How to use fresh, natural ingredients to add color (and flavor) to your cooking

Jen Klein

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Food coloring has come so far, hasn’t it? "Food coloring" used to mean four small vials of liquid coloring and not particularly rich colors at that. Then came paste food coloring in more colors than the rainbow (and many in between) -- and vibrant color was definitely achieved. Pastries and confections haven't been the same since!

Boy with beets

But -- and there's always a but -- what are those vibrant colorings made of? Well….lots of artificial compounds that are definitely colorful are not quite making us feel terrific about the choice. If you, like many of us, blanch at the ingredient list with multi-syllable compound after multi-syllable compound, you may wonder if there is a way to color your food naturally. That is, with known ingredients closer to their natural state.
You betcha!

Food coloring as we know it, from those little jars from the crafts store, are the second wave of food coloring. The first wave of food coloring used fairly common ingredients: foods were colored by using other foods and/or plants. You can still use those food items to color food today - and some very simply. For example, you can add some pureed strawberries to a butter cream frosting for a flecked pink effect, and with that yummy fruity flavor.

You can also make food colorings outright - in your kitchen using natural ingredients. They are also a fun way to get the kids involved - a science experiment that results in very colorful food!


Turmeric, long used in Indian cooking, turns food a gorgeous shade of golden yellow. It's used, among other things, to make the beautiful golden pastry of Jamaican sausage patties. Yes, it can impart a unique flavor to food, but if you have some turmeric that has gone stale, you can still use it for coloring purposes.

Try mixing equal parts stale turmeric and water and adding it to food for color.


You know where this is going: beets. The way your hands stain every time you work with beets was your first clue, and it was spot-on. Beets make a very nice red color that also imparts a touch of sweetness to foods to which it is added.

If you have a juicer, press the juice out of a bunch of beets. Place the juice in a saucepan and bring to a bare simmer over low heat. Let the beet juice reduce by half, remove from heat, add a splash of white vinegar, and pour it through a sieve to remove absolutely all the solids.


Carrots are a terrific way to turn your food orange. Create orange food coloring by handling carrots in pretty much the same way you do beets. The color isn't as rich, but it's still lovely.


Spinach is not only Popeye's favorite vegetable, it makes a great green food coloring!
Puree one bag of fresh spinach in a blender, then place the pureed mixture in a saucepan with four cups of water. Bring to a simmer and let cook for a couple hours. Run the liquid through a sieve to remove the solids and your food coloring is ready to go. 


While there are not many naturally blue foods out there, there are a couple that make a nice blue food coloring. Red -- er, purple -- cabbage is one of them.
Chop up a head of cabbage and cover it with water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then let cook 15 minutes. Strain the solids out, and add a little baking soda to the liquid.


The same ingredient that brought you blue flood coloring can bring your purple food coloring, too. Red cabbage. Yup, really.

Start by processing the cabbage just as you did for blue coloring, but instead of baking soda, add a splash or two of vinegar to the colored liquid.

Homemade, natural food colorings should be used sooner rather than later. Although you can store your homemade colorings in your refrigerator, have a near term plan for them. With some ingredients (beets for example), colors fade over time, so keep that in mind too.
Depending on the strength of the aroma and taste of the food coloring (bet you never tried to taste food coloring before), you can use the coloring in sweet or savory dishes, or both. Kids will love turning not just cookies green, but pasta purple!

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