Dyeing to be Natural

BY Lindsay Kastner

Amanda Evans starts planning for Easter weeks ahead of time by stockpiling papery onion skins citrus peel and bits of carrots.

Evans wants her three children to have all the fun of coloring Easter eggs just without the little dye tablets or bottles of liquid food coloring that are commonly used.

“My children are sensitive to food dye ” Evans explains. “You start noticing that oh when they have red food dye they start to go crazy.”

So she turns to more natural methods drawing pigment from food scraps spice powders and even common weeds.

“It is hard for kids when you are trying to avoid food dye because the grocery store has it right there ” Evans says.

Her 7-year-old son Cole dreams of opening a store with an entire aisle of candies that are free from commercial food dyes. For now the family takes a DIY approach.

The reasons why people turn to natural dyeing methods — whether for Easter eggs or for decorating cupcakes and other goodies — can vary. Many are skeptical about the safety of commercial food dyes while for others it’s simply a fun experiment or a way to put otherwise discarded kitchen scraps to good use.

Kari Grunow a registered dietician at Wilmington Performance Lab said commercial food dyes can be tough to avoid.

“We are constantly being exposed to food dyes ” she says. “They are in our vitamins they are in our toothpaste. The safety of them has been a matter of debate for years.”

It can be confusing. Some food dyes once thought to be safe have since been banned by the FDA and researchers continue to roll out new often conflicting findings on currently approved dyes.

Grunow said while the safest approach might be to eschew all commercial food dyes once-yearly egg decorating is probably not cause for much concern. But finding healthy alternatives can’t hurt.

“The problem is just that we’re exposed to so many food dyes ” she says. “Everything we can do to limit our exposure we’re doing something good for ourselves.”

Natural dyeing methods tend to produce results that are more subtle but no less appealing than traditional food dyes.

“With natural coloring there’s never that crazy vibrant coloring that will dye your teeth ” says Robert Collins prepared foods manager at Tidal Creek Food Co-op where natural dyeing techniques are used primarily in cake and cupcake frosting. “It’s a compromise. There’s not going to be Technicolor colors but we do a good job of coming close to it.”

While coloring Easter eggs can be as simple as creating a dye bath from boiled vegetable scraps dyeing frosting and other foods has its own set of challenges.

Colorful fruit purees or vegetable juices can produce pretty colors but they impart flavor too which isn’t always ideal.

“You try to find a compromise of good color without putting that flavor in it too much ” Collins says. “For an icing or something like that you have to really watch the liquid content in your formula.”

He prefers coloring frostings with dry ingredients such as spirulina powder for bluish-green hues and ground turmeric for yellow.

Some vegetable powders available to commercial kitchens can be hard for home cooks to find but Collins said Amazon is a good place to start searching for carrot powder and similar ingredients.

Evans’ friend and fellow mom Rachel Williamson said that last year her husband blended kale with a little water to make a bright green concentrate the family used to color cupcake frosting for St. Patrick’s Day.

“He even put it in pancake batter and it turned the pancakes a really bright green ” she says. “We couldn’t taste it at all.”

Some colors are harder to achieve than others. Red black and true blue can all be tricky while yellow and green hues are easier to obtain.

The water left from boiling beets can produce an intense pink dye bath.

“It’s better than any store-bought pink you can find. I can’t even describe it ” Williamson says. “On a white egg it just pops. It’s beautiful.”

She has also tried boiling red cabbage leaves to produce a purpley-blue hue and coffee grounds to dye eggs brown.

“Which sounds kind of silly because you can just buy a brown egg ” Williamson says. “But it was something one of the kids thought would work and we tried it and it did work really well.”

Come Easter Evans will put a few pots of water on to boil and toss in whatever brightly colored plant matter she has on hand.

For yellow she uses onion skins citrus peel and turmeric. Spinach makes for a nice green along with weeds her children pick up on their nature walks. For orange she might combine red onion skins carrots orange peel and paprika.

The key is to embrace experimentation.

“You do have to be a little more open-minded ” she says. “Sometimes with the Easter eggs you try for a blue and it turns out to be a little more purple.”

Nonetheless Evans said she’s happy with the results she gets from natural food dyeing methods. She’s also realistic about what she can achieve and considers the limitations when deciding how to decorate her kids’ birthday cakes.

“I’m not going to choose to make a red fire truck ” she says.

For best results when dyeing Easter eggs those in the know suggest starting with a concentrated dye bath: place dye ingredients in a saucepan and add water to one inch above the ingredients. Simmer the ingredients for at least 15 minutes or up to one hour then remove the dye from heat and strain the liquid. Before dyeing add a splash of white vinegar to help colors set and leave the eggs for longer than just the quick dunk needed with traditional dyes. For intense color an egg can be placed with dye in a jar and allowed to steep in the fridge overnight.

It is also wise to keep in mind just because the colors are natural that doesn’t mean they can’t stain clothing and counter tops.

We are talking dye after all.

Chocolate Beet Easter Cake

Rob Collins prepared foods manager at Tidal Creek Co-op shared this recipe for an old-fashioned cake using beets to help sweeten the layers. At Tidal Creek the cake is often paired with a vegan frosting which can be dyed green using spinach and spirulina.



1.75 lbs all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp baking soda

1 tsp sea salt

11 eggs

2.5 lbs sugar

26 oz. safflower oil

1.5 Tbsp vanilla extract

3/4 lb unsweetened chocolate melted

3 lbs beets roasted peeled and pureed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour four 9″ round cake pans or line the pans with parchment and spray with pan spray. Sift together the flour baking soda and sea salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl use an electric mixer to beat the eggs slightly. Beat in the sugar oil vanilla melted chocolate and beets. Fold in the sifted dry ingredients taking care to not overwork.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans and bake for approx. 30 minutes. Let cool and turn the cakes out of the pans to finish cooling completely before icing.



1.75 lbs Earth Balance vegan margarine

1.75 lbs shortening

4 lbs powdered sugar

1Tbsp vanilla

Beat all ingredients together to make a spreadable frosting.

For a natural green dye: Combine approximately 1 Tbsp spinach juiced with 1/2 tsp. spirulina powder. Add a little at a time to the icing until desired tint is achieved.

To use powdered spinach add it to melted shortening and let sit to hydrate and bloom.