Monday, February 20, 2012

How To Color Icing

I hate coloring icing.
If cakes, cookies and whatnot looked great in shades of white, I'd be so happy.
But they don't.

I've actually been trying to write this post for at least 2 months, probably more. But every time I start, I just can't get very far. I don't really know the best way to organize it, or what you really want to know. So, here's the deal... I'm just going to get this done. Now, your job is to ask the questions I don't answer in the main post, and I promise to answer them, to the best of my ability, in the comments section.

What You Need:
Gel and/or powder-based food coloring
Butter Knife or Icing Spatula(s)
2-4 small bowls or mugs (You won't necessarily need one per color, but occasionally you need more than one.)
Plastic Wrap
Icing Bags
Small sandwich bags (for flooding consistency icing if you're using it)

Let's Talk Food Coloring
There are four common kinds of food coloring for icing: liquid, gel, powder and oil-based.

Liquid Coloring
These are like the egg-shaped liquid droppers you find in the grocery store. I use liquid coloring very rarely. The reasons are simple. It can thin out your icing if you need to use a lot, because it's liquid. And they're not very concentrated, so to get beyond a light shade, you tend to need a lot.
They are good for making pastels, and work fine if you're using them in an icing that doesn't matter if it gets a little runny.

Gel-Based Coloring
These are the colors I use most frequently. The easiest to find are the Wilton colors. They come in little jars, and you can buy them at a craft store, WalMart, even Target. The advantage is that these are much more concentrated, and they won't change the consistency of your icing. And if you're lucky enough to have a baking supply store nearby, you can buy other brands like Chefmaster or Americolor, and those come in squeeze bottles, so they're easier to use than the Wilton jars.

Powdered Coloring
I'm still pretty new to the world of powdered coloring. I've used it a few times, but to be completely honest, I'm not really that impressed. I've found that you need a lot of it to get a color that is anywhere near dark or vibrant. It's also not easily available. The only time I use the powder colors right now is when I'm trying to get Royal Icing black or red. (I'll explain more about this later, but in short, royal icing doesn't dry completely if you use too much gel coloring, so the powder helps with that.)

Oil-Based Coloring
The oil-based colors are pretty rare. These you'll find in the candy aisle. They're used for coloring candy. You don't want to use these too much for other things, and you certainly don't want to use them for Royal Icing, which needs to stay grease-free.

Getting the Color You Want
I think this is the hardest part. Getting the color just right.

For pastels use less coloring than you think you need.
Especially when you're using gel-based or other concentrated coloring, you go from a sweet baby pink to some hideous shade of neon really fast. Also, most of these colors will get darker (not a lot, but a little) as they sit. I also remind my students when they're adding coloring for the first time that it's easier to add more coloring than to take it out!

For deep, vibrant colors, use much more coloring than you think you need.
Getting a dark red or black or brown is not easy. So, when you sit down to make a dark color, prepare for this.
- Have enough coloring on-hand. It's very common to use the entire jar of red coloring to make even the smallest amount of icing red.
- Color just the amount you will need. Don't waste the coloring on an entire batch of icing if all you need is 1/2 cup of black for an outline.
- Make the icing ahead of time. Like I said above with the pastels, the colors will darken as they sit, so if possible, make the icing, and let it sit for a few hours or overnight. It will get darker.
- Some people can taste the coloring in the icing if you use a lot. Red and black are the two biggest offenders here. So, if you are making a cake or cookies for someone else, find a "no-taste" red, and try to use chocolate icing to start your black. It will help mask the taste of the coloring.

Saving Time, Energy & Dishes
When I sit down to color icing, I plan the order of the colors I need. So, for instance, if I'm doing Yellow, Red and Black, I will plan to make the yellow first, then red, then black. Having a little yellow in the bowl helps keep my red from being too pink. And having the leftover red in there helps with the black, as well. Plus, this means I wash one bowl, instead of three.

I take each color of icing out of the bowl, and put it into an icing bag bullet (or a plastic baggie, if I'm using a flooding icing for cookies). This makes for easier storage than a bunch of bowls, and it helps keep Royal Icing from drying out while I make my other colors.

Warnings & Watch Out!s
I mentioned before that some people can taste icing coloring, so that's probably one of my biggest "warnings" when it comes to coloring your icing.

Getting some deep colors will change your icing
You can see in the photo above of the cherry cookies, the icing is kind of speckled, and I can tell you that it never dried. Even after days and days. I simply used too much icing color. They would not dry. When you use Royal Icing, you really want to be patient, and let the icing sit a while so that you can use the least amount of coloring possible.

This is also true when you color fondant. If you're using tons and tons of the gel-based coloring, you're adding a lot of glycerine to the fondant, and it's going to get really sticky. You need to add some powdered sugar back in, as well, or you're going to have a hard time with your fondant.

Re-creating an icing color is almost impossible
You always need to color enough icing to complete your project because matching a shade later is really hard.
This does contradict, a little, what I said before about not coloring more than you need... but... You don't want to color a ton of icing, if you only need a little. But you always need to color enough. This is particularly true when you've mixed any two colors. It's not easy to get those same proportions again.

Coloring icing takes time
My last piece of advice is to set aside enough time to color your icing. It can take quite a while, especially if you're making a lot of colors. And you don't want to be rushed, because that's when you end up with a shade you don't really like. Plus, doing it ahead of time will help you see what your true colors will look like, because they really do get darker as they sit.

So, how'd I do? Did I answer your questions? Leave me a comment if there's something I didn't address, and I will do my best to find you an answer!

Click the Links Below to See:
Royal Icing Recipe (with tips on coloring royal icing)
Fondant 101 (with tips on coloring fondant)
No-Taste Red - What Does That Do?!

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  1. Great stuff - but I do have a few questions. I have some really old paste food color & it's dried out slightly - think I can just add a drop or two of water? I'm trying to avoid buying new stuff if I can....

    1. Susan,
      To reconstitute the coloring, you need to add glycerine, which you can also buy at the craft stores/ cake supply stores... but honestly... unless you have a lot of colors to use it on, it's probably going to be cheaper, and work better, to just go buy new ones.
      - Beki

  2. Hello, i have been asked to make a Red Ombre cake for a friend. She wants just white icing but the actual cake to be ombre... RED! What do you recommend to get the best fresh colour... working with a vanilla cake base and then should i add Gel, liquid or powder colour? What one will be the best for a fresh colour not that kind dirty look i sometimes get when adding colour to my vanilla base cakes? Any tips would be appreciated. Thanks

    1. I know what you're talking about.
      I'm not sure how it's 100% avoidable, to be honest. I think adding coloring to cake batter often changes the color of it, just because your batter starting off isn't white-white.

      So, my recommendations would be:
      - use WHITE cake mix, not vanilla, yellow, etc. And use only the whites, not the egg yolks.
      - Use gel-based coloring. Add it in small increments, but know that you will be using a lot to get the batter as deep a red as you wish. (so buy 2-3 bottles/jars of the same red)
      - Always do a "test cake" beforehand, if you have the time.

      Good luck!

  3. I used the no taste red to color my buttercream frosting a dark red. It thinned out my frosting. Being an amateur at this, I added powdered sugar and put it in the refrigerator to be able to work with it. Was there a better solution to my problem?

    1. Mary,
      I have not had this problem.
      I guess I would try it again and see if the same thing happens. If so, know going in that you need to start with stiffer icing, and so don't add as much water or milk to the icing at the start.
      I think you solved the problem just like I would, though. Powdered sugar or cooling it down are the two ways to thicken up your icing.
      Good luck, and sorry about the problem!
      - Beki

  4. Thank you for the quick response.the elmo cupcakes were a success, although it had to hustle with the buttercream it was a learning experience.

  5. I made a double batch of Wilton butter cream icing and used 2 large bottles of wilton no-taste red coloring. I need mickey mouse red and I still have pink icing that turned very thin. My cake needs to be done tomorrow by 10:30AM. HELP!

    1. Hopefully, if you let the icing sit overnight, it has darkened. If it is still not as red as you'd like, you can try adding some Cocoa powder, to take the pink out, or try adding a little orange or yellow coloring.
      All of those will change the color a little, but it will take the pink out.
      I hope you're able to get the color you want.
      Unfortunately, red is a tough, tough color to get without a lot of coloring.
      - Beki

  6. Hi. I've noticed that when I color my icing with the wilton gel colors, the icing seems to have this separation look going on. My icing was made out of vegetable shortening, no butter. Also, I find that when I add a single color, it tends to come out looking like it's fluorescent version and never it's true color. What am I doing wrong?

    1. It's hard to say, not being able to see the icing, but I haven't had the separation issue. So, that one I can't help with, I'm sorry.
      The fluorescent issue is usually one of two things... Too much coloring or too little coloring. So, say your red is turning neon pink, you probably need more red. However, if your yellow is looking neon, you probably need less yellow.
      I don't know if this is at all helpful, but I hope so.
      - Beki


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