Real Food Ingredients for Colors Instead of Artificial or Natural Dyes
Why is food coloring a big deal? The food industry has got us all conditioned to choose the prettiest food, not necessarily the healthiest food. If you really start looking at your food, you’ll notice that most things packaged or prepared have added food coloring. The food industry is pretty smart, they know we’ll choose the orangiest carrots, and the juice that’s bright red. Problem is, there’s some correlations out there between food colorings and poor health (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/food-dyes#section3). There’s always great argument when statements like this are made, so I’ll make it easy… Why tax your body with the chemicals involved with food colorings when it’s already working overtime to manage preservatives, artificial flavors, toxins in the air, pesticides, herbicides, stress, and generally the life we throw at it? Of everything we have to battle, it seems like food colorings would be the easy one to start throwing out. How about we start counting chemicals, and stop counting calories? I bet if you adopt that strategy, food coloring is the first thing you’ll toss to the curb!
Ok, so what about “natural” food coloring? You know, annatto, caramel coloring, and natural dyes in those cute little bottles at the health food store. Here’s the deal, in order for them to be deemed “natural” they have to have a natural, not chemical, origin (vegetable, microbiological, animal, or mineral). It doesn’t matter what happens after that. They still get treated with solvents like hexane or acetone and are chemically processed (http://sciencemeetsfood.org/food-colors-natural-vs-artificial/), so if we’re counting chemicals, they’re still not great, and your body still doesn't know what to do with them.
So. What do we do when we have something special to celebrate? You make it real, friends. You make it real.
My first question would be, does it have to be (insert color)? Is the cake going to be any less appreciated if it’s not pink or green? Sometimes just making something amazingly delicious and telling the person how freaking awesome they are is the best strategy. But, I get it, sometimes it’s gotta pop. Sometimes, it has to be purple. For those occasions, check out my suggestions below and happy celebrating!
REDS AND PINKS
Reds are tricky, ok… honestly, you’re not going to get red with real ingredients. Pinks on the other hand, pinks are amazing and abundant. If you really need Minnie Mouse, buy a figurine to put on top of the cake and decorate the rest to accent. But pink, my friend, you’re in luck! We always used fruit reductions at our bakery for pinks. Strawberry reduction offers a light and kinda dusty shade of pink. Cherry was more of true pink, and if you don’t strain your puree, you’ll get little flecks of cherry skin. Raspberry was always the queen bee of the pinks. The flavor is amazing and the color is bubble gum pop pink. If you’re looking for a shortcut to reductions, you can also use beet powder or dragonfruit powder. I’ve used beet powder before, and it’s pretty handy. You need to let your frosting develop for a 30 minutes or so before it hits its final color. If you use beet powder in things without water (like white chocolate) it will stay speckled because it doesn’t dissolve. I typically use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon beet powder per batch of frosting. I’ve never used dragonfruit powder personally, but I understand it to be the same as beet powder, only intensely pink instead of pale red. Another option is concentrated fruit juices like pomegranate, or cranberry. Concentrated is the key word here though. Reduce it down to get the most color with the least amount of water as possible.
This is my all-time favorite real ingredient to play with. Turmeric is so incredibly vibrant in frostings. A little goes a long way, so in a whole batch of frosting I might add ½ teaspoon. If you go overboard on turmeric for coloring, you will end up with a dirty and dusty tasting frosting. That being said, just a sprinkle adds a pale yellow and the full ½ teaspoon will bring you vibrant yellow. If you want a more mellow or golden yellow, add a touch of cocoa powder. Allow your frosting to set for 30 minutes or so to let the turmeric fully develop. It’s amazing, you won’t be disappointed. Do be aware that turmeric yellow will eventually bleed, so if you decorate the day before, you might end up with some shadow of yellow on whatever it sits on.
Orange is fun to play around with. Please know that you will NOT get a bright orange with any of these combos, it’s a bit more muted, think fall leaves versus hunting cap orange. I’ve had good luck with combining some turmeric with one of my pink frostings for an orange. Another option is paprika (about ½ teaspoon per batch of frosting), but it will give you a really pale orange. You can also use concentrated carrot juice, but honestly I’ve never tried this one because I’ve had such great luck with any of the pink berry frosting with turmeric added. Another great orange is straight up pumpkin, here’s our pumpkin frosting recipe.
Green is actually pretty important if you’re making any kind of flower decorations, or Frankenstein’s Monster. Spirulina is pretty perfect for green. It’s a lighter shade of green, but still really perfect for leaf accents and monsters. I use about ½ to 1 teaspoon of spirulina for a muted green. It smells entirely icky, but doesn’t add any flavor unless you use large amounts. If you want a brighter green, add a dash of turmeric. Matcha powder also lends a beautiful hue of dusty green with a lovely flavor. It goes awesome on lemon cake!
Oh blue. Such a tricky little color. You would think for as much blue as we see in the environment around us it would be an easy color to capture from nature. It’s not. You have a couple of options, neither of which I have tried personally. First is reducing red cabbage and adding baking soda. Bring to a simmer: 2 cups shredded red cabbage and 1 ½ cups water, remove from heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes, strain and return liquid to low heat until reduced to 2-4 tablespoons, add a pinch of baking soda and stir. This is a true blue color, but will result in a very light blue shade. Your second option is blue spirulina powder. I haven’t tried this method, but have been following Unicorn Superfoods and am amazed at these bright blues!
I’ve had the best luck with blueberry reduction for purple. I don’t strain out the skin after pureeing, so my frosting has little flecks of dark purple. If you’d prefer to not have this, then strain your puree, or use concentrated blueberry juice. Here’s how I make berry reduction.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Let your frosting develop for 30 minutes or so, especially using turmeric and spirulina. The colors get darker and more vibrant as they dissolve.
If you’d like a gel for accents, add powdered sugar to fruit reductions and use a small round tip to write or add detail.
And last, but not least, don’t get desperate and add artificial colors to your real food frostings. It simply makes them muddy. Remember, the color of your food isn’t nearly as important as the fuel it offers your body, and the love that goes into it!