Natural Dye Shaped Sugar Cookies

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It wouldn’t be Christmas without prominent grocery store displays of cute, dye-stamped sugar cookies. No doubt, these cookies are colorful and convenient, but have you had a look at the ingredients? Artificial dyes, linked to allergies, ADHD, and cancer, are used to create those adorable prints.

Nothing says lovin' like something from the... chemical cabinet?

Nothing says lovin’ like something from the… chemical cabinet?

 

My husband and oldest daughter can’t tolerate the gluten in these cookies, so I have more than one reason not to purchase them. Instead, we use my gluten-free adaptation of my mother’s sugar cookie recipe that rolls and cuts out as easily as any wheat-based recipe. We then create our own stamps and natural dyes to make colorful creations that rival any of those you might find in the store. You can do it too, using vegetables from your garden or farmer’s market.

A number of vegetables make excellent food dyes. For Christmas colors, I went out to my winter garden and harvested spinach for green and a few beets to produce red. Preparation of the dyes is a cinch, and I’ve tried a few variations that work very well. One method is to simply cook the vegetable in a VERY small amount of water, which will release the vegetable’s natural pigments; don’t cook long, however, or colors will dull.

A quick cook of Bull's Blood Beet leaves produces a brilliant red dye.

A quick cook of Bull’s Blood Beet leaves produces a brilliant red dye.

I also use a cool-extraction process, which involves simply pressing leaves through a mill, or grinding them with a mortar and pestle, to mechanically release the pigment from the plant cells. I frequently add a small amount of distilled spirits, like bourbon or rum, to the extract so that it will keep longer. These spirits add another dimension of flavor to the sugar cookies, as well.

Once your dyes are made, you can either paint directly on the surface of your cut sugar cookies just before you bake them, or you can create stamps that transfer the dye to the cookies in a perfect pattern. To make stamps, select potatoes that are past their prime, like the unusable ones in your bin that have gone green or sprouted. Cut the potato in half, and press a small cookie cutter into the exposed raw flesh of the potato. With the cookie cutter still inserted into the potato, use a knife to remove the part of the potato that is on the outside of the cookie cutter.

Voilà -- potato stamps!

Voilà — potato stamps!

 

Once you have your stamps made, blot each with towels to remove any excess liquid from the cut potato surface. After that, it’s simply a matter of dipping each stamp into the dye, then transferring the dye by lightly pressing the stamp onto the surface of your unbaked cookies.

 

natural dye sugar cookies

 

You’ll note that the stamp transfer is not a perfect process, simply due to water’s cohesive force (alcohol has less cohesive force, which is another reason I like to use it in my dyes).  If you would like a more smooth and consistent color, keep a fine artist’s paintbrush on hand to distribute the dye evenly across the cookie surface.

These dyes were extracted with bourbon, and a small artist's brush used when needed to smooth out stamped patterns when necessary.

These dyes were extracted with bourbon, and a small artist’s brush used to smooth out stamped patterns when necessary.

 

Once you’re finished decorating with the dyes, top with granulated sugar (if desired) and bake according to your recipe’s directions.

 

Valentine cookies made with heat-extracted beet dye.

Valentine cookies made with heat-extracted beet dye.

Christmas cookies made with natural dyes from spinach and beet.

Christmas cookies made with natural dyes from spinach and beet.

 

With your own fun creations, you’re sure to have a colorful and happy holiday! Enjoy!

10 Comments

  1. Darlene Hubble Richardson

    December 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Absolutely wonderful!

  2. teresa

    December 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you so much for the gluten free cookie recipe and the idea of natural dyes and how to do it! We always make sugar cookies every year and I feel badly that they’re an unhealthy treat. Now we can still enjoy making them and even more so, eating and giving them! Happy Holidays!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 22, 2013 at 8:37 am

      Thank you, Teresa. Have a joyous holiday!

  3. Texan

    December 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I have to agree, even if a person is not gluten intolerant… why on earth would one eat those store cookies that are full of hydrogenated oils and dyes that are so bad for us… I must say I am surprised the ingredients list didn’t include high fructose corn syrup as well. I keep hoping that people will vote with their pocket books and stop buying foods full of these type ingredients. That is all it would take to see them disappear from the grocery shelves.

    Your cookies are delightful!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 22, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Thank you! You are right on the money about “voting with our pocket books.” Happy holidays!

  4. Cathy

    December 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    What a fantastic idea! My littlest guy, 3, is allergic to red dye so it’s always nice to find options. When visiting family in Kentucky last holiday season, we were able to visit a Mennonite store and I purchased some beet root powder which I’ve used for a pink icing once this year. Being able to make something at home is even better!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

      I’m glad to hear that this will be helpful — your little boy will have so much fun making these!

  5. Marissa

    February 4, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    I’ll try this with my grandson next opportunity. Thanks for being so creative and practical too.

  6. Andrea

    November 20, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    This is so, so cool! I love it!

    • Cathy

      November 22, 2014 at 6:41 am

      Thank you!