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Old School Pastry: Old Style Food Colorings Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape
A Look at Sources Behind Old-Style Food Colorings:
Blue, Yellow, Red, Green
by Renee Shelton

I like pastry; that's a given. I also like collecting old cook books. In my blog, Old School Pastry, I listed how some colors were created by pâtissiers way back when from old pastry books.

Here is a further look, with additional pictures and resources.

Red Food Coloring (cochineal insects)
Yellow Food Coloring (saffron)
Blue Food Coloring (indigo/Prussian blue)
Green Food Coloring (spinach)

The recipes come from the book The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook and Baker by the Parkinson family, who were notable confectioners. You'll appreciate going to the store after reading how they were made.

Dried Cochineal Insects
Image above: Dried Female Cochineal Insects,
which were used to make red food coloring.

How to Make Yellow Food Coloring

Saffron is used to both flavor and color a dish. Yellow food coloring is easily made through the use of saffron, and different shades of yellow uses different strengths, or a mixture of saffron and other other colors. Here is how to make yellow food coloring in the late 1800's, using saffron.


Yellow - Infuse saffron in warm water, and use it for colouring any thing that is eatable. The English hay-saffron is the best; it is taken from the tops of the pistils of the crocus flower; it is frequently adulterated with the flowers of marygolds or safflower, which is known as the bastard saffron, and is pressed into thin cakes with oil. Good saffron has a strong agreeable odour, and an aromatic taste. Gum paste and other articles which are not eaten may be coloured with gamboge dissolved in warm water.

To make different shades of yellow, try mixing these together:

Orange - Yellow, with a portion of red.
Gold - The same, but the yellow must be in excess.
Lemon - Use a solution of saffron.


How to Make Red Food Coloring

Of all the food colorings that were produced, red is the most unusual for me. When I think of red food coloring I think of a red velvet cake, sweet hummingbird food, and Valentine's day treats. I don't think of insects. But, that is what was used (and is still used), by way of an insect. Cochineal is the red coloring produced from the manufacture or process of the Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a scale insect that produces and stores a deep reddish-maroon color inside its body. Although the thought of eating ground up bugs is not very appealing, it is a natural coloring that has been used for hundreds of years, and is still used today. Carmine is the cochineal product further refined and processed. After all this, it makes you appreciate just going to the market and finding red food coloring in any shade you need for your projects, whenever you need it.

Drawing of Cochineal Insects

This is how the red food coloring was produced back then:

One of the principal colours requisite for the confectioner's use is coccinella, or cochineal. The sorts generally sold are the black, silver, foxy, and the granille. The insect is of two species, the fine and the wild cochineal; the fine differs from the wild in size, and is also covered with a white mealy powder. The best is of a deep mulberry colour, with a white powder between the wrinkles, and a bright red within. A great deal of adulteration is practised with this article, both at home and abroad; it is on this account that persons prefer the silver grain, because it cannot be so well sophisticated. Good cochineal should be heavy, dry, and more or less of a silvery colour, and without smell.

To prepare the recipe for a rich red coloring, these ingredients are called for: cochineal, river water, potash or soda, powdered alum, and optionally powdered loaf sugar. To prepare the recipe for Carmine, these ingredients are further needed: filtered water, alum, and possibly solution of tin or solution of green vitriol (described below).

To Prepare Cochineal - Pound an ounce of cochineal quite fine, and put it into a pint of river water with a little potash or soda, and let it boil; then add about a quarter of an ounce powdered alum, the same of cream of tartar, and boil for ten minutes; if it is required for keeping, add two or three ounces of powdered loaf sugar.

The recipe for Carmine Color - Reduce one ounce of cochineal to a fine powder, add to it six quarts of clear rain or filtered water, as for cochineal. Put this into a large tin saucepan, or a copper one tinned, and let it boil for three minutes, then add twenty-five grains of alum, and let it boil two minutes longer; take it off the fire to cool; when it is blood warm pour off the clear liquor into shallow vessels, and put them by to settle for two days, covering them with paper to keep out the dust. In case the carmin has not separated properly, add a few drops of a solution of tin, or a solution of green vitriol, which is tin dissolved in muriatic acid, or the following may be substituted: - one ounce and a half spirit of nitre, three scruples of sal-ammoniac, three scruples of tin dissolved in a bottle, and use a few drops as required. When the carmine has settled, decant off the clear which is liquid rouge. The first sediment is Florence lake, which remove, and dry the carmine for use. This preparation is by far superior to the first, for in this same colour is obtained as before, which is the liquid rouge, the other and more expensive parts being invaribly thrown away. The carmine can be obtained by the first process, as can be seen if the whole id poured into a clear bottle and allowed to settle, when the carmine will be deposited in a layer of bright red near the bottom. It produces about half an ounce of carmine.

Different shades can be made using this red:

Purple - Mix carmine or cochineal, and a small portion of indigo.
Lilac - The same, making the blue predominate


How to Make Blue Food Coloring


Blue food coloring came from indigo, or from Prussian Blue. Prussian blue originated in the early 1700's, and the name came from the actual dye used to color the Prussian military uniforms. (Prussian Blue has been approved to help rid the body of radioactive contaminants, but the CDC has noted that the Prussian Blue coloring is not the same as the FDA approved compound Prussian Blue, i.e. you cannot self-medicate using artist's colors.)

According to Wikipedia, the formula for Prussian Blue is:

Fe7(CN)18 14H2O

Indigo is made from plant extracts, and from synthetic processing.


How to Make Green Food Coloring

Green food coloring is important in confectionery work, as with all the other colorings. There are many different ways to make a greed food coloring, from using vegetables and other ingredients. For green one could mix yellow (saffron) and an indigo-based blue coloring togther, or they could make it alone. Here are some authentic green food coloring recipes:

Sap Green - This is prepared from the fruit of the buckthorn, and is purgative.

Spinach Green - This is prefectly harmless and will answer most purposes. Wash and drain a sufficient quantity of spinach, pound it well in a mortar, and squeeze the pounded leaves in a coarse cloth to extract all the juice; put it in a pan and set it on a good fire, and stir it occasionally until it curdles, which will be when it is at the boiling point; then take it off and strain off the water with a fine sieve; the residue left is the green; dry it and rub it through a lawn sieve. This is only fit for opaque bodies, such a ices, creams, or syrups.

Spinach leaves

Another green - is made with a mixture of saffron or gamboge, and prepared indigo; the lighter green the more yellow must be used.

Resources for the food coloring:

Parkinson. The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1864.

"Indigo Dye." Wikipedia. 1 February 2011. Site Accessed 2 February 2011.

"Prussian Blue." Wikipedia. 25 January 2011. Site Accessed 2 February 2011.



All pictures copyright by respective owners. If no source is listed under the photos, they are in the public domain.

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