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How to Add Food Coloring to Cake Batter

Swirled Cake Batter

Multi-colored cakes can be fun for a lot of reasons. They can help you show team spirit on an important game day, turn plain cupcakes into a great theme dessert or simply hint at the flavor inside a baked good. It is easy to add food coloring into cake batter, but there are some challenges to ensuring your cake comes out the way you envision it.

How much color do you need? Recipes often only hint at the amount of food coloring needed because the amount you might need will vary widely depending on the coloring you use. High quality gel and paste food colorings require a smaller amount of coloring than liquid colorings to get your desired color, but they can require extra mixing to break up the gel and mix it in completely. Food coloring is not an exact science and you will need to add more color as you go if you think that you’re not going to get the color you want. I recommend bring generous with your coloring unless you are aiming for a pastel cake, because vibrant colors usually make the biggest impact. The color is never going to look brighter after baking, so if it doesn’t look bright enough in your mixing bowl, you probably need more.

What if I use too much? Many people worry that adding food coloring will change the consistency of their batter. Neither liquid nor gel food colorings will add enough liquid to alter the consistency of a standard cake batter and prevent it from baking properly. It would have to be a very extreme amount of food coloring to change a batter that much (at least a bottle of coloring for one standard recipe), and you should never need that much coloring to dye one standard recipe.

What kind of food coloring should I use? Gel and paste food colorings deliver more intense color than regular liquid food coloring and are available in a much wider array of colors. You may have to make a trip to a store that is very well stocked with cake supplies (or shop online) to pick up the colors you want, however, since most regular grocery stores don’t carry a wide variety of colorings. They’re the best choice if you are set on getting your batter to a very particular or very vibrant color.

How to Add Food Coloring To Cake Batter

When should I add in the food coloring? As you add in more and more coloring, you need to mix it in to the batter. With a cake mix (vs homemade cake), you can get away with a lot of stirring, but eventually all cake batter will toughen up with lots of mixing and you will end up with tunneling in your cake instead of a nice even, tender crumb. I prefer to add my food coloring as I am combining the liquid and dry ingredients of a recipe, before the batter is completely combined. This way, I still have time to add more as I go without overmixing my batter. That said, if you feel you batter has been mixed very vigorously, you can let it rest for a few minutes before putting it into the oven and that will help the gluten to relax slightly before baking.

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  • Alyssa Reno
    May 13, 2014

    Thanks for giving the valuable information on how to add color to the cake. The technique you explained is undoubtedly excellent and easy to understand. I will try this at my kitchen this Sunday. Please update me with the new recipe if you have.

  • Janet
    December 7, 2014

    I love your advise on adding color to the cake batter!
    My question is can you add drops of food color directly to the filled cake pan to marble it, or does it have to be blended before you pour it?

  • Nicole
    December 7, 2014

    Janet – You’ll only get a tiny amount of marbling if you add it directly to the batter because a drop is, well, a drop! You’ll get a much better color if you tint a small portion of the batter separately.

  • Elisabeth
    April 22, 2015

    Your advice was very helpful, it answered the questions I had and sited obstacles and techniques I didn’t even know about! As a beginner baker it’s excellent to find such an informative source!

  • Jeany
    March 7, 2016

    I used powdered food coloring in cupcake batter and my cupcakes came out shrunk… was it the powder? I mixed it with a little bit of water first and still had the same result.. what can I do? Will the same thing happen if I use the powdered food coloring on cake batter?

  • Jackie Gyuran
    October 7, 2016

    Thank you, just in time for HALLOWEEN! I want to make orange and purple cupcakes for my grandkids party!

  • Holly
    March 10, 2017

    This may be a stupid question, what do you mean by “cake mix” and “cake batter”. Isn’t it the same thing? What’s the difference? Thanks.

  • Nicole
    March 13, 2017

    Holly – It’s not a stupid question! When I say “cake mix,” I am referring to pre-packaged cake mixes. When I say “cake batter,” that includes batters made both with boxed cake mixes and from-scratch cake recipes. Thanks!

  • Carol
    June 4, 2017

    I’m having problems with getting good colour with high quality food pastes for my rainbow cake. The purple ends up orange when baked! and the blue ends up a horrid dull green! I use the all in one sponge method and add the food paste afterwards by folding into the mixture gently. I’m using about half a teaspoon of food colour in 8ozs of cake mixture. The colour looks good when it goes in the oven but once baked the colours are awful! It’s only the purple and blue pastes I’m having problems with. I have tried both colours three times now using 3 slightly different ways of adding the colours which has made no difference! I have used a cake leveller to shave off the top of the cakes and have used a smaller cake card to take off the edge but the colours are dull, not a vibrant purple or blue. I spent quite a bit on good quality food pastes as advised by many different online sites but cannot get these two particular colours to work. Have you any advice for me please? Am I doing something wrong? I have managed to get good vibrant red, orange, green and yellow with the same make of food pastes. Thank you

  • Nicole
    June 5, 2017

    Hi Carol, I’m not sure exactly what is causing the problem you’re having. The only thing I can think of is that it might be the brand? I usually use AmeriColor gel colorings, with good results from the blue and purple. For me, sometimes the colors turn out darker than I expect when I work with food colorings, in which case I’ve found that blending colors (2/3 red, 1/3 blue to get purple) can help me get exactly the color I’m going for. I hope that helps.

  • Nicole
    September 6, 2017

    I had a question regarding coloring other types of cake mixes. Is it recommended you only color white/vanilla type mixes because the starting color is white or could you color carrot cake? Would you have to take the orange into account?

  • Nicole
    September 6, 2017

    It is the easiest – by far – to color white and yellow cake mixes. You are going to have to use a lot of food coloring in a darker cake, like a carrot cake, to change its color completely and it simply might not be possible to get the color you want. If you are working with a darker cake, take its original color into account. For instance, you could make a carrot cake more orange or yellow without too much of a problem. You can give a chocolate cake a red tint. I hope that helps!

  • Nicole
    September 6, 2017

    I would not expect powdered food coloring to make cakes shrink, especially if you mixed it with water first. Was it your first time using that cake recipe? Some cake batters are lighter and tend to shrink in more (i.e. angel food cupcakes). The most common cause of cupcake-shrinkage is overbaking – and cupcakes can overbake very quickly. I would recommend trying again and keeping an eye on the baking time just to be safe.

  • Rhonda
    September 13, 2017

    My son wants a lemon cake but wants it to be black or dark purple. Can’t I add food coloring to the cake mix and accomplish this? If so, how much? It shouldn’t change the taste right? Thank you in advance!!

  • Nicole
    September 14, 2017

    Hi Rhonda, Yes, you can add food coloring to the cake mix. You’ll have to eyeball the amount, as it will vary from brand to brand, but for a deep color I would expect to need at least a teaspoon of a liquid food coloring and up to half a teaspoon of gel/paste food coloring. It shouldn’t change the flavor of the cake at all. I would recommend using a gel or paste food coloring, if possible, for the most intense color.

  • Noreen McCarthy
    April 6, 2018

    I’ve been experimenting with Italian 7 layer/rainbow cookies. This is where you make the thick batter, then divide the batter into 3 equal portions. I use a digital scale to insure I divide my batter equally because I’m terrible at eyeballing.One portion is dyed red, one is dyed green and the third is left alone. I’ve noticed that the portion of the batter that is left alone bakes up fluffier and nicer than the two portions that have been dyed. The dyed layers are thinner and tougher. I always try my best to fold my gel colors gently, but there is no getting around the extra stirring and folding that happens.

    Is there anyway to prevent this from happening?

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