Why Is It So Hard to Make Red Frosting?

Photo by Chris Hardy on Unsplash

Picture this: Your best friend’s birthday is coming up. Their family is throwing them a surprise birthday party and they asked you to make the cake. You’re beside yourself with excitement. You immediately start brainstorming ideas, bound and determined to make your friend the best birthday cake they’ve ever had.

You eventually decide on chocolate cake (your friend’s favorite) with vanilla buttercream frosting. You also decide to pipe some flowers over the perimeter of the cake. Your friend loves red roses, so you grab your favorite piping tip and some red food coloring. This is where the trouble begins. You keep adding more and more food coloring, but the best you get is dark pink. Your frustration builds until you give up and decide to use the pink frosting. It’s a lovely color, but not the red you wanted.

Sound familiar? It’s certainly one of my biggest frustrations as a baker. Even gel food coloring has let me down, giving me only magenta or coral. Most of the time I just throw in the towel and buy a tub of red frosting. As someone who prides herself on her buttercream, this walk of shame to the grocery store is not ideal.

Why is it so hard to get a good shade of red? Here are my observations:

Before adding food coloring, frosting is white. When you add food coloring, the white frosting dilutes the color, leaving you with a lighter, more pastel version of what you added in. It’s just as hard to get darker shades of blue and yellow as it is red, you just don’t notice it. Yellow is already a light color, so it doesn’t take much food coloring to get a nice shade. With blue, you get a lighter shade of blue, which most people still recognize as blue. But red is different. We don’t typically see light red as red, we see it as pink or peach. So when you mix red food coloring into white frosting, you end up with either a pink or coral color, depending on whether the food coloring has a warm or cool undertone.

Okay, so now we know why it’s so hard to get red frosting. Does this mean you’re destined to settle for pink frosting? No! There are ways you can achieve that perfect red you’re dreaming of, whether it’s for Christmas cookies, a 4th of July cake, or a tasty bouquet of buttercream roses.

First of all, you need to use gel food coloring. The liquid stuff you get at the grocery store won’t cut it. I know I said that gel food coloring doesn’t guarantee a pure red, but it certainly gives you more vivid hues. And as an added bonus, it doesn’t water down your frosting, so you don’t have to worry about messing up the flawless consistency it took you years to perfect.

Secondly, you need to use a lot of food coloring. I mean, a lot. In this (very helpful) blog post from Wilton, they recommend amounts of food coloring needed to create different shades of red. For a dark red, you need to use 1 tablespoon of food coloring for 1 cup of frosting. Yeah, you read that right. Tablespoon. For only 1 cup of frosting. If you don’t want to put that much food coloring in your frosting, there are other options.

If you’re making strawberry or raspberry frosting, the natural pink color of the berries gives you a nice pink base. You’ll still have to add food coloring, but you’ll need a lot less than you would if you were using plain vanilla buttercream.

Another option is red beetroot powder. It does have a mild beet flavor, but it’s unlikely to be noticeable over all the powdered sugar in the frosting. You can either mix the powder in as is, or you can mix it with a little water and strain it before adding it to your frosting. If you do choose to mix it with water, it can thin out your frosting, so just keep that in mind.

Even with these tips and tricks, it may still take a bit of time to get the perfect red you’ve dreamed of. Just be patient and have fun exploring these different methods. You’ll be piping those red buttercream roses in no time.

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