Natural Homemade Food Coloring For Baking, Frosting, and Easter!

March 25th, 2013 - filed under: The Food » Recipes

Happy spring! Did you celebrate the Vernal Equinox last week? I did, by counting any and every flower I saw in bloom – and there were many! Jasmine, wisteria, gerbera daisies, iris, rosemary, cactus flowers, bougainvillea everywhere! I could go on and on. I love this time of year!

It puts me in mind for celebrating, and what’s a celebration without treats? Brightly colored cupcakes, pastel icing on sugar cookies, and maybe even a frosted watermelon. And of course, all your Easter activities.

But, we’re all on the same page with chemical food dyes, right? As in, artificial coloring has been linked to everything from allergies to cancer to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children (for more information, see this comprehensive report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest). NOT something I want you to be putting into your – or your babies’ – mouths.

Which is why I’ve got you covered.

So here are my go-to techniques for all your DIY food coloring needs. Remember, produce not “products”! Okay?!

Look no further than your spice rack for all your golden, citrine, and sunshine-y needs. Saffron flowers and turmeric powder have both got you covered, but be careful! These spices are extra strong. A little goes a long way, so start veeeerry small and test as you go. A great technique is to replace liquid in the recipe (either baking or frosting) with spice-infused water.

Don’t waste your time on oranges or tangerines – carrots are where it’s at. Juicing them is the most effective method, so if you don’t have a juicer just buy some fresh 100% carrot juice at the market. They’ll add a smidge of flavor but I doubt you’ll notice, ’cause carrot juice is sweet!

Red and Pink
Beets, baby. They offer vibrant color with almost no flavor change. Beets are so strong they’ll dye your hands just cutting them. They’re made for the job! Just juice them, or boil them in very little water to make a concentrated liquid.

For a lighter pink and a bit more flavor, you can use red berries, like raspberries or strawberries. These will impart their own taste – which is great! (Hello, orange teacake with pomegranate glaze. I think I love you.) To use berries, just mash them or blend them, then strain the liquid through mesh to remove the seeds.

You know what I’m going to say right? Spinach, all the way. It’s super saturated and totally flavorless, making it the perfect addition to your St. Patrick’s Day cookies or your Earth Day cake. If you have a high-speed blender, you can whip whole spinach leaves right into your frosting. If you’re coloring cookies or cake, or you don’t have a high-speed blender, you’ll want to use juice. My instructions for juicing without a juicer may come in handy.

Another grassy-hued option is liquid chlorophyl, which aside from being a healthy supplement, will impart an awesome emerald tint to your food. You can grab it at any health food store.

Purple and Blue
This is the tricky twosome of natural food dye, but it CAN be done. Purple is pretty straightforward, and is achieved by boiling red cabbage until you get a dark, concentrated broth. Lots of pretty purple color without much change in flavor.

Blue is fun, and calls for some kitchen chemistry. Make your purple dye as noted above, but add a bit of baking soda at the end. Slowly stir it in, just a bit at a time, and watch as it reacts with compounds in the cabbage to turn the broth a beautiful blue. Like magic! (because, as I always say, baking soda is magic!)

I love experimenting with homemade food coloring, and I hope you’ll have as much fun as I do. Remember that the natural stuff isn’t as potent as the chemical garbage, so be prepared for a less saturated look. Play around with measurements, get creative, have at it!

And, happy celebrating!

  • andrea

    Colors :)) Love your post, it is so vivid l…ike spring (that here btw is still not coming, again just snow and snow…) wanted to add that I use spirulina if I wanna have some green parts of a cookie (like spirals) or maybe green bread…I even tried neem but that just for the brave ones..really, it is super bitter…and you didn’t say anything about brown: stevia liquid is pretty dark but at the end the right amount will just make it looks a bit ocher, caramel could also work partly, but probably the best are: cinnamon, coffee, cocoa :) This leave us just with the question how to do sth. black? Do you think adding just a bit of active carbon would be bad? :D Or you just mix all the colors together ;)

  • Bettina

    Thank you for sharing your lovely ideas!

  • Karoline

    Thank you! I was just about to start searching for coloring ideas when your post came up in my reader…perfect timing.

    Any chance you also know of a good vegan shortbread or sugar-like cookie recipe?

  • coconutandberries

    You are amazing! So trying these. I keep wanting to bake pretty colourful things with my little nephews and niece but refuse to turn to artificial colourings. Purple and blue sound especially fun :)

  • andrea

    Btw I just remembered one much much easier way to make ice creams and yogurts and creams look green: mix some pumpkind seed oil in it ohhh….I love pumpkin ice cream <3

  • The Cookie Fairy

    That’s so cool! I’d love to try using natural colours in my baking, as I know it’s not good to use chemicals (but oh, convenience…). Great post as always :)

  • Monika {windycityvegan}

    What a great post! Nina and I have a little bit too much fun experimenting in the kitchen sometimes, especially straining berries to extract color. We accidentally discovered that straining frozen wild blueberries (they must be those teensy, tiny, super-intense berries) result in the perfect shade of purple. Really, we just put them in a sieve and let them thaw over a bowl, and the liquid left over is quite purple. Fresh blackberries also work, which we use when they’re in season on our farm.

  • Kyleigh

    THIS is a great post! Thanks so much for the fantastic ideas! I LOVE This.

  • Deirdre

    thanks for sharing this. pinned it.

  • Liz

    This is perfect! I want to bake with my little cousins for Easter, but am wary of commercial dyes. Thanks so much!

  • Kathryn B.

    Thank you Thank you for this post!! I was trying to figure out what to use, especially since I have a 3 year old who likes to eat everything! No bueno on eating all those chemical dyes!

  • Olivia

    Oh my goodness. Last year at Christmas – 1am. I have a freshly baked batch of sugar cookies… and no food coloring?
    My siblings and I improvised, and ended up doing almost exactly this!
    We used blueberries for purple – it made a pretty, soft, lavender color.

  • sally

    Is there anyway you could store these? Say make purple while berries are in season and keep for future projects?

  • Rachel Jacobs

    I have basically given up on food colorings I just don’t have the inclination to make them and can’t find a suitable mass produced version.
    These all look fantastic and maybe I will give them a go in the future (if I need to dye something).
    I hope you are having a wonderful Monday.

  • Bianca-Vegan Crunk

    Thanks for these tips! I’m the world’s worst at meaning to use natural dyes but getting all lazy and using the chemical stuff instead. This post was the inspiration I need. Unfortunately, I don’t feel much like celebrating yet because it’s still FREEZING here in Memphis, which is crazy because the South is typically very warm by now. Mother Nature is all out of whack. Hope we’ll have some warm days very soon. I want spring!!!!

  • Lauren

    I used to read your blog every week and when you stopped, I reluctantly deleted the bookmark (I’m sorry!) I came across your post about your health issues via Tumblr (under the vegan tag) and I just spent the last two hours catching up on everything. I’m so happy you’re back! And I’m so happy that you’re happy!
    I’m loving the new “authentic” approach. Honest and refreshing.

    Again, lovely to have you back. Take care.

  • Sara Ann

    Thanks so much for this post! i literally just made cupcakes and was sad at the prospect of having no healthy/safe/cheap ways to dye the icing. Can’t believe I didn’t think of this myself thank goodness for your blog :)

  • Sara Ann

    that pink is just astonishingly beautiful!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hmm, black would be tough! I’ll have to think on that, but in the mean time NO active charcoal! Haha. ;-)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hmm I don’t know of a good recipe, but these sugar cookies from Kathy look great, and I trust her skillz. =)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    They are really fun! The blue is this amazing teal-y color.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Yes! I love blueberry dye, I used it on Waits’s second birthday cupcakes. =)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    You’re welcome! =D

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Ooh thanks for sharing, I appreciate that.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    No bueno indeed, this is much better.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Haha, love this story, Why oh why does baking inspiration always strike int he we hours of the morning??

  • Sayward Rebhal

    I can’t vouch for it, but I’m willing to bet they would freeze up just fine.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    I never think of Memphis as freezing, even though I know it *does* get cold in the south. Hope you get some warm days soon!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Aw, welcome back! I’m glad you re-found me, yay. =)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Beets, baby!

  • Eve

    How long can you store the dyes? I have a huge batch of purple left and I don’t want to just toss it out. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    I’d say a week or so, but hey – you should try freezing it! People have been asking about that, so let us know if it works! =D

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  • AlyssaB

    This post is great! I’ve been reading about natural food dyes for about an hour and this post has the most comprehensive information and makes it look easy. Thanks! I’m planning on making these in the next week or so to replace the fake dyes in my cupboard. I was already thinking of freezing them as I was reading, because it would be a lot of work to do this every time I bake. I’ll try and remember to report back on my results!

  • AlyssaB

    Also, I just thought of using paprika for red. The vibrant color always catches my eye as I walk down the bulk spice isle at the store. It never seems to have much flavor to me so maybe it would work?

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hmm, I feel like paprika has a pretty strong flavor (to me at least?), but it’s definitely worth a try. It would be good for more savory things, for sure.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Please do report back!

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  • Kai Brown

    a black sesame paste maybe?

  • lightheartedmom

    Totally late to the party here but I wanted to add my experience re: natural food dyes. I used beets in search of a bright red (aiming for a red barn cake for DD’s birthday on Saturday) – my buttercream is kerrygold butter + powdered sugar + vanilla extract + salt and then once it was fluffy and soft, I stirred in about 1 tbsp. beet juice. It turned the prettiest shade of dark, jewel pink. Not red as I’d hoped, but certainly not a limp-wristed pastel color. :-) Pink barn it is.
    For green, I used drops of liquid chlorophyll which made a forest-y shade. I’d have to use too much to get a really dark green, but we’ll get with a dark pastel hue and be happy it’s not chemical. To balance out the grey-forest tones, I dissolved some saffron in water and added a few drops of that (bright yellow) and it did the trick.
    I have to say, I purchased $19 worth of natural food color from a brand called ColorGarden. They’re TERRIBLE. The red was like a puke tone and made the frosting so sour I couldn’t possibly serve it.

    Yay for nature and doing it yourself!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    This is AWESOME feedback, thank you!

  • Yvonne

    How does this work for making frosting which has no liquid ingredients? It’s just butter and sugar. Doesn’t the liquid make the frosting separate?

  • Kelli

    We use fresh strawberries and beet juice (from a juicer)… makes the most wonderful and tasty red.

  • MaraRules

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!! I was just about to pop out to buy some food coloring and said, “I bet someone posted some homemade natural recipes to go great with my baby’s all-natural 2nd birthday party this weekend”. This will definitely wow my guests and give them a glimpse of how you can go all natural and not be dull or tasteless.
    Thanks!!! Will bookmark your blog right away to read more. Now, off to glaze some cookies with great colors!
    Mara from Argentina

  • MaraRules

    I just boiled my cabbage and got the gorgeous purple. Added some baking soda to half of it and it turned a great shade of blue. But I left it on the countertop while finishing my cookies (about 30-45 minutes at room temperature) and it turned an awesome shade of emerald green!!!
    I will definitely use it, of course. I have no particular color scheme, just trying to brighten up my cookies, so any pretty color will do :)
    Just thought I’d share. Any idea what happened? Did I use too much/little baking soda?
    Thanks again for the post. I am going with the beets and carrot tonight. I am also planning on straining blueberries, like somebody suggested.

  • Iron

    This is a weird question, but do this go bad if kept outside a refrigerator? (I’m using your recipe to make some homemade cosmetics, and that would be very, very bad 8])

  • Kailey

    Hi there. I am vegan and I was looking for some natural dye for icing for a chocolate cake for my mom’s birthday. I didn’t end up using any of your suggestions unfortunately because what I really wanted was red icing and I didn’t want to open an entire jar of my mom’s canned beets just for a teaspoon of juice, so I ended up coloring the icing with homemade blueberry pancake syrup (boiled and strained blueberries thickened with sugar.) It made the icing an awesome shade of pink and gave it an amazing fruity flavor that really went well with the chocolate cake. Just wanted to share!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi Iron – yes, I would not keep these outside the fridge. Unfortunately I don’t think they would be appropriate for cosmetics, sorry!

  • TwoAsTwoDs

    Did you ever find out the reason for the blue turning green? I need to make a Cookie Monster cupcake so the blue cannot turn green on me!

  • Amma

    For black coloring you might try beet juice, red cabbage juice, and carmel coloring (either commercial or you own). Carmel coloring also works for making brown.