So, I got Cedar off safe and sound to Minnesota / Disney World, and now I’m back with a little too much free time on my hands. Thus, now is the perfect time to discuss time-heavy projects, such as rainbow cake.
I’m sure you’re familiar with rainbow cake. They’re all the rage and it’s no wonder. What kid (or adult) wouldn’t love this cake? Pretty, festive and fun, rainbow cake has the ability to add a pop of color to any celebration. In fact, rainbow baked goods of all sorts are popular nowadays – from cookies to white chocolate to cupcakes to pancakes and more.
A pretty cake packed with chemicals
The downside is that most rainbow cake recipes call for a slew of fake food colors to get those festive colorful layers. Why is that bad? As long-time Growing a Green Family readers may remember, fake food coloring come with a heaping dose of chemicals, and chemicals aren’t what you want at a kid’s birthday party.
The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 contain known carcinogens, while studies show that mixtures of chemical food dyes cause hyperactivity and other behavioral impairments in children. Allergic reactions, cancer and (yikes) body mutations have also been linked to fake food dyes.
On top of this, fake food dyes offer no benefits for people. As James Huff, associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program, notes, “Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than making them more ‘eye-catching’ to increase sales.”
Can you do better – the pros and cons of natural food dyes?
Well, in some cases you can do a little better, but results usually vary when you use natural food dyes.
PRO – Zero toxic dyes: Using natural food dyes will protect your family from harmful chemicals.
CON – Color results are shady: Experiments with natural food dyes may yield brightly colored Easter eggs, baked goods and other treats, but they’re just as likely to yield boring colors like pale browns, pinks and yellows. Eye-popping color results, a sure thing with fake food colors, are much more temperamental when you use natural coloring.
PRO – Availability of natural dyes: There are more natural food colors on the market nowadays to choose from. These are dyes you simply add to foods with a dropper, just as you would conventional food coloring. I’ve used great natural food dyes and really poor natural food dyes. I used to use India Tree Natural Decorating Colors Set, but they don’t always work that great. Right now I’m a fan of Chocolate Craft Colors, which are natural, but seem to work better than India Tree.
CON – Natural food dyes are questionable & costly: First off if blue is your goal, good luck. I’ve had issues with every single store-bought blue dye I’ve tried – it usually ends up gray or light lavender, not blue. Plus, no matter which natural food dye you choose, you’re sure to need A LOT of it to achieve anywhere near a bright color and these dyes are already CRAZY expensive to start with.
PRO – Homemade food dyes can be fun: Homemade food dyes are an excellent experiment project for kids and fun to boot. It’s really cool to see which fruits, veggies and other ingredients yield which colors. Plus, it gives you a way to use up leftover produce.
CON – Homemade food dyes are harder than food coloring: Not only are homemade food dyes seriously time consuming (in my experience) but they’re super variable. You may get amazing blue dye with cabbage, but the next time get lackluster, dull purple-gray. It’s also hard to know which colors you can make with which foods. For example, cranberries seem like they’d make red, but really they yield pink in batter.
On top of this, using natural food dyes means dealing with some added flavor. For example, chili powder and paprika make a great orange, but who wants hot and spicy birthday cake? Oh, and also, most natural homemade food dyes don’t go far in baked goods. So, for example, although beet juice seems pretty darn red, in baked goods, spread out, you’ll end up with pink batter in most cases.
BUT can you make naturally colored baked goods?
In theory (and decent practice) yes. You don’t need the fake dyes. However, if you’d like to make colorful baked goods sans fake dyes, read these tips…
- Don’t expect eye-popping results. If you’re looking for neon colors, you won’t find them in natural food dyes. Learn to be okay with natural colors. They’re better for you and look amazing, once your eyes get retrained.
- Start with whiter foods. If you’re going to be using natural food dye, aim for batter or frosting made with organic shortening not butter, so that your batter is as white as possible, thus better able to absorb the color. Although, take this with a grain of salt. Some baked goods and frosting with shortening taste fine, others would fare far better with butter. Don’t comprise taste for appearance. Note, if you use organic butter, it’s much more lightly colored to start with than conventional.
- Set aside enough time. Fake food colors are easily dropped into batter or other foods. Natural food colors take much more time.
- Don’t be sad if your colors suck sometimes. Sometimes you get amazing results with natural food colors, sometimes you don’t. It may have been your technique or the actual coloring item you used, but natural colors vary and sometimes they aren’t great. Try again and you’ll likely get a color groove going.
- Pay attention to taste. Turmeric, Seaweed and Green Tea Powder may yield amazing yellow and greens, but honestly, do you want baked goods that taste this strong? Trust me, you don’t.
- Don’t mix up cloth dye and food dye. The same natural dyes will look different when used in food vs. cloth. The exchange of color isn’t perfect.
Want to make a naturally colored organic rainbow cake?
This week I’m planning on posting a recipe for rainbow cake – although the techniques can be applied to other baked goods as well, such as cookies and pancakes. This way you can get a first-hand look at how baked goods look when colored with various homemade and natural colors.
I’ll be using the following items to color my cake batter (in case you’d like to try too), plus I’ve included the colors these items tend to yield.
- Blackberries – light purple, dark purple if you’re lucky.
- Blueberries – blue or purple, depending on type.
- Beets – dark pink, sometimes red.
- Egg yolk – yellow.
- Chocolate craft natural liquid food colors – blue, red, yellow in theory. In reality, you’re more likely to get gray, pink and very light yellow.
- Strawberries, raspberries and/or cherries (I was curious about these for light pink, but hadn’t tried them before).
- Carrots – orange (although that’s iffy) – yellow is a better bet.
- Green Tea Powder – almost always makes a great green color. The downside is it can be a bit bitter.
- Spinach – usually green of some sort. I’ve used this in cookies, but not cake batter before. Can add odd taste to baked goods.
You can also use many spices, herbs and flowers to color food, but in this case, for flavor’s sake, I’ll be sticking to the above. Stay tuned for the actual naturally colored rainbow cake recipe.
Lead image by ©vikarayu – Fotolia.com / Image #2 ©Jennifer Chait