Sauce for Thought: A Brief History of Spices that Serve as Natural Food Coloring

Sauce for Thought: A Brief History of Spices that Serve as Natural Food Coloring

The catnip ice cream was a pale green, like one of those hundreds of mysterious white paint chips at the hardware store. You are drawn to a white paint chip that appears to be somewhat greener than the other white paint chips. Squinting under the fluorescent lights, you take the paint chip outside to see if the color is different under natural light but there it is again, that lurking feeling that this white chip is really sort of green. That is the subtle coloration of catnip ice cream as well. It is, well, not quite like plain vanilla.

The waiter had notified us, in his endless confusion of specials, that the ice cream flavor of the day was “calamint” and so we ordered a couple of servings to share. The company round the table became animated as each person in turn tasted the ice cream and recognized the flavor of the rangy herb growing wild by the back gate, a favorite of cats worldwide. The flavoring of the novelty ice cream described as “calamint” was actually catnip — and we all had a good laugh, at least until the bill came. In retrospect, the laughter and the memory, and the bonding experience for all of us at the table, merited a high price. Would I order “calamint” ice cream again? Probably not.  Will I repeat the same story over and over again to the annoyance of my family? Absolutely! We ate Catnip Ice Cream at a fancy restaurant and paid for the privilege – can you believe it? Catnip is fuzzier than the other “food-grade” mints like its invasive cousins peppermint or spearmint. It grows taller in an out-of-control way, has a fleshier stem and a lighter colored leaf. The saw-edge of the leaves and the furriness make the leaves look more like nettles than like true mint. That should be a clue that this leaf does not belong in ice cream.

mints and catnip by Alice Deluca

Garden mint, Thai mint, Catnip

There are other odd-tasting food ingredients that are used very specifically for certain culinary purposes. For example, there are a host of ingredients used mostly for coloring such as cochineal (made from scale insects that live on cactuses), annatto (a seed), turmeric (a root), and saffron (from a flower). In small quantities these items brighten foods and make the visual presentation more interesting. However, if a super-sized portion of any of these ingredients is added to food, especially to bland foods (like desserts), the result may be unpleasant and unexpected. “Natural” as these colorings ma be, they can taste weird when they are in the wrong place. Starbucks has been in the news recently for using cochineal coloring in its drinks. Bugs in your drink? Maybe that’s not what vegans want to hear, but bugs have been coloring human food for thousands of years. Ada Boni, in Regional Italian Cooking, notes a recipe for a sort of bread that is flavored and colored with an ancient Italian liqueur called Alkermes (or Alchermes), dyed with a weird insect, not a beetle but a scale insect. To make this bread, the dough is mixed until the color from the liqueur is evenly distributed – a thorough saturation of bug DNA in your bread. Search today’s interweb and you will find people looking for “food grade cochineal” with which to fabricate their own Alkermes  for use in Zuppa Inglese, as they find the liqueur difficult to obtain in the United States for some reason. Cochineal and the other great red bug juice from Kermes have been used to color drinks since Biblical times, according to the entry for “Kermes” in the Encyclopedia Americana (copyright 1962). “Kermes refers to the red gall-like bodies of female scale insects (coccids). Kermes ilicis of the order Hemiptera, source of a red dye known as grain, granum tinctorium, and alkermes, since the time of Moses. The adult females have no legs, but a hard epidermis, are spherical in shape and bright red. They live on twigs of the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, a sturdy evergreen shrub or tree, 12 to 20 feet high, found in southern Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and resemble cynipid oak galls. The dye derived from Kermes iliciswas superseded by the more brilliant cochineal after the latter was discovered in Mexico by the Spanish in 1518.”So first there was Kermes, and then Cochineal became a colorant of European cooking in the 16th century. The elixirs that were made from these marvelous insects were considered both lovely and medicinal. They were “natural” and at that time they were ‘organic” too. What could be more natural than products made from a pulverized creature living parasitically on an oak tree or cactus? And how much more attractive for the sick to contemplate a draught of spicy, vivid red liqueur than a small, sterile, modern pill. Perhaps the liqueurs did not solve any of the biological problems of illness, but they must have been somewhat comforting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today’s medicines were more like the magical drinks that Alice in Wonderland finds when she is down the rabbit hole? Which would you rather have: a tiny pill that holds no flavor magic and sporting an irrelevant and meaningless name, or a medicine that tastes like “a sort of mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast” in a bottle with “a paper label with the words ‘Drink Me’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. [ii]” So how does a food conglomerate win, when bugs are off the menu? Colorants like the old cancerous villain “red dye No. 4” or the modern red dye #40 (apparently made from coal) are eyed with deep suspicion by folks interested in natural foods, but chemical dyes solved the historic problem of “fixing” red dyes so that the color remains true over time. Red dyes from beets, red onion skins etc. are notorious for fading and turning brown as they age. Ask a knowledgeable quilt-maker about “turkey red” and they will tell you about the historic challenge of procuring permanent red fabric dyes. Purchase a bottle of Pomegranate liqueur, keep it on the shelf for a few years and you will notice that the red color fades to browner hues. There are a few “natural” and plant-based options for coloring food in the orange-red range. Annatto is made from Achiote seeds  and is a key ingredient in certain Latin food flavoring mixes. The seed can be purchased for only a few pennies per teaspoon. Annatto is the seed of an evergreen plant (a plant that does not shed its leaves seasonally.) Added to hot oil, the seeds leave behind their bright color and very little flavor. The oil keeps for quite a while in the refrigerator and can be used for soups, stews, sautés etc. It is only necessary to fry the seeds a very short while – so that they release their color but do not burn. The seeds themselves are thrown away. In its dry form, the surface of the achiote seed, where the red coloring resides, has almost no taste.

Annatto or Achiote Seeds by Alice DeLuca

Achiote Seeds in a Japanese mortar

The turmeric root (curcuma longa) is a beautiful little root about the size of a finger, and, when in its root form, its inside is the gorgeous color of a deeply orange carrot. Frozen turmeric root is available in Asian grocery stores and lately it is appearing fresh in national chains that focus on healthy and organic food. When dried and pulverized, turmeric has the same hue as a Thai mussuman curry or any of the commercial curry powders. It is a component of French’s mustard and it stains everything it touches, including food-grade plastic and expensive items of clothing. If you indulge in a food coloring taste test, which of course is necessary at some point in your life, the turmeric will color your tongue strangely. Be prepared to offer explanations every time you open your mouth. It will dye your fingernails an unattractive yellow color too. Would turmeric be appropriate for coloring custard or cupcake icing? Probably not, because of its earthy bitterness and strong, stinkbug aroma.

Fresh Turmeric and Powder by Alice DeLuca

Turmeric Root and Turmeric Powder

The Color of Turmeric - Alice DeLuca

Fresh turmeric juice and dried turmeric powder

Saffron is in a class by itself. The gold standard of this type of coloring, saffron made from the stigma of a pretty little purple crocus is the flavoring and coloring agent of the culinary “1 percent” because it is so very, very expensive. It makes an excellent gift since it takes up almost no space, is easy to put away, and does not need to be dusted. Saffron has been precious since ancient times; it is mentioned in the Song of Solomon and was cultivated in England in the 15th century[i]. These days, it is possible to purchase saffron crocuses for the home garden so anyone with a small plot of land could theoretically experiment with growing and harvesting saffron at home. Those who play with flowers know that the inside of a flower has interesting properties and will sometimes stain your hands or clothes. You may be tempted to ditch your career and go in to the saffron farming business. What could be simpler than plucking the stigma from crocuses and hoarding them in your cupboard? Here’s the problem — a single ounce of saffron requires 4,000 stigma, and at 3 stigma per flower the whole front lawn would have to be completely sown with crocuses to yield a crop. Each day, you rise before dawn to pick a few tiny pieces from the blooms of that day, to dry and store. Perhaps this career path is not practical and it is best to “keep the day job.”

Asafran - saffron - Alice DeLuca

Saffron threads next to their bottle

Saffron has a flavor that lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes.  You can smell the powerful aroma of saffron right through the cork. It is prized especially for coloring rice dishes and is superb as an addition to mango ice cream, rendering the ice cream a deeper orange color and adding an odd, woodsy flavor.  Although mango ice cream is good without saffron, mango-saffron ice cream is also excellent, and once you try it you will notice the saffron edge to the flavor and miss the saffron when it is absent. To make a mango-saffron ice cream that is somewhat less sweet than commercial ice creams,  combine,  puree and chill the ingredients in this recipe, then freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Mangoes are highly fibrous, with an almost hairy texture, so be sure to puree thoroughly. Any type of mangoes can be used, but they should be perfectly ripe or the flavor will have a sour edge. Notes: this easy formula does not require pre-cooking, and the sugar can be reduced by one tablespoon. I could write an entirely different article addressing the whole color spectrum of natural colorings – a their own Alkermes of ice cream colors is available, and perhaps some enterprising dessert chef will offer a color wheel sampling or crayon-shaped servings of ice cream in the near future. Yellow – mango, saffron, French vanilla with egg yolk, lemon, corn, passion fruit (lilikoi) Orange – apricot, peach, carrot cake, pumpkin pie Red – Pink – hibiscus, raspberry, cherry, strawberry (add cardamom or cayenne pepper), guava Blue-Purple –blackberry, plum, currant, wild blueberry (for a stunning blueberry ice cream see Nick Maglieri’s Perfect Light Desserts) Green –avocado, ground pistachio, pandanus leaf, mint White – vanilla, ginger, honey, banana, coconut Brown – chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, coffee, dulce de leche, maple, nuts Regarding catnip: the pale green leaves of catnip are perfect for your cat’s salad bowl but not for the dessert tray.


[i] Ingersol, Helen. “Saffron.” Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 24. New York, NY: Americana Corporation, 1962. 104-05. Print. [ii] Carroll, Lewis (1865). Alice in Wonderland.

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