Food Colouring 101 for Buttercream Cakes and Helpful Tips to Use Them

Does colouring your buttercream or cake batter stress you out? If you’re new to cake making, all the colourful bottles and pots might look really enticing but with so many to choose from, it’s hard to know what type of food colouring works best. 

In today’s blog post, I’m going to let you take a peek inside my colouring box. I’ll show you what I stock as a buttercream cake artist who works with buttercream, chocolate and isomalt. I’ll also give you some helpful tips when it comes to buying and using different types of food colouring.

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4 Main Types of Food Colouring

There are 4 main types of colouring that I use. These are liquid, gel, oil-based, and dusts.


Liquid Colouring

Base:   Water + synthetic colouring
Pros: Easy to find, inexpensive
Cons:   Weak colour, requires a lot to create a decent shade
Uses:   Cake batter, cookie dough
Favourite Brands:   No preference. The ones from your local supermarket are fine.

Liquid colouring is the oldest kind of food colouring and by far the easiest to find. You can easily run to your local supermarket and grab a bottle off the shelves. However, because it has a water base, liquid food colouring is very weak. To achieve a decent colour in buttercream, you’ll have to use a lot of it. Then, by the time you’re anywhere near getting the colour that you want, you’ve completely changed the consistency of your buttercream. So liquid colouring for buttercream is a no no. 

The only instance where I use liquid food colouring is in cake batter, specifically our Red Velvet Cake. 

When it comes to cake batter, you need to be able to measure every ingredient to ensure consistency – this includes any food colouring you may add. The benefit of liquid colouring is you can do precise measurements. If you need 10mil or 1 tsp of colour, that’s an exact measurement that can be scaled up or down based on your needs.

Liquid colouring also works best in any kind of stiff dough like cookie dough. Because of its watery consistency, liquid colouring will disperse easily into a dough versus if you were using a gel which is more viscous and would require more kneading. 

Food colouring bottles from Thao's personal colouring box.


Gel Colouring

Base:   Water + corn syrup or glycerin + synthetic colouring
Pros:   Widely available and easily sourced through many brands, more concentrated, won’t add extra liquid
Cons:   Can’t use with chocolate, harder to use with stiff textures such as doughs, some gels don’t disperse properly leaving lumps of colouring
Uses:   Buttercream or frosting, isomalt, chocolate ganache strips, fondant, candy
Favourite Brands:   Americolour, Sugarflair
Least Favourite Brands:   Wilton because the colour is weak

Gel colouring is fairly versatile. It can be used in buttercream, isomalt, fondant, ganache, candy, and more. Similar to liquid colouring, it has a water base. However, it also has added corn syrup or glycerin. This is what gives gel colouring its viscous texture. Gel colouring also has a much deeper concentration of colour. Compared to liquid food colouring, you’d only need to use a tiny amount of gel colouring to achieve the same, or better result. 

I used to use a lot of gel colours when I first started to make cakes 10 years ago. These days, I mainly use gels for isomalt and grey (for concrete) buttercream. Isomalt is mostly sugar and some water. If you tried to use oil based colours, it wouldn’t mix because oil and water separate. Because gels are water-based, they incorporate easily into the isomalt to create vibrant colours. My favourite to use in isomalt are Americolour gels because of how easily they blend. 

One of the major cons of gel colouring, however, is it can’t be used in chocolate. Chocolate seizes when it comes in contact with water. So, if you’re working with chocolate, you’ll have to stock oil colours along with your gels as well. This can get expensive. 

Another downside to gel colours is some, such as Sugarflair gels, are super concentrated and thick. Sugarflair actually classifies themselves as a gel paste. Because of this, it can be hard to work the colour through without leaving any lumps behind. I use Sugarflair’s black licorice colour for all of my concrete cake designs because it is by far the most concentrated black colouring.

Tip:   To avoid flecks of gel colouring in your buttercream, start by adding the gel colour to a small amount of buttercream only. You can warm this buttercream in the microwave for a few seconds to help the gel paste colour to disperse into the buttercream. Once all the gel paste colouring is completely dispersed into this small amount of buttercream, add it to the rest of your buttercream to colour it.

Colour Mill food colouring from Thao's personal colouring box. bottles.


Oil Based Colouring

Base:   Oil + synthetic colouring
Pros:   Extremely versatile, the most value for your money
Cons:   More expensive than gel colouring, doesn’t disperse in water, can’t use in isomalt
Uses:   Chocolate, cake batter, ganache, buttercream, fondant, cookie dough
Favourite Brands:   Colourmill, Creative Cake Decorating
Least Favourite Brands:   Americolour because it doesn’t taste good

If you really want the most value for money, oil-based colourings are the way to go. Instead of a water base, oil based colours use oil and artificial colouring. However, every brand uses a different formula. For example, Colourmill contains pigments; glycerol, which is an alcohol; and lecithin, which is a fat. Creative Cake Decorating uses glyceride, which is a combination of alcohol and fat. 

Aside from the concrete buttercream, which I use gel for, I use oil-based colours for the rest of my buttercreams, chocolate, and ganache drips. Because of the fats and oils that are already in these colours, oil-based colourings will attach easily to the fats and oils in your recipes. This is what makes them suitable for a wide variety of bakes. Anything that has fat or oil already in them will blend really well with oil-based colours. This almost cancels out how expensive oil-based colours are. At almost double the price of gel colours, oil-based colours cover everything gel colours can be used for (the exception being isomalt) and more. So, while some will see the price as a con, I see it as value as I don’t have to stock as many colours. 


Decorating Dusts

Varieties:   Lustre dust, petal dust, disco/crystal dust, highlighter dust, pearl dust
Common ingredients:   Titanium dioxide, iron oxide, carmine, mica, iron blue, or chromium oxide. 
Uses:   Chocolate sails, painting ganached cakes or drip, painting edges, wafer paper, fried rice paper
Favourite Brands:   Creative Cake Decorating, Sweet Sticks Edible Art

Food colouring from Thao's colouring box.

Decorating dusts are dry decorative powders used in cake decorating. They’re great for any external elements that need a touch of colour and aren’t meant to be used as a colourant the same way liquid, gel, and oil-based colours are. Don’t use dust to mix into anything to colour it and instead just apply it on the surface of things for decorations.

Although there are various types of decorating dusts available, I only stock lustre, petal, and disco dusts. 

Lustre dust comes in many different colours and adds sparkle, shine, and a fair amount of colour to your decorations. Anything that is gold, champagne gold, or silver has probably been brushed with lustre dust. 

Petal dusts will give you a nice, matte finish with deep, strong colours. It’s highly concentrated so the colours that are produced from petal dusts will be strong making it great for wafer paper or colouring gumpaste flowers.

You do have to be careful when purchasing decorating dusts, as not all dusts are edible. Some packaging will say “non-toxic” meaning it’s not toxic if consumed but isn’t meant to be eaten. Others will say “not for consumption” or “for decorative purposes only” meaning you should only use it on things that you know for sure will not be eaten such as gumpaste flowers. When you’re buying lustre dusts, definitely make sure they say “edible” or “food approved”!

Disco or crystal dusts are an example of decorating dusts that are not meant to be consumed. You may find disco dust that is food-approved, but most are not. Disco dusts are similar to lustre dust in imparting colour and shine, however, the grains are larger which give your decorations a glittery, disco feel. 

There are two main ways to use decorating dusts. The first one is featured in the chocolate sails module of our premium program, Buttercream Cake Mastery, called dry brushing where you apply the dry dusts directly onto the surface of your decorations. 

The second is for painting. You can create an edible paint by mixing petal or lustre dust with some rose spirit or vodka.

3 Things to Always Remember About Using Colouring


Remember the Science

Always remember fats and water don’t mix.

When choosing your colours, think about whether what you’re adding colour to is water-based or oil-based. 

  • Fat + Fat = Yes!
  • Water + Water = Yes!

While you can use gel colours in buttercream, they’re not the best option as gel colours are water based while buttercream is made predominantly of fats. The water particles in the gel can never fully incorporate into the fats of the buttercream, sometimes leaving small specks of colour big enough for the eyes to see. 


Not All Colours are Created Equal

Whether they’re water-based or oil-based, every brand uses a different formula and ingredients. For example, Colourmill uses pigments instead of dyes in their colouring which according to them, is more resistant to fading. So while the base of the colour type may stay the same, the specific formula for creating those colours will vary from brand to brand. These different formulas, therefore, disperse and develop differently when added to baked goods. Just because one brand sells a colour, doesn’t mean that it’s the same as the next brand’s colour.


Too Much of Anything Will Change Consistency

Adding too much of any type of food colouring will change the consistency and subsequently, the taste of your baked goods. Food colourings are made from synthetic chemicals after all (unless stated otherwise), so just because you could achieve a particular colour by adding copious quantities, doesn’t mean you should.

Creative Cake Decorating and Colour Mill food colouring bottles from Thao's personal colouring box.

Tips for Using Colours

Tip 1.

Buy strong colours.

Buying strong colours saves you $$. By strong, I mean a deeper or darker shade of a particular colour i.e hot pink vs blush. You can achieve the blush colour by using a tiny amount of hot pink. So, while all the nude, blush and pastel shades are so tempting, don’t waste your money on them.

Tip 2.

Stock primary colours and learn to mix.

Primary colours are red, blue, and yellow. You can make any colour just by mixing primary colours. I always keep a stock of primary colours and black. These are technically all the colours you’ll need. Sure, premade colours save you time, but they can also be a money trap. Learning to mix colours may take some time to master, but it’s a skill that is not only essential but also cost effective. 

Tip 3.

Warm is better for mixing.

Things emulsify (mix together) more easily when they’re warm. If your work environment is cold, it might help to warm your colours before you use them. You can drop a bottle or a tube of colour into a cup of warm water for a couple of minutes or place them in a warmed towel. This is especially helpful when it comes to gel colours.


Learn how to create stunning buttercream cakes without wasting years making rookie mistakes with our Buttercream Cake Mastery online course.

8 Responses

  1. Love this article! I’ve been struggling with colors everytime I make buttercream and I was stuck with pink (somehow it’s the only thing that worked). Thank you for this!! I’ve been wishing for vivid buttercream colors ?

  2. Thank you so much for this explanation. It really helps to remember when you know the science behind it 🙂

  3. Thanks for this useful info! Do you find that Colour Mill pinks often turn apricot with American buttercream? Have tried adding white but doesn’t seem to help.

    1. Pink and yellow makes orange, so I’d say the ABC you’re using is still too yellow. Can you try a paler butter?

  4. Your article neglected to mention the colours that are not stable and discolour very quickly, especially in buttercream, the reds, pinks and purples. It’s something to do with the ph levels, as I’ve had no issues with royal icing. Sugarflair’s Grape Violet does not fade or discolour quickly like the Wilton and Americolor ones.

    You can’t use oil based colourings in royal icing as it’s a meringue base. Gels you can get away with for colouring royal icing if you use a tiny amount, as they contain micro amounts of oil. If you want a strong color that would normally use a lot of gel paste, you are best to used powder colours that are water based, to supplement the paste.

    Liquid food colourings are great to make sugar flower paste. Just substitute the water in your recipe for an equivalent amount of food color.

    1. Hi Gabrielle, thank you for your input! This article was written based on Thao’s personal experience with the food colourings and brands that are available to her and that she has used. The article doesn’t recommend oils for royal icing. Thanks for taking the time to leave us a comment. I’m sure cake makers reading the article will find your information helpful.

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