Coloring eggs to celebrate spring and Easter is a great activity for the kids. But natural egg dyes made at home takes this annual event to an entirely new level, one that will have adults looking forward to the project. So much so, that you don’t need to have any youngsters in the house to have a lot of fun dying eggs. Call it a science experiment that results in edible art.
It’s fascinating that fruits, vegetables, and even dried spices can become natural egg dyes. And you can achieve a rainbow of colors, sometimes from some really surprising sources. Perhaps the most interesting are red cabbage turning eggs not pink – but blue, and yellow onion skins give you red eggs, which is even crazier than red juice turning blue.
Since there aren’t any kids in residence, I wasn’t looking for ways to avoid synthetic Easter egg dyes. It was pure accident that I even came across this the other day. A little investigation and you find that everyone’s eggs turn out different – from the same color sources. A total break from the traditional Paas dyes with its industrial limitations. These homemade vegetable dyes often create marbling, two-toned effects, and so on just from submerging the egg into a single color. Then I saw that you can create gorgeous patterns with ferns, flowers, tape, and even stickers. Totally awesome… but my schedule is way too full for getting that involved.
But then I noticed something. An occasional oddity in the directions for how to make natural egg dyes. Most people use nothing but the food or spice, water, and vinegar. A smattering of these how-to’s added salt. Why?
I couldn’t find an answer. Does it matter? Does salt in your dye bath do something that vinegar alone cannot? I decided that the only way to find out was to dye some eggs! Pit one version of natural egg dyes against the other in a showdown.
Before beginning my experiment I needed to figure out whose ‘recipe’ to use. I discovered that here there was far less consensus. Some used super vague amounts of water; others claimed no vinegar was needed. The amount of food varied a lot too. While trying to come up with 2 sets of directions that were pretty much the same, I fell in love with Ombre Eggs. A gradual range of blues from the palest robin egg to deep chambray. It transcends average natural egg dyes without getting too fussy or needing to prepare a rainbow of dye baths. Perfect.
Not quite. The Ombre Eggs thing isn’t done with homemade vegetable dyes. At least not the original directions from Country Living Magazine, but someone figured out how to do this using natural egg dyes. And she too used no salt. Now my science experiment has a goal.
I decided to do a dozen and a half eggs so I’d have 9 in each test batch. After revisiting the salty versions on Rodale’s and Martha Stewart several times, I decided to use the whole head of cabbage version from Martha, because with 18 eggs you need a lot more dye than 4 cups.
So, the trick to getting the Ombre Eggs range of colors from a single pot of vegetable dye is time. Remove one egg an hour to achieve a big range of intensities. But after just 1 hour, there was barely any color on my eggs… salt or not. So I didn’t start removing them until the 2-hour mark. And here’s what happened from Hour 1 through Hour 10…
Oddities of Natural Egg Dyes
There are a few things that happened that leave me puzzled. Like why some eggs have a green mottling or areas, and why even after 9 hours in the dye bath particular eggs didn’t take on the deep coloring while others did, and much faster. I suspect that the apple green splotching is a reaction to something on or in the egg, though it seems strange that any residue survived a 30-minute simmer in hot water. At first, I thought it was just a failure to absorb the dye as fast as other parts of the shell, but it continued to show up all the way through to the end – but not on all of the eggs.
And as for the salt and vinegar vs. vinegar only baths, I found that in the early hours the color deepened faster in the tub with salt. It was also more on the blue side, while the vinegar-only eggs were more greenish.
I did not blot-dry any of the eggs after the first set, as most instructions tell you to do. Color comes off on the paper towel – somewhat defeating the purpose of waiting hours for it to collect on the shells! Nor did I rub them with cooking oil. Easter eggs aren’t supposed to be shiny, at least not traditionally. And that oil will leave your natural egg dyes less stable too because oil dries so slowly.
The color isn’t lighter where the egg rested on the toweling to dry after removing it from the dye bath. It’s stuck to the shell but is somewhat fragile. So, be careful when sticking your spoon or dipping tool into the dye vat. You can scrape it off pretty easily, as is seen in the hour 4 photo of the egg from the salt tub.
In the end, I didn’t achieve the gradual deepening tones that Kaley did. Her naturally dyed Ombre Eggs (shown on the left) inspired my project. And since it’s not the same, I’ll call mine Denim Eggs, because that’s what they remind me of – well-loved, often worn, and super comfy denim.
Was it worth staying up into the wee hours to finish this in one-hour increments? Yes! The eggs are beautiful despite their reluctance to cooperate with the plan. But that may have been my fault. Half way through the 10-hour processing time I realized I had used 4 quarts of water instead of 2. All the increments of 4 in Rodale’s and Martha’s directions converging in memory. And because of that my vinegar and salt amounts are half of what they should have been for volume. But it’s not an exact science like, say, making a cake. If you look at a 2-3 dozen blogger’s renditions of natural egg dyes – you’ll find that their measurements of color source and water vary a lot.
My eggs took on good color, and for the most part, getting darker by the hour. Perhaps not as fast as they should have, but my dye bath might have been too shallow with half the amount of water. Partial egg submersion wouldn’t have worked well at all.
I might have gotten a bit darker eggs with less water in my brewing pot, but perhaps that only pertains to getting quicker depth of color. Those 10-hour eggs have very rich color, and so does the 5-hour egg from the tub containing salt. Maybe that’s the whole purpose of the salt, to attract the dye to the eggshell faster. To get that super deep color seen in Kelly Ann’s photo, you have to leave the eggs in the dye overnight.
And finally, there are the minerals in your water to consider! My well water might be part of the problem. If that is true, then everyone’s water source containing different mineral mixes and concentrations creates some of the unique results. Perhaps, like with a hydroponic nutrient solution, distilled water would provide more reliable results from natural egg dyes. Another experiment altogether.
Tammy’s Denim Egg Recipe
- 1 head Red Cabbage, coarsely chopped
- 4 quarts water ( feel free to use less)
- 4 tbsp white vinegar (feel free to adjust)
- 4 tbsp salt (adjustable too)
- Note: Martha’s recipe is 2 qt water to 1 cabbage. Salt and vinegar as above.
Next time I do this I’ll be prepared with some foliage and flowers to create graphic imprints. However, unlike the person whose natural dyed eggs designing I’ll follow, I’m not using florist greens and blooms. Way too many pesticides on that stuff. Especially with that method calling for cooking the egg in the dye bath! Cut flowers from South America are treated with chemicals banned in the USA.
If you’re going to eat the eggs, it’s far safer to use parsley, cilantro, and other fresh herbs from the grocery store. And edible flowers can also be found in the produce department at many grocery stores. Pansies and nasturtium blooms won’t have the dainty detail that the long, thin petaled African Daisies she used. However, Gerber Daisies have similar shaping, and the three plants overwintering in my greenhouse window will have at least 2 blooms each around Easter. Which is why I keep them – they bloom all winter. And they’re totally pesticide-free 🙂
By the way, red cabbage juice only turns blue after coming into contact with eggs. It must be some kind of natural chemical reaction because while cleaning up the mess this morning I noticed that the paper towels that I used to wipe up spills from measuring out equal portions of cabbage water into the tubs dried perfectly rosy pink. Yet, any drips from dipping eggs out dried blue – on the edge of the tubs, the paper plates, the side of the sink, and the paper towels the eggs sat on to dry. And the spot in the middle of the toweling where all the eggs sat for a while was brilliant turquoise. Fascinating. Any chemistry buff or expert who happens along and knows why some of these things happen, please, feel free to leave explanations in comments!
A lot more fun than dropping color tablets in coffee cups and getting cookie cutter Easter eggs for your effort. For clearer colors use white eggs – brown eggs antique the various hues. And yes, the eggs are safe to eat after dying.
Here’s a variety of recipe and idea sources to make a rainbow of natural egg dyes, and even some snazzy patterns in a single color or two-color process:
If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.