Red cupcakes for Valentine’s day, green cookies for St. Patrick’s and lovely pastels for Easter: Coloring baked goods to suit your fancy is a fun way to express yourself in the kitchen. But the artificial dyes used to do this are generally chemicals that have a shady history and are hazardous to your health. Some natural chefs have turned to healthy fruits, vegetables, and spices to color their confections. Do natural food based dyes work?
- Better for you – food based dyes are made of healthy foods like fruits and veggies. Synthetic food dyes are made of chemicals that can be toxic.
- Better for the Earth – most food dyes can be made by you in your kitchen from fresh produce you were going to eat anyway. So no need for manufacturing plants and packaging waste that can harm the environment.
- Easy – with a juicer, you can make your own colored dye solutions quickly and simply.
- Mild flavor – the fruit and veggie juices work at a low enough concentration that they don’t have a big impact on flavor (no spinach flavored cake here!).
- Great color – the natural dyes really work, for some of the colors.
- Takes a little extra work to juice your own beets, or carrots, or whatever you’re using for color.
- Some natural colors are not as vibrant as synthetic, or fade during baking.
- Making a rainbow cake takes a LONG TIME!
Rainbow cakes seem to be all the rage these days (on Pinterest anyway). I love rainbows! They are bright, and colorful, and happy, and they make me happy too! I was thrilled when I found a recipe for a rainbow cake using natural dyes, and I thought that it would be a perfect Green Idea to test out for Green Idea Reviews’ first birthday.
The instructions for making this cake are pretty basic, with the exception of splitting it six ways and putting a different color in each. This was the most difficult part of the project. It was hard to find the right size baking pan for a little cake (I ended up using my 4 cup round pyrex storage dishes). I didn’t have enough to cook all the cakes at the same time, so the baking had to happen in batches. And I had to make up the dyes for each layer separately. That took a good amount of time as well.
At the advice of this blogger, who said she tested lots of different natural dyes, I used the following for the different colors:
- Red: beet juice (fresh juiced beet; 2 tbs for 1/2 cup of batter)
- Orange: carrot juice (fresh juiced carrots; 1 tbs for 1/2 cup of batter)
- Yellow: egg yolk (1 fresh yolk for 1/2 cup of batter)
- Green: spinach juice (fresh juiced spinach; 1 tbs for 1/2 cup of batter)
- Blue: blueberries (frozen, microwaved to bursting, then pureed; 1 tbs for 1/2 cup batter)
- Purple: blackberries (frozen, microwaved to bursting, smashed then strained: 1 tbs for 1/2 cup batter)
The cakes turned out looking pretty good from the outside (pardon the quick iPhone pic):
The preschooler and I decided to do a chocolate frosting. Sure, vanilla white would be prettier. But honestly, we feel that if it’s not chocolate, it’s not worth it! I whipped up a quick chocolate buttercream (recipe here) and set to work building and frosting the cake.
Here it is! Not quite what I expected when I cut into it, though…
Overall Color Assessment: Most of the colors looked pretty good! I was especially impressed with the green spinach coloring. The blueberry coloring was a little dicey, as it was more of a purple than the blackberry juice prior to baking. But it came out looking bright blue once cooked. The blackberry purple was much lighter on the inside than I would have preferred. But the beet red was by far the most disappointing. Even though the outside of the cake was a nice pink, the inside seemed to have no color at all.
I’m not sure what happened with the beets. I wonder if I did it wrong? But I put twice as much beet juice in the batter as any other color and it still didn’t work. I’ve had unsuccessful experiences with beet juice food coloring in the past. When I used it to dye Easter eggs, the eggs came out a brilliant fushia, but faded to rusty brown by the next morning. Perhaps beet coloring is not stable once it leaves the beet? Also I’ve noticed that almost all of the bloggers trying out the natural rainbow cake use the exact same picture that came from who knows where originally. So, I’m not sure what to think about that… just saying.
Overall Taste Assessment: This cake tasted good! Obviously anything with homemade dark chocolate butter cream icing is pretty awesome, but the cake itself was tasty too. I did not notice a beet flavor, or spinach flavor, etc. My kids ate it right up (of course – they rarely get treats like this!). A friend who tried it also agreed that it was “aMAzing”. She also noted that she could taste the faint flavors of berries in the bottom layers. I didn’t notice, probably because my taste buds were busy wigging out on CHOCOLATE!!
Overall, Overall Assessment: Overall, it was fun to try the rainbow cake once. The concept is really fun, the flavor is good, and the colors are decent. However, it was a TON of work. I don’t think I would do this again unless it was a special occasion where I really NEEDED a rainbow cake. That being said, I would definitely recommend most of the colors above if you need a single tone cake or colored something else. They would work great!
Have you tried using natural dyes in your baking? What worked for you? Any tips on getting a good, natural red?