Because the icing is so essential in a perfectly decorated cookie, the food coloring you use when cookie decorating is just as important. There are plenty of food coloring options out there, many of them superb, and you may use a brand and method totally different from mine. But I’ll share what I use and do with the disclaimer that this isn’t comprehensive, it merely works for me. At the end of this post, I included a COLOR CHART you can print on 5 x 7 photo paper, if desired.
concentrated pastes vs. soft gel pastes
First and foremost, I use soft gel pastes exclusively. Craft stores usually carry the more accessible concentrated pastes. Both work well and in much the same way and both come in a huge variety of colors. So if your only option is the baking aisle of your craft store, then these will work fine. But I find concentrated pastes have a bitter, metallic taste. So I don’t use them. Instead I use:
Americolor Soft Gel Pastes (You’d think I own their stock, but I promise I have no connection to the company other than as a customer, and they have not paid me to write this.) Another brand option is Ateco Spectrum food coloring, also very good. Soft gel pastes: 1. are tasteless, 2. blend beautifully, 3. come in every color you can imagine.
You can find Americolor soft gel pastes at many cake decorating supply stores. Americolor Soft Gel Pastes are also available on AMAZON: Here is a set of 12 Americolor food colorings that’s a good start. I also use a lot of the Electric colors. And I buy the big bottle of White food coloring.
which soft gel pastes to buy
Americolor sells over 40 colors. I don’t own all of them. I’ll let you be the judge of what colors you like best, of course, but here are the colors I own and use frequently. Some great colors are missing from my collection, but pretty much everything I need to decorate works with these colors, so I rely solely on these below. Click on each for link.
which size to buy: the pastes come in small, .75 ounce bottles, and larger, 4.5 ounce bottles (and even larger, but I think those are wholesale). Even with all the decorating I do, I buy the .75 ounce bottles. A few drops go a long way, so stick with these unless you have a business and decorate hundreds of cookies a day. Some colors take lots of drops to get the right shade, so you may consider the larger size if you decorate a lot (for example, white, black, brown and the darker shades of any color).
how to use soft gel pastes
You can add coloring to batches of buttercream frosting, to royal icing, to fondant and even to cake and cookie batter before baking. For more tips on how to use food coloring, CLICK HERE.
—–Always start with ONE drop and add more as needed. While some colors take a lot of drops, you can always add more, you can’t take it away (if you do go too far, add more frosting to lighten).
—–You need white food coloring. Yes, you DO have to tint plain icing with white food coloring. Extracts, butter, and other frosting ingredients make bare frosting off-white, so to achieve a pure white, add White color. A LOT of it. A lot of color may thin your frosting a bit, so either start with a thicker frosting or add confectioner’s sugar to thicken
—–How much to color? For whole batches of icing or frosting, add coloring to the mixing bowl and mix with the mixer. But when making colors for cookies, I usually work with 3/4 to 1 cup of icing for each color, mixing in small bowls.
—–For different shades, simply add more drops. These take a LOT of color, so just keep adding drops. More than you’d think. You may want to get bigger bottles of darker color or purchase more than one if you have a lot of icing or frosting to make. Also keep in mind that a lot of food coloring may thin your icing, so add additional confectioner’s sugar if necessary.
—–Dark colors, red and white.
—– Skin tones. Caucasian flesh is always a tough one to get right. I usually make it with ONE drop ofAmericolor “Peach.” Just one drop. Mayyyybe two. You can also add a touch of Egg Yellow. For African American and Hispanic and/or Latino skin tones I use a different number of drops ofAmericolor Chocolate Brown. For Asian skin tones, I use a mix of Chocolate Brown and Egg Yellow. Just be sure to start with ONE drop of each and add more as needed.
—–Color mixing. Mix colors for different effects, such as egg yellow and leaf green for chartreuse or purple and royal blue for cornflower.
—–Fondant. To mix colors into fondant, add a couple drops to a palmful of fondant and knead well. If the fondant gets sticky from overhandling, let it sit at room temperature for 15 minutes or until easily pliable.
—–Skin tones. Caucasian flesh is always a tough one to get right. I usually make it with ONE drop ofAmericolor “Peach.” Just one drop. Mayyyybe two. You can also add a touch of Egg Yellow. For African American and Hispanic and/or Latino skin tones I use a different number of drops ofAmericolor Chocolate Brown. For Asian skin tones, I use a mix of Chocolate Brown and Egg Yellow. Just be sure to start with ONE drop of each and add more as needed.
—–Brown is tricky. Even using Chocolate Brown, it takes a lot of drops. Tan is a tough color to get, as a few drops of Chocolate Brown tend to look pink-ish. I add a drop of Egg Yellow to achieve a better tan.
—–Pastels. I add a bit of White coloring to Sky Blue, Electric Pink (I use Electric Pink for all shades of pink rather than Soft Pink as I feel it’s more vibrant), Egg Yellow, Regal Purple or Leaf Green to get my pastels.
Below is a color chart with more tips on which pastes I use for which frosting colors. Again, this isn’t comprehensive! There are plenty more options.
Click on the chart to enlarge and or CLICK HERE to print on 5 x 7 photo paper with your color printer for a postcard to keep for reference.
UPDATE: how long will they last?
Another reason to love Americolor products? Their customer service is always spot on. Whenever I’ve dealt with the company, they are always quickly responsive. Joan asked in the comments about the shelf life of the soft gel pastes, and I realized I’ve used some of mine for years. Yikes! Well, I asked the company and they quickly responded as follows:
“This product will last many years if stored properly i.e. ambient temperature, away from any source of ultraviolet light. The reference to ultraviolet light is generally for the end user maintaining that any light source will fade certain FDA Certified Food Colors. If this product is stored in its carton the light radiation will not be a factor. Ambient temperature is defined as common range of 18°C (64°F) to 23°C (73°F) Variations in temperature +/- 20° will not affect product. After several years the Soft Gel Paste may break down, if stored properly the color will remain intact, generally recognized as safe for human consumption.”
Phew!!! Looks like I’m in the clear….
HERE ARE SOME HANDY AFFILIATE LINKS TO FOOD COLORING: