FREE shipping on orders of $75 and over!

Pastry Geek: Colors and How to Make the Most of Them in Your Pastries

Oct 13, 2015

It is a part of my nature to be a pastry geek. If I hadn’t discovered the wonderful world of food and cooking, I wholeheartedly believe I would have been a scientist. Method, process and detail is what I live for. Learning from the masters and creating something new, experimenting with established products and techniques, having a problem and working all day until I find the solution – all of these are things that chefs and scientists have in common. I’m just lucky enough to be able to eat the solutions to my problems!


One of the places where pastries and science collide is with colors. My pastry and cake designs rely on clear, reproducible color. Science has provided us with many ways to use color in food – gels, airbrush, classic food coloring drops – to name a few. Be it that you are wanting to cheat and make a red velvet cake by using food coloring (but beet juice is so much yummier) or you are a perfectionist and you want to hit the right shades of color to get the ombre effect for your friend’s wedding cake… the following few tips will hopefully help you along.

  1. Get a color wheel – or don’t. Color wheels are tools that artists and designers use to find the mix of primary colors that results in their desired secondary color. If you’ve used color wheels in the past, or are looking to add a non-traditional tool to your kitchen, go ahead and take a trip to an art store.I tend to just hop onto the Internet. Print and photography has given us CMYK color values. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (or Black, the key that printing is based on). If I’m looking for a yellow that’s somewhere between mustard and daffodil, I’ll type in CMYK daffodil Yellow values and look at the images until I find the yellow I’m looking for. This gives me a ratio of the primary colors to play with to achieve my desired result. Try it out – you’ll discover a whole new way of looking at colors.

    color wheel
  2. Gel Paste Food Coloring. This is one of the best ways to work with food coloring. Gel pastes are consistent; you can mix them into batters or dilute them with alcohol to use in air brush applications. Make sure to use high-quality brands that are sold as gel pastes, not just gels. Some gels are diluted with water and sold in larger quantities. This may seem easier to work with at first, and more cost effective but they are not consistent and add water to your recipe. I like to use gel pastes in my macarons, candies, and batters.

  3. Food Coloring Drops. Don’t use them. If they are in your cabinets, get up right now, go into your kitchen and rid your space of classic food coloring drops. They are inconsistent, they add water (and sometimes strange chemicals) to your recipes, and are almost impossible to measure correctly. I will admit to having suggested using them in the past, but now that gel pastes are more readily available, I can finally come out and just say no.
  4. Powders and Luster Powder. Powders are a great way to brush on color and they can be mixed into alcohol to be used in airbrushes. We use white luster powder on our 5th Element cake to create the iridescent shimmer that is otherworldly. Powders are best for exterior decoration, rather than in batters and meringues.

  5. Fat Soluble Colors. These are used in coloring chocolates, butter creams, cocoa butter and other fat based products. The Tout Sweet dessert “It Happened One Night” features a yellow fat-soluble coloring on the top of it. Often, the coloring is mixed into chocolate after tempering and then the chocolate is manipulated for the final presentation.

    fat soluble colors
    We all know that chocolate is a difficult beast to work with, so whether you are a pro or a beginner, there is some manipulation of this medium that will satisfy your visual appeal. Practice, practice, practice. Perhaps we will have to talk about this in a separate day (thought bubble!).
  6. Pure Pigment. Usually sold in powder forms at specialty stores, pigments require patience and exact measurements. If you have the time to learn about them and experiment with them, pigments can be the most cost-effective form of food coloring. Ratios and directions for working with pigments can be found online if you’re willing to do the research. This is a great way to work with color and achieve brilliant tones and hues, but take your time and experiment before trying out the color on a beautiful cake or pastry. Be careful – if not mixed properly into your base, you will get streaks and uneven distribution, which can be a big pain! Unless you’re feeling brave, I’d stick with the Gel Paste colors.
  7. Air Brush.  Let me be clear here, an airbrush is not necessary when you’re just beginning your baking adventure.  It’s a way to literally gild the lily, so step into it with caution.  That being said, I love my airbrush.  I can use stencils to add shimmering snowflakes to a winter macaron, draw swirling vines up the side of a nature themed wedding cake or finish my 5th Element cake with its textured, 1990s sci-fi look.Many manufacturers sell airbrush-ready colors of different varieties and applications. Water based airbrushes are great for painting and shading your desserts, or try “luster” colors which are often alcohol based – once you spray and the alcohol evaporates, you’re left with a gilded effect.  These are great when you’re first starting out.As you get more comfortable with your airbrush, I suggest using gel pastes diluted with water. Alternatively when using luster dust, I dilute it with an alcohol until it’s at the correct consistency.  Get it to a place so that the gel is just thin enough to go through the airbrush tubes.  If you’re getting splotchy or streaky results, the gel is too diluted.  Empty out your airbrush and start again. If you don’t want to take on the extra burden and stress of mixing your own, there are plenty of great quality pre mixed bases, ready to use.

    air brush

Working with color is fun and can be satisfying when it all comes out right. At Tout Sweet, we work and play with color all the time to evoke emotion and entice a guest to eat something new and daring. Keep in mind the reason that you’re working with a specific color. Is the final dish a dark cherry chocolate cake? Then the deep red of the cherry might be recreated in the garnish or the batter. Is the macaron or pastry you are making going to be welcoming spring and evoking memories of playing in a field? Then the outer layers might be a grass green or a gentle, daffodil yellow.

When you work with color, always write down your ratios and measure in exact weights. Drops of liquid color can be different sizes and tablespoons can be inexact. You might create a dessert for friends at one dinner party that is a delightful avocado green. The next time you attempt to recreate the dish, you might end up with a teenage mutant ninja turtle green. At the end of a wonderful evening, that might not be the conversation you wish to start.

Tagged With: All, Sweet Living, Tips and Tricks