The Different Types of Food Coloring and When to Use Them

Learn the in's and outs of food coloring with this helpful guide.

CupcakesPhoto: Shutterstock / Ruth Black

Whether you’re making Grandma’s red velvet cake or adding the finishing touches to your holiday cookies, understanding how to use food coloring is essential to make your icings, candies and various sweet treats stand out. While traditionally most cooks stick to liquid coloring, there several options for tinting foods, and each has its own benefits and quirks.

Traditional liquid food coloring (liquid dye)

Traditional liquid coloring for food is an inexpensive option. It’s the best kind to use when you want a lighter tint. With large desserts, like cakes, it can take a few bottles to create a rich, vibrant color. However, it only takes a drop to make the pretty pastel filling in these dreamy cream wafers.

Liquid food coloring is usually made with synthetic dye in a water base. It’s often sold in small plastic squeeze bottles, which are great for beginners because you can add as many (or as few) drops as you’d like until you reach the desired hue.

Liquid gel dye

Liquid gel dye is similar to its traditional counterpart as it consists of synthetic coloring with a base of water, glycerin or corn syrup. Like plain liquid dye, it’s sold in small dropper bottles. But the two products similarities stop there. Give a bottle of liquid gel dye a squeeze and out comes a much thicker, gel-like liquid. The dye is very concentrated, so a little goes a long way. This type of food coloring works great for creating vivid color. The downside of liquid gel dye is that it’s not as readily available as the traditional liquid dye, and it can be somewhat difficult to find. Also, its thick consistency makes it difficult to spread evenly into doughs. Stick to using it for icings and your favorite homemade candies.

Gel paste dye

Though you’ll likely only find this concentrated gel in a specialty store, it’s worth the trip if you’re looking to give a large batch of batter a bold look. Just like liquid gel dye, it’s made out of synthetic coloring with a water, glycerin or corn syrup base. The paste is packaged up in small pots or jars. Since gel paste dyes are very thick, it’s best to use a toothpick to collect the paste, adding very small amounts at a time to what you’re coloring. If you’re trying to avoid a mess—or if you have clumsy hands or if there are kids involved—this is a great option, as its liquid components can spill and splatter. Warning: if you don’t know how deep you’d like your color to look, this isn’t the best choice. It doesn’t allow for a lot of for trial and error. And since its consistency is semi-solid, it can also be tricky to work into dough.

Natural food colorings

For anyone who wants to steer clear of synthetic dyes, natural food colorings do exist. You won’t find any glycerin or corn syrup in them. They can be difficult to locate, but an online search is all it takes to order them quickly or to help you find a specialty store in your area. (Here’s where to find our top pick from Amazon.) Available in small dropper bottles, the different colors come from plant sources. For instance, saffron or turmeric is used to make yellow, carrot juice makes orange, and beets make red tones. They are great to use for anyone with an allergy to synthetic dyes. No neon here, though. Used drop by drop, natural food colorings are best for achieving a subtle, earthy hue.

Powdered dye

Powdered dyes are made out of synthetic coloring with no water, glycerin, or corn syrup. They’re sold in jars of totally dry powder. There are many ways to use it: add a pinch of the powder to your dry mixture or combine it with a few drops of clear alcohol for a paint-like consistency. You can even dust it onto foods to create a gentle finish.

Powdered dye is best to use in recipes that are sensitive to any added liquid, like chocolate or macarons. But use sparingly, as the powder can produce a very dark color.

Learn something new? We sure did. Now that you know which dye works best for your recipe, go forth and bake with all the colors of the rainbow.

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Alexa Erickson
Inspired by balance, Alexa finds that her true inner peace comes from executing a well-rounded lifestyle. An avid yogi, hiker, beach bum, music and art enthusiast, salad aficionado, adventure seeker, animal lover, and professional writer, she is an active individual who loves to express herself through the power of words. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @lextraordinary1, and follow her work at: alexaerickson.contently.com.