I’m totally not fun.
Typically, I’m literally a fountain of topic ideas, but when I saw that this month’s Eat Well, Spend Less theme was “having fun with food“…well…I kind of freaked out. I believe I wrote on the list: “I’m not fun! I have no idea what to do!”
This is a stretch, but it’ll have to do.
Katie on Food Coloring
Artificial colors are one topic I have just never gotten into deeply. When you’re making most of your own food from scratch already, the only time to worry about yellow no. 5 and red no. 40 is when we eat out or indulge in candy or other desserts, and I just kind of write off those entire experiences as “compromise” anyway.
Every time Easter rolls around, I feel the need to explain that I just can’t prioritize (a) figuring out how to make natural food colorings and (b) gathering special supplies for it, and then (c) finding the time to make them. I offer the same surrender when I make birthday cakes with my beloved homemade frosting. I just use the food coloring in my cupboard and don’t bother thinking about it any further.
I decided that perhaps I could peek – just peek, mind you! – into the subject of natural food coloring. You know, for the sake of being so fun. Also because I don’t want parabens in my playdough…
(And of course, it fits pretty well with my Lenten challenge: My Food is Not a Number! although I could easily give up artificial colors and not need any of my own – real food has plenty of color on it own!)
Important Guidelines for Natural Food Coloring
Since I don’t really want to do anything special – remember, I’m totally not fun – I am determined to find and try only those natural food coloring options that fit within these strict guidelines:
- Must be simple – no cooking involved
- Must be accessible – nothing I can’t find in a store in 3 minutes
- Must be inexpensive – no more than $1 per color OR something I’d have on hand anyway
- Must be non-perishable – something like this that I won’t use often can’t require a trip to the store or potentially wasting food in the produce drawer if I get behind on my schedule – you wait for me, colors.
- Must be effective – if it doesn’t work at all, it’s really not worth my time
In other words, I’m not using cooked spinach or red cabbage for green and purple – too much work!
Donielle helped give me some simple ideas that will at least get me through Christmas (red and green) and Valentine’s Day.
Here’s what we’re going to experiment with today:
- chlorophyll for green
- beet powder for pink/red
- turmeric for yellow
- cocoa powder for brown/tan (not pictured)
Pink and Red: Beet Powder
My first test was on Valentine’s Day, inspired by these lovely pancakes. Out of the Box Food used an actual beet in her pancakes. I bought an actual beet. Here it sits, still on my counter:
I didn’t get around to cooking it on the 13th, so no beet pancakes on Valentine’s Day.
Instead, I tried mixing beet powder into the batter of our favorite soaked pancakes – which we don’t have very often because they’re wheat based. I’ve had an interesting experience with putting beets into food before (right), so I was wary of using too much and ending up with dirt pancakes.
The batter quickly turned a super fun pink, but by the time the pancakes themselves were cooked, they were back to brown:
No underlying beet taste. Phew. Take two. I added more beet powder, which kind of needs to be “de-clumped” with your fingers before it will evenly mix in:
Luckily, unlike artificial colors which stain your fingers for days, beet powder does rinse right off. I kept adding more beet powder with every batch I cooked up, probably about five times, until finally we got a tinge of pink in the pancakes:
You’d kind of have to be looking for it to know it was there, though:
The beet powder never did impart a flavor to the pancakes, but I probably used 25 cents worth of this package! I should have just made heart shapes…
Green: Liquid Chlorophyll
My next test was simple, and one I’d recommend trying yourself if you’ve got a good idea for a natural color and wonder how it will work: just mix a little into your plain homemade yogurt to see what happens. You’ll know if the color is bold enough to matter and if there is any flavor going on, too:
This was about an 1/8 teaspoon of chlorophyll and the same of beet powder. The only chlorophyll I found at our health foods store had added peppermint essential oil, which I didn’t pay attention to in the store. I thought I could taste it a little, but it wasn’t a bad thing and certainly wasn’t strong.
I also had a little frosting left over from my husband’s birthday in November – for real – so I was glad to be able to test the colors in an application where I’d be most likely to use them anyway:
All three colors ended up looking pretty good, and even better after it sat for a day:
UPDATE: After a few weeks, the frosting with the beet powder was brown – I’m not sure how fast it happens, but do know that it doesn’t hold its color as well! I just checked the playdough, and it looks like a hint of purple, but it has seriously faded.
I tested kelp powder on a tiny spoonful for an army green, and I wouldn’t recommend it – it had a definite overtone of ocean and fish!
Yellow: Turmeric Powder
I have turmeric in my cupboard, even though I don’t know if I’ve ever used it. The yellow it created doesn’t take much more than a heavy sprinkle, and I thought it was a pleasant color:
Okay, this picture makes it look a little like baby poo. Shucks. I promise, it looked better in real life! See how nice it made our playdough look?
That was our last challenge to test out the new colors. Leah and I made homemade playdough yesterday. In one batch of playdough, we used one teaspoon chlorophyll in the water/oil blend with great results. Of course, you can always increase the color as you’re stirring it in if you want more.
Note: the chlorophyll did stain my counter where I set the measuring spoon, so use with as much caution as you would the “real” (fake) food coloring. I was luckily able to rub it out with a little baking soda, my favorite go-to cleaner.
We made a “plain” uncolored batch and tried adding the two powders afterward:
The turmeric blended in rather nicely after some kneading, which is a fun part of playdough anyway (oh, look – I am fun after all! …just not with food…). the photo on the wooden cutting board is the yellow with just powder rubbed in.
The beet powder had more trouble:
We decided to make another half batch using a half teaspoon of beet powder in the liquid, and of course, my little princess LOVED this pink:
I completely forgot to try mixing colors, but I really need a blue in my repertoire to make things like purple. I think yellow and pink/red would probably make an easy orange. Shaina from Food for my Family tells me that blue corn extract makes an awesome bright blue…but I don’t know if that would fit under ‘easy to find.’ ???
Brown: Cocoa Powder
I didn’t really need to test this one, because I have many times. A little cocoa makes a nice tan and a lot makes a deep brown, but you definitely need to expect a chocolate frosting, no hiding it.
The hair and face detail on the left, and all the brown on the right, are made with only cocoa powder. How fun is that?
Playdough is Fun
We had a little “plain” playdough left, which I wouldn’t have made on purpose, but it makes a great pizza crust! We also made asparagus. Nothing but fun.
Where to Find Supplies
This may be trickier than you’d like if you don’t have or don’t frequent a good health foods store. I’m just lucky Donielle is local and could tell me where to find things! I went to the herbs for tea sort of section and got the beet powder, which I’d highly recommend as an easy, inexpensive coloring.
The chlorophyll was more expensive – over $8 – but it had been recommended to me when John was born to assist my homemade deodorant in being effective for the post-childbirth detox stinky armpits. Since I wanted to experiment with it anyway, it was an acceptable cost, BUT I see “refrigerate after opening” on the bottle – so that might break rule number 4 (non-perishable) since my fridge space is so precious!
Turmeric is a normal spice, often used in Indian food. If you use too much, you will taste it, so you might not want to plan to make a sunshine cake before testing a little in your own frosting…
Is Natural Food Coloring Worth It?
If it’s important to you to avoid food dyes, for behavioral or carcinogenic reasons or because of the endocrine disrupting parabens, then yes, you should figure out natural colors – IF you need colors at all.
On the other hand, if you’re compromising with a white flour, white sugar cake anyway…you might want to use the cheap, easy stuff. But only if it’s just a few times a year! As for me, I think I’ll keep trying with the natural way. Birthday season is about to break open, so I’ll learn fast if I can make it work!
How do you have fun with color in the kitchen?
If you are interested in natural Easter egg dyes, here are a few options:
In this month’s edition of Eat Well, Spend Less we’re talking about making food more fun. Check out what the other ladies have up their sleeves…
- Alyssa from Kingdom First Mom
- Carrie from Denver Bargains
- Jessica from LifeasMOM
- Aimee from Simple Bites
- Mandi from Life Your Way
- Shaina from Food for My Family
- Tammy from Tammy’s Recipes
See my full disclosure statement here.