As people become more aware of the health risks associated with artificial additives and synthetic food coloring, there has been a growing interest in natural food dyes.
Whether you’ll be frosting sugar cookies this Easter, dying eggs, or wowing your guests with colorful spring concoctions, homemade natural food dyes can be a great way to make your Easter more beautiful, healthy, and fun.
Artificial food coloring is so cheap and easy to use, why would you consider making your own dyes? Well, here are a few reasons:
- They're healthy. Natural food dyes are made from organic fruits, vegetables, flowers, and spices, many of which contain healthy vitamins and minerals. Beets, for example, are a good source of vitamin C, iron, fiber, and iron. It never hurts to sneak a little good nutrition into your diet!
- They're safe. While the exact dangers of artificial dyes are still under debate, some things are clear. Several artificial food colors used in the U.S. have been proven to cause cancer in animals, and at least four dyes (Blue 1, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40) have been shown to cause hypersensitivity reactions. Using natural food dyes allows you and your family to avoid those harmful chemicals.
- They're environmentally green. Artificial food coloring is generally made from non-renewable, petroleum-based chemicals. Using natural food dyes is a small way to do something good for the environment.
- They taste good. While you have to be careful not to use natural ingredients that have an overpowering taste, many natural dyes add a pleasant subtle flavor that helps cut the cloying sweetness of frosting and desserts.
- They're fun. Making your own food dyes—especially if you rope your family into doing it with you—can be a fun and meaningful seasonal tradition. And Easter is the perfect time to add color and creativity in the kitchen.
Tips for Making Your Own Natural Food Dyes
- Keep it clean. These ingredients stain easily, so be careful! Wear gloves. Protect your countertops. (You may want to work on a cookie sheet to catch any spills.) Use cheesecloth or a towel that can be permanently stained. And if your kids are helping, make sure they’re not wearing their Sunday best!
- Adjust the intensity. Remember that natural dyes tend to be more muted than artificial dyes, so expect the colors to be less intense. With natural dyes, you’ll usually end up with softer pastel colors…perfect for Easter! To kick up the color, you may need to use about twice as much dye in your recipes.
- Start with primary colors. Find good recipes for red, yellow, and blue dyes. (See below.) Once you have those three colors, you can mix them in the right proportions to make almost any color you want!
Traditional ways to make natural red food coloring include beet juice or dry beet powder, hibiscus tea, strawberries, paprika, cherries, pomegranate, tomatoes, or cranberries. Some of these ingredients have strong tastes and some have little taste at all, so different ingredients work better for different applications.
To frost our Easter sugar cookies this year, we used dry beet powder because it’s easy to use and does not interfere with the taste of the frosting. Just add a little at a time until you reach the color you want. If you don’t have dry beet powder, you can wash and peel one beet, purée or mash it up, and strain out the juice. To deepen the color, boil the mixture down and/or add a little vinegar.
PRO TIP: That left-over beet is great for making a delicious borscht.
Saffron, turmeric, annatto, lemons, carrots, and yellow onion skins can all be used to make yellow natural food dye. We used saffron because we’re all about keeping it simple. Just crush a pinch of the spice in a mortar and pestle, add a little hot water, and voila!
PRO TIP: Adding a little vinegar may help you extract a more vivid yellow color.
Blueberries, red cabbage, purple potatoes, and cornflowers can all be used to make natural blue food dyes, but we used butterfly pea blossoms.
If you haven’t worked with butterfly pea blossoms before, you’re in for a treat! They’ve been used in Southeast Asia for all kinds of delightful drinks and dishes for centuries.
Butterfly pea blossoms are inexpensive and can be ordered online. Steep a dozen blossoms in a cup of boiling water for about 15 minutes, until the water turns a vivid blue. Then strain out and discard the flowers. You can add the remaining blue dye to any food or drink, but here’s part of what makes these flowers so fun: their color changes according to pH! If you add a few drops of lemon juice or some other acid, you’ll see it transform from blue to beautiful shades of purple, lavender or pink.
PRO TIP: Dye your Easter eggs blue with butterfly pea blossoms, then drizzle them with lemon juice or soda to play with the colors.
While pea blossom extract lends a vivid blue color to drinks, it makes a very pale blue in frosting or other foods. We also tried crushing dried blossoms with a mortar and pestle and adding the powder directly into our frosting. It works, but if you use this method, be sure to remove the sepals (the little green leaves on the blossoms) before you crush your powder.
Wishing a healthy, safe, and beautiful Easter season to you all!