There are times when I wouldn’t cringe if called old-fashioned (very few, I might add, but this is one of them).
That’s after I fill up pots with red cabbage leaves or yellow onion skins and turn up the heat to make food dye, which I only have reason to make this time of year, as Easter approaches.
Yes, I could dissolve a tablet in vinegar and water, and lower a hard-cooked egg into the colorful solution with that odd little metal bracket that never quite holds steady. And I have done so, many times, when my children were very young and expediency was the directive of the day.
But then I discovered coloring eggs the way cooks did long ago, with real food as the base, and I’ve never opened a package of prepared dye since.
Patience is the only requirement — which is true of any kind of egg dyeing — and, well, it helps if you’re not too set on specific colors, because the great joy of coloring eggs the natural way is that they are in charge. Yep. The eggs. You may think that as a cook you have the smarts to predetermine what color is going to show up on an egg, but no siree! The eggs will decide.
Sometimes it’s the texture of the eggs that makes a difference in absorbing the color. The original hue of the eggshell itself will affect the result. (Mix a brown egg with red cabbage leaves and it won’t be the same color as when the eggshell is white.) Maybe it’s the freshness of the eggs. Or how long the egg is submerged in the dye. Then again, your fingers may have oils on them that affect the shells as you handle them.
It could be something in those particular leaves, berries or spices that makes a chain reaction with a particular egg. All we know for certain is that the outcome will be unpredictable. No two eggs will look alike. That alone makes this a culinary adventure to enjoy.
Let’s get to the basics. There are two methods of dyeing eggs naturally. In the first, you prepare the dye — as many colors as you like — then cool it down before gently submerging hard-cooked eggs into the liquid. You’ll want to keep the eggs in there at least 30 minutes and you can even leave them in overnight for more depth of color (though do so in the refrigerator). This is called the “cold method” of dyeing eggs because both the eggs and dye are at room temperature or colder.
In some ways, the second method seems easier and less messy, at least in my humble dye-stained opinion. With this, the main ingredient of the dye, be it cabbage leaves or chopped red beets or onion skins, is simmered in water along with uncooked eggs that, of course, cook while the dye is being heated, hence the “hot method.” This often results in a darker color and, in all likelihood, eggs that will be too tough to eat from all that cooking time.
The general rule for a deeper color is to keep the egg in the dye longer. But once again that’s a very generic rule because eggs will defy your logic and refuse to darken for no other reason than just because.
Although I tend to add the scraps of produce lingering on the bottom of my crisper drawer to the liquid, the truth of natural food dyes is that you need a lot — really a lot — of them to make a difference in the coloring. That would be 4 cups of skins or chopped vegetables to 4 to 6 cups of water. Creating a dye will usually involve a fresh head of red cabbage or a new bag of many yellow onions to supply the leaves and skins to color the liquid.
Part of the fun of creating these food dyes are the many unexpected possibilities for color. It’s not just vegetables (or fruits — mashed blueberries or raspberries work well). Spices offer very intense colors — turmeric, curry powder, chili powder and paprika among them. So do other liquids, from coffee and black tea to tea made from hibiscus leaves (Red Zinger tea from Celestial Seasonings is one form of these).
I’ve also plunged eggs into blueberry pie filling (which leaves terrific markings on the eggs), and wrapped eggs in rubber bands before adding them to the dye, to create markings on the shell. This is an art project, after all.
If you want to make the finished colored eggs shiny, dry them off and rub them with some vegetable oil.
No matter how you dye eggs, the aftermath will always be messy. That’s the only predictable thing about this enterprise. Well, that and the fact that the egg is in charge.
Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste