For decades, most home cooks used those little plastic bottles of food coloring that come in small packages of red, yellow, blue and green when coloring and decorating their baked goods. Originally a liquid, they're now available in a gel form, which provides a more intense color. From the base colors in the box, you can create a myriad of additional colors by mixing one color with another. The many shades of orange food coloring are created by combining red with yellow. The intensity of the orange depends on the quantity of each color used.
The Power of Color
We eat with our eyes. An elegantly decorated cake, bursting with color and fanciful designs, whets the appetite and appeals to our senses. What would Halloween be without orange cupcakes? Orange candy corn? What would a carrot cake be without the orange carrot piped atop the icing? The vibrancy of orange, whether it’s created with a liquid, gel or powder food coloring, is what defines your baked goods and lifts them from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Life Before the Bottles
What did people use before those little bottles of color became popular? Natural coloring. And using the bounty of nature continues to be popular today. Cookbooks from the late 1300s reveal a collection of ingredients used to make food colorful. If you’ve ever wondered what makes your cheddar cheese orange, it’s not an orange cow. Instead, annatto, a tropical fruit from the achiote tree, is the color’s source and a popular choice for natural color by food and fabric makers.
Carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins were also harvested for their orange color, and they are still used by naturalists. The color they create is less intense than the gel, and it may impart a hint of flavor. The secret is to start with a strong base mixed with water and reduce it down on the stove to as small a quantity as you can without burning it. This makes a strong orange color.
Using Spices for Color
Turmeric, saffron and paprika are also used for their intense color to create an orange hue. If possible, get the powdered version of the spice and mix it with a tablespoon of water to liquidize it and then add the mixture to your baking. The strength of the sugar in icing masks the flavor of the spice to a degree, but use only a small quantity to avoid overwhelming your cakes and cookies with an unusual flavor.
Many natural food colorings change color when exposed to heat. Always use them at room temperature and reserve the color for icings and decoration. To color a pastel, two-toned cake batter, such as that for a Battenberg cake, use store-bought colors.
The Magical Color Wheel
A good color wheel and colorings designed for baking and icing are the best tools a baker can have. With it, all color combinations are possible. Professional-grade gels are now available in vivid magentas, orange, teal and purple. But if you’re stuck with the box of the basic four, magic is still in your hands.
In the world of color, there are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Basic orange is an equal mixture of red and yellow. Increasing and decreasing intensity is simply a matter of using less or more of one of the primary colors. Test your orange-coloring skills with a 1/4 cup of icing and the liquid or gel colors. Mix until you get the orange tone you want. Write down your formula and tuck it away for the next time!
Liquid, Gel and the FDA
Both liquid and gel food colorings are synthetic ‒ man-made. Water is mixed with corn syrup or glycerin to form the base. The color is a product of petroleum that has been tested to be safe for human consumption. But it’s still petroleum, the same kind we put in our cars, only processed differently.
Food coloring has undergone a strict review process, and the FDA has limited the use of most, leaving a field of seven synthetic colors they consider safe for human consumption: Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. If your coloring is an off-brand, check the package labels.
Liquid Orange Formulas
The formula for creating an intense orange ‒ 33 drops of red and 90 drops of yellow ‒ sounds excessive, but 100 drops of color equals just 1 teaspoon. This mixture is added to 1 cup of frosting and mixed. If the icing is too liquid, add confectioners’ sugar.
The numbers for store-bought frosting are different because of the properties in the icing: 64 red and 165 yellow. A rule of thumb for mixing colors with icing is to let it sit overnight. It may change color. And don’t add vanilla to your icing ‒ it affects the colors.
Make Your Own
Carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes are best for creating orange powders. Slice them very thin and place them in a dehydrator until they are devoid of any liquid. Place the pieces into a food processor and grind into a fine powder.
Using Orange Powders
If making your own is too time-consuming, food coloring powders are now available at bakery supply stores and online. You can order a multitude of colors; just know they work differently when mixed with icing. Fruits, vegetables and plants form the basis of the coloring, and the science in using them differs from the liquid and gels.
While liquid and gel coloring contains corn syrup and water, powders are pure. The intensity of their color is greater, and less powder is necessary. Depending on the source of the orange powder you’ve purchased, it may leave flavoring in your mix. Dip your finger into the powder before and after mixing to ascertain the true flavor of your product.
Batters containing an acid, such as buttermilk, lemon juice and citric acids, produce the brightest reds, purples and pinks due to the pH level of the batter. Orange, yellow and brown powders are not affected by the acid in the batter.
Using powders is a trial-and-error experiment. Add the powder as you build the batter, not after. To avoid overmixing, mix it well, and let the batter sit under natural light for a few minutes to let the color blend with the batter. Adjustments can be made at this point. If you’ve overmixed, and your spatula leaves a definite trail, let it sit for a few additional minutes to let it relax.
Baking may affect the color. Try turning the oven temperature down and baking the batter for a longer period of time to maintain the orange you’ve worked so hard to develop.
- The Baker's Cupboard: Decorator's Color Wheel
- McCormick: Food Coloring Guide
- Food52: How to Make All-Natural Food Dyes From Ingredients in Your Kitchen
- Food Network: Frost by Numbers: How to Make Frosting Colors
- Fix: Golden Opportunity: How to Make Your Own Safe Food Coloring at Home
- FDA: Summary of Color Additives for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices
- The Spruce Eats: Food Coloring History