Your kid’s birthday is around the corner and, right on cue, she wants a cake that’s as unique as she is—sorry, supermarket sheet cakes. A three-tiered rainbow-colored cake will absolutely make her day, but you’re not crazy about store-bought food coloring. The alternative, making natural food coloring from scratch, means you have total control over the ingredients and what your family is eating when you bust out that showstopper. Plus, it’s easier than you think. Promise.
First, we’re going to pick a fruit or vegetable that makes the most sense. Then, we’ll go over the differences between powdered and liquid dyes and how to make each. Finally, you’ll be left with all the natural food coloring you’ll need for that cake and so much more. (Red velvet whoopie pies, anyone?)
1. Pick your natural food coloring sources
A disclaimer right off the bat: Natural food coloring won’t be as vibrant as the fake stuff. But this doesn’t mean your colors won’t be wonderful, tasty and way healthier. In fact, we were surprisingly blown away by how well many fruits, vegetables and spices are actually able to dye other foods. We came up with a list of just a few suggestions for your natural food coloring here, but feel free to go wild in your kitchen with your kids and turn it into a colorful science lab.
Red: tomatoes, beets, red bell peppers, strawberries
Orange: sweet potatoes, carrots
Green: matcha, spinach
Purple: blueberries, blackberries
Brown: coffee, tea
2. Think about how you want it to taste
Take a second to think about the source of that color before committing to a veggie. For example, if you’re dying a cake green, creamy matcha tea leaves might make more sense than a bunch of spinach since matcha in cake form is absolutely delightful. But if you need a sunny yellow cake, don’t worry about turmeric—it has such a concentrated color that you can stir a little into your icing for a bright hue without the fear of, well, a turmeric-tasting dessert. A food you don’t have to worry about? Easter eggs. Throw that taste caution to the wind and go color crazy. The egg inside the shell won’t taste like anything but egg.
3. Consider the difference between a liquid and powder base
There are two bases you’ll need to choose between when making DIY food coloring: powder or liquid. If you happen to have the fruit or veg you want to use already on-hand, the liquid method makes more sense because you can get right to the steps below and have your dye ready to go. Liquid dyes are best for pastels too (hello, Easter!). Powders take a little more time and planning—unless you happen to have freeze-dried fruit in your pantry—but they’re great for when you want more pigmentation and deeper colors from your natural dye.
Powders: Like that yellow turmeric we mentioned, powders are already concentrated and dissolve easily in whatever you’re cooking, meaning the color will be that much more vibrant and intense. Some colors already exist in powdered form, like ground matcha and coffee, and others you’ll have to make on your own. But don’t worry, it’s easy peasy.
1. Buy freeze-dried raspberries, blueberries, beets or whatever fruit matches the color you want.
2. Pop a cup of your ingredient into a food processor and pulverize into a fine powder.
3. Add a little bit of water to your powder, a tablespoon at a time, until it becomes a liquid with all the powder dissolved. Don’t overdo it, though. Too much water can drown out your color.
Liquids: Liquids will produce a subtler color than powders and are a little more labor-intensive unless you have a juicer.
With a juicer:
If you’ve got one, put that bad boy to work, because it filters out all the grit, pulp and leftover mush you don’t want in your foodcoloring.
1. Juice the fruit or veggie you’re using for your food coloring and the resulting liquid is literally your dye.
Without a juicer:
1. Take your blueberries, strawberries or whatever it is you’re turning into dye, and put a cup of the ingredient in a small saucepan with a cup of water.
2. Bring to a boil and then lower the flame to a simmer. Using the back of a wooden spoon, smush the ingredient and break it down for about ten minutes, allowing the color to seep out and change the hue of the water.
3. Allow the ingredient to cook until it’s reduced down to a quarter of a cup.
4. Dump the mixture into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Using a colander or a fine-mesh sieve, strain the mixture into a bowl, using the wooden spoon to press the liquid out.
Whether you pulverized powders or simmered liquids, the natural food coloring you’re left with can be used in the same exact way that you would the artificial stuff. Drip the color into your icings or cupcake batters gradually, while stirring, until you get the color you’re looking for, then serve up a vibrant, natural treat for your kiddos.