A Guide to Food Coloring Types and How to Use Them

updated Dec 4, 2022
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(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Food coloring comes out in full force around the holidays when it’s time to make colorful icings, candies, and other sweet confections. While liquid food coloring used to be the only option available for tinting foods, there are now many other choices, from gels to pastes to even powdered food coloring.

Here’s a guide to the different types, how they can be used, and the pros and cons of each one!

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Traditional Liquid Food Colorings (Liquid Dye)

  • What it’s made out of: Synthetic colorings with a water base.
  • How it’s sold: Little squeeze bottles, usually plastic.
  • How to use it: Just add drop by drop into whatever you’re coloring. Can be mixed with vinegar to dye Easter eggs.
  • Pros: Easy-to-find in any grocery store and inexpensive; good when you’re looking for lighter, more pastel coloring.
  • Cons: The least intense and weakest of all the food colorings since it is water-based, meaning you will need to use more of it to achieve a brighter or deeper color. If you use a significant amount, the extra liquid has the potential to thin out and/or throw off a recipe.

Liquid Gel Dye

  • What it’s made out of: Synthetic coloring with a water, glycerine and/or corn syrup base.
  • How it’s sold: Small dropper bottles that contain a thick gel-like liquid.
  • How to use it: Use the dropper and start with small amounts since it’s so concentrated. It’s best in candy, red food coloring like for red velvet cake, and icing.
  • Pros: The color in liquid gel dye is more concentrated than traditional liquid food colorings, so you need less, which is important in recipes where you want to minimize the amount of liquid added (such as in candy or icing recipes). Since you need less, there is less of a chance the coloring with adversely flavor the food too.
  • Cons: Harder to find. Because of its thick texture, liquid gel dye can be harder to incorporate into thick or stiff doughs.
(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Gel Paste Dye

(Sometimes labeled icing color or concentrated gel)

  • What it’s made out of: Synthetic coloring with a water, glycerine and/or corn syrup base.
  • How it’s sold: Little pots or jars.
  • How to use it: Gel paste dye is an even more concentrated form of liquid gel dye. It’s best to dip a toothpick in the paste and add very small amounts each time, as it is extremely effective in coloring.
  • Pros: You only need a small amount, so it can be slightly less messy than using dropper bottles. It is usually available at cooking stores or online. Gel paste dye is very effective in dyeing a large amount of batter (like cake batters) and produces dark, saturated colors.
  • Cons: It’s easy to add too much coloring, which cannot be undone. Some people don’t like the taste of the red dyes, but you can usually find ones labeled “no-taste.” Since it’s even thicker than liquid gel dye, it can be also harder to incorporate into stiff doughs.
(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Natural Food Colorings

  • What they’re made out of: Natural and plant sources; no glycerine or corn syrup.
  • How it’s sold: Small dropper bottles.
  • How to use it: Use by adding drop by drop. Natural food colorings are great to use in allergy-free baking.
  • Pros: Good for those allergic to synthetic dyes.
  • Cons: Can be hard to find (check specialty stores or online) and more expensive than other food dyes. The colors are more muted and not as brilliant as synthetic dyes.

Powdered Dye

  • What it’s made out of: Synthetic coloring with no water, glycerine, or corn syrup.
  • How it’s sold: Jars of completely dry powder.
  • How to use it: Add directly into a dry mixture, mix with a few drops of clear alcohol, or brush the powder directly onto foods as a finish.
  • Pros: Since there is no liquid in powdered dyes, it’s great in recipes where any added liquid makes a huge difference, like in crystal sugar, chocolate, macarons, or French meringues. Powdered dye won’t dry out like other food dyes and has an extremely long shelf life. Great for producing really dark shades of color.
  • Cons: Can be hard to find (online is easiest), and you have to blend it yourself.