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Cooking Tips

5 Dos and Don’ts of Using Food Coloring in Your Baked Goods

Give your inner artist all the right tools with these colorful design tips.
By Published June 24, 2022

Are you baking a lot of rainbow-colored baked goods for your Pride party this month? So are we! To help you with your pride-related baking or any of your food coloring needs, here are five dos and don’ts of baking with food coloring.

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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.

Do: Start with a light hand.

Don’t: Dump in a ton of color at once.

Most types of food coloring are very powerful, so you want to start small, adding a few drops at a time. It is so much easier to add than to take away. And yes, it takes some time to add, stir, add, stir, etc., but successfully working with food coloring requires a little patience.

Do: Mix food coloring in well.

Don’t: Make a judgment call before the colors are fully mixed.

It is important to fully mix in any food coloring before adjusting it. If I’m mixing food coloring into a frosting, which can handle a lot of manipulation, I’ll whip it using a stand mixer for at least a full minute on medium-high. Otherwise, you may not get a good read on how the color is turning out. The same goes for mixing colors. If I’m trying to get a nice neon green, I’ll start with a touch of blue and a little more yellow, mix very well, and then add more of either to get closer to the desired result.  

Do: Be specific about what type of food coloring you’re using. 

Don’t: Use brands or types of food coloring interchangeably.


Liquid Coloring

This is the type you can most commonly find at the grocery store (it can be sold in individual bottles or small sets of four). It is thin in consistency (like water). In turn, many bakeries avoid using it because it can thin out a cake batter or frosting. As long as you’re using it in small amounts, you shouldn’t have any problems. In our recipes, unless otherwise specified, this is what we are using.

Gel Coloring and Liquid Gel Dye

These colorings have a thicker, gel-like consistency that typically comes from corn syrup or glycerin. They are sold in little pots at craft stores and online (they’re not the same as the tubes of colored gel-like frosting at the grocery store). They are more concentrated than liquid food coloring, so you want to use them more judiciously. And because they are thicker, they are less likely to affect the texture of your final product, but you will need to mix them in more aggressively (they can be hard to incorporate into thick batters or doughs). If you are an avid baker, I suggest using these because they are available in a ton of colors, so you can pick exactly what you want without having to mix colors.

Powdered Dye

As the name implies, these dyes are dried powders. They can be found at craft stores or online and have the longest shelf life because they’re dry. Since they are powders, they won’t thin out a batter at all and thus are great for really sensitive items such as macarons or meringues. To use them, you can stir them directly into a dry mixture until they are evenly incorporated or mix them with a tiny bit of clear (safe-to-consume) alcohol before stirring them into a wet batter (to avoid clumping). Many bakers also brush the powdered dye directly onto foods with a food-safe paint brush as a pretty way to decorate a dessert.

All the different types of food coloring behave differently, so you should not use them interchangeably in baked goods. 

Do: Start with a clean, organized station.

Don’t: Be sparing with your bowls.

I avoid cleaning dishes as much as the next girl. But when doing a colorful baking project, that’s not a time to get stingy with the bowls. If I’m doing something like making four different colors of frosting, I start with one bowl of white frosting that I divide into five different smaller bowls. I add color to four of these, keeping one backup for any issues. If I need to remake a color because it looks off or I ran out, I have extra white frosting I can use without having to make more. The extra bowls give you more backup options and control.

Also, speaking from plenty of personal experience, be sure to wear an apron or at least a shirt you don’t mind staining when working with food coloring.

Do: Play with natural ways to add food coloring.

Don’t: Assume natural food coloring will look the same as synthetic food coloring.

Most food coloring is made with synthetic colors produced in a lab. You can buy plant-based food coloring if you prefer to avoid synthetic colorants. It’s often available at natural foods stores or can be ordered online. It tends to be a little more dull and less vibrant than the other kinds of coloring. And you may need to add more of it to get an intense color. So if your end goal is a bright-neon-pink cake, plant-based food coloring isn’t going to get you there. But if you want a soft-pastel-green cake, it can be beautiful when made with this type of food coloring.

Alternatively, you can try homemade options for food dye. Turmeric can add a nice yellow color. Beets, of course, are known to dye things red. You can get brown from cocoa powder or chocolate, blue from blueberries, green from matcha, and pink from raspberries or strawberries.