple white frosting (say a basic royal icing or buttercream), or you can add your own. Also don't be shy about branching out beyond frostings and glazes. Whipped toppings and plain ice cream recipes are also great candidates for food coloring.
To make this buttercream even brighter to begin with, skip the vanilla bean seeds or vanilla extract. This will help whichever color you pick to stand out even more.
Skip the vanilla bean and extract and you have a blank-slate ice cream, both in flavor and in color. From here, you can color it however you want. This is especially fun for ice cream cakes.
To make these chocolate donut holes even moodier, try a cocoa or coffee glaze. Matcha would also be delicious.
Anything Plus Yogurt Whipped Cream
Whether it's a thick slice of pound cake or a hot-fudge ice cream sundae, most desserts can (and should!) be improved by a big dollop of yogurt whipped cream. But why leave it white when you could turn it pastel pink or orange or green?
To double down on the sunny, golden color of this tea cake, opt for a saffron, turmeric, or carrot-powder glaze. These savory flavors are an A+ contrast to sweet chocolate.
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