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Color Goes All Natural

Like practically everything in the food world these days, a recent hyper-focus on natural sources for food coloring has hit the pastry kitchen. Demands from discerning customers and even some governments to remove processed chemical-based food colorants from products have become more common. However, finding alternatives to traditional liquid, gel, and powdered dyes isn’t as challenging as it sounds. Between new, dependable commercial options and your own test kitchen experiments, you can color the rainbow without chemicals, no matter what delicious application you have in mind.

Hibiscus raspberry and match macarons by Michelle Hernández.

Depending on your needs, one of the most straightforward solutions is going directly to the manufacturers you know and trust. Chefmaster, known for their consistently colorful gels, has released a line of natural food coloring that boasts being both vibrant and plant-based. You will find natural alternatives such as beet powder, beta carotene, and spirulina instead of the notorious “red dye 40” and similar synthetics on the ingredients label. Though the current color selection is limited, it simply requires some experimenting to achieve the look you may need while still maintaining the texture, flavor, or smell of your products.

If you had the immediate thought upon reading the ingredients in natural commercial products that you could go directly to the source of that color, you’re not alone. In fact, powdered versions of those natural ingredients have become increasingly popular and more widely available. Blue pea powder seemed almost magical when it first came on the scene with its ability to achieve a seemingly unnatural blue even in sandwich bread, and turmeric needs little more than a sprinkle to make yellow pop. Now brands like Suncore Foods have become kitchen darlings, offering organic, powdered versions of 100 percent natural products such as beets, blueberries, purple sweet potatoes, and more. Keep in mind because the products are natural, color may vary, you may see some slight change in texture depending on the amount, and flavor may be affected. Most fans of the brand note subtle flavor profiles in finished products.

Cupcakes by Allison Reiss are naturally colored with beet juice and Chefmaster Natural Liqua-Gel Food Coloring.

Of course, you can distill this concept down even further—quite literally! Rather than purchasing food color, you can create your own. The main idea is simple. “The key to achieving the most vibrant color is to start with as concentrated of a base as possible,” notes pastry guru Erin McDowell. And so reducing a fruit purée, for example, or dehydrating fruit, flowers, or vegetables will give you a more concentrated color. However, she does advise some caution. “The challenge with naturally occurring food colorings is that they aren’t as intense as commercial ones.” Michelle Hernández, the owner of botanically-inspired Le Dix-Sept in San Francisco, has made natural colors part of her philosophy and agrees. “Manage everyone’s expectations,” she notes, adding, “Customers may want big, bold colors, but that can be unnatural depending on what it is.”

Strawberry cake with strawberry confit and vanilla bean buttercream by Michelle Hernández, finished with edible bows, flowers, and gold leaf.

And even more so than the commercially processed natural powders, the food colors you make will have a distinct flavor profile. This, of course, works with the notion that a customer should be able to look at a dessert and understand what the flavor may be based on what it looks like. For example, using common sense, a strawberry dessert should be pink. And indeed, chefs like Hernández use that to their advantage, even with her bespoke cakes. If a customer orders strawberry, or her favorite flavors of hibiscus and raspberry, they should expect shades of pink. “With botanicals, you can get a lot of pretty colors,” she notes. You need to work with clients, so they understand the benefits of natural colors and flavors in the end result.

If the thought of switching to all-natural colors has you seeing red, remember that you can mix and match all of these ideas, depending on the application and client. For a brightly colored cake covered in fondant, using anything other than commercial gel food color might result in disaster. On the other hand, experimenting with red cabbage and baking soda to make a blue food coloring might be just the innovative twist you’re looking for to entice your customers. After all, isn’t the fun of working in pastry the endless creativity?

(This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

AnnMarie Mattila
AnnMarie Mattila
AnnMarie Mattila is a writer for Pastry Arts Magazine, as well as a freelance baker and pastry chef in New York. She is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Food Studies at New York University.