For a long time, food colouring was simple. There was only one type available – liquids – and in a very limited selection of just 4 colours.
But now the world of colour in baking has opened up with the introduction of gels, powders and oil-based food colourings, each with their own library of stunning shades and tints.
This is our simple guide to each type of food colouring with some pros and cons to help you pick the best type for your next baking project. Let’s go!
Liquid food colouring
Affordable and available in mainstream grocery stores, liquid food colourings are the OG in any baker’s pantry.
Comprised of a coloured dye mixed with a watery base, liquid food colourings aren’t very concentrated and are best used in small amounts to create lighter, pastel colours. In order to achieve a strong colour with liquid food colouring, you would have to add as much as a tablespoon (sometimes the whole bottle!) to your batter or icing, which can water it down, add a weird flavour and generally throw everything off kilter. For these reasons, we highly recommend using gel or powder types instead if you’re after deeper colours.
Liquid food colouring also only comes in a very limited range of hues, usually one shade of red (more accurately named ‘crimson pink’), blue, green and yellow.
Since liquid food colouring is water-based, it cannot be mixed into bakes that are sensitive to moisture like melted white chocolate. To tint white chocolate, you need to use either an oil-based food colouring or powders (see below), or you can add a drop of food colouring to warmed cream to make a ganache.
|NOT GREAT FOR:
|– Pastel colours in small amounts
– Wet-on-wet technique royal icing, wet batters (like cakes) and ganache
– Homemade candies and lollies
|– Vivid or deep colours
– Bakes that are sensitive to extra moisture, like melted chocolate, meringues and macarons
Gel food colouring
Gel food colouring is a very intense and concentrated glycerin-based paste so a little goes a long way to achieve bright, beautiful colours. In comparison to liquid food colouring, there’s no significant moisture added by using gels.
While a little more costly than the liquid variety, this versatile food colouring doesn’t by any means break the bank and will last you a very long time too. It’s available in a huge range of colours from baking speciality stores, including previously unattainable shades like Super Black, Burgandy and Teal.
While nowhere near as watery as liquid food colouring, gels are still water-based and therefore can still cause chocolate to seize. They can also take some time to properly incorporate into butter-based icings for deeper colours.
Brighter Buttercream: To help the colour molecules from gel food colouring incorporate with the fatty butter, soften about a third of your coloured buttercream in the microwave (no more than 10 seconds) and you’ll see the colour intensify before your eyes. Mix this into the rest of the buttercream, repeating if necessary to reach your desired colour. If your buttercream becomes too melted and soft, place it in the fridge to firm up and whip with an electric mixer to re-emulsify.
|NOT GREAT FOR:
|– Vibrant and vivid colours
– Cake batters
– All sorts of icings
– Soft cookie doughs (we recommend incorporating it with the liquid or softer component of your dough, like egg or milk, as adding it at the very end is tricky to incorporate)
– Meringues, macarons and homemade candies
|– Melted chocolate
– Water-based so can take a bit of extra work to achieve strong colours in buttercream
– Can be messy mixing into fondant icing
Oil-based food colourings
These have a similar consistency to gel food colourings but are oil- instead of water-based. This makes them ideal for buttercreams and melted chocolate. The is kind of food colouring is still to be brought into the South African market, so keep an eye out for them in your nearest baking stores (the most popular range we know of is called Colour Mill).
Powdered Food Colouring
Last but not least, powdered food colouring. This contains a mixture of ground-up colour pigment in a starchy base and can produce the strongest colours. As their name suggests, powdered food colourings don’t contain any water or glycerin, so are great for bakes that are sensitive to added liquid like macarons and meringues. We particularly love to use them to tint melted white chocolate.
Powders can be mixed into a paste with a little water or food-grade glycerin to help incorporate it into batters and buttercreams, or mixed with clear alcohol for decorative paint.
Powdered food colouring can sometimes create an uneven colour if not mixed in well as they can be more difficult to incorporate. If used in excess, they can also create a grainy effect and thickened, muddy texture in buttercreams and chocolate.
|NOT GREAT FOR:
|– A good all-rounder for vibrant and vivid colours
– Batters and buttercreams
– Water-sensitive things like melted white chocolate, cocoa butter, meringues and macarons
– Easier to incorporate into fondant compared to water-based colourings
– Sugarcraft decorations (can mixed into fondant, dry brushed onto fondant or mixed with clear alcohol for decorative paints)
|– Can create an uneven colour in comparison to gels
– Sometimes get a gritty, muddy texture if too much is used
Note: The main manufacturer of powdered food colouring in South Africa is BARCO. They have various ranges, each with different applications defined by the colour of their labels, so make sure not to get them confused. We’re referring to their Red Label powders above.
Our closing tips
- At the end of the day, there isn’t a straightforward this-for-that model for food colourings. While they’ll all technically work for everything (except liquid & gel colourings in chocolate), some will work better than others. We use gels for pretty much everything since they’re usually easier to incorporate and give an even colour (except melted chocolate of course, for which we use powders). Make sure to experiment to see what works for you!
- As a rule of thumb, the less liquid in the food colouring, the more intense the colour will be.
- Make sure to add food colouring sparingly and gradually to your bakes to reach your desired colour – you can always add more, but can’t take any out.
- To avoid accumulating tonnes of different colours, try to only buy basic colours and learn to mix different hues as needed.
- If you want a beautiful white buttercream, you can offset the yellow tinge by mixing in a teensy drop of violet gel colouring or powder. Sounds odd, but trust us – it works!