I first started exploring natural food dyes when trying to decorate my son’s birthday cake without using artificial colors from a little squeeze bottle. I knew there had to be ways to get vibrant colors out of actual foods. After discovering how to make pink, blue, green and yellow frosting, I moved on to coloring pasta, which is by far the most forgiving medium for natural food coloring. One can easily adjust moisture levels in pasta dough, which absorbs colors from solids, pastes, liquids and powders. Eggs, which are dyed in a quick bath of a colorful liquid, posed a new set of challenges.
Since we dunk eggs into liquid dyes, the pigments from colorful foods need to be transferred as much as possible to the water they are cooked in before straining off solids like shredded beets or dried flowers. And ground spice powders, like turmeric and paprika would ideally dissolve into the liquid. Not the case. Many formulas for natural dyes will tell you to use powdered turmeric for yellow. I love spices and figured I’d try others too like paprika, sumac, & chili powder. Why not?
It’s challenging to get clear vibrant color from these ground spices. First, ground spices are fat soluble, which means they work better with oil to break down and disperse their colors. But dunking an egg in oil sounded unorthodox and messy. So I followed the advice and simply simmered ground spices in boiling water for 20 minutes & then strained. The color was there, but it required a multi-hour, if not an overnight soak to dye eggs, and it left a little grit on the eggs, no matter how fine the strainer. So I revisited spices 101 and decided to bloom them first (or sauté them in a little bit of oil) before adding some water to make the liquid dye. The colors were certainly more vibrant and adhered in under 20 minutes, but the oil left a splotched rather than smooth finish on the egg - check out the orange speckled egg made from a combination of paprika and turmeric. Up next, I will attempt a dye made 100% from the ground spices bloomed in oil.
So, how do you get the best clear liquid yellow dye? If you have it available, fresh grated turmeric root works best. I simmered it in water just like the other fresh vegetables, and then strained off the solids. While the turmeric root itself appears orange, the liquid it creates makes a beautiful soft and natural yellow. If fresh turmeric root is not available, shredded golden beets work as well.
I had such success adding greens of all shades and varieties — sautéed, steamed, juiced and blanched spinach, kale, parsley & chard — to pasta dough & frosting that I didn’t expect it to be so challenging to dye eggs green. And, green eggs & ham, right? Wrong. For egg dying, not only do the green colors become terribly diluted in liquid, but the key ingredient required for getting dye to adhere to eggs destroys the green pigments. We add vinegar to egg dyes to create an acidic mixture that reacts with the calcium in the egg shell, allowing colors to be absorbed. While this acid creates vivid blues and bright pinks, any acid (lemon juice, wine, tomato sauce) deteriorates green rapidly and transforms it to an unappetizing olive or brown. The answer? Create vibrant greens by combining yellow and blue dye immediately before dunking eggs.
How to Produce a Rainbow of Natural Dyes
To make most types of natural liquid dye:
Boil or steep vegetables (1 cup), spices (1 tablespoon), or dried flowers or teas (1/2 cup) in water (1 1/2 - 2 cups) for 10-20 minutes.
Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Discard, compost or reuse the solids.
Add vinegar and stir. Use ~1 tablespoon vinegar to 1 cup liquid dye. Use less for acidic mixtures like berries cooked in lemon juice.
Steep: to soak (food, tea, etc.) in hot water so as to extract its flavor or color or to soften or reconstitute it
Boil: to cook (food) in boiling water over a heat source
For a quick reference list of formulas for these and a full rainbow of dyes, click here.