Coloring dough using natural ingredients is one of my favorite ways to experiment with the nostalgic recipes of my childhood. It’s a technique my grandma always used for noodles, extracting the juice from vegetables like spinach and carrots and kneading it into noodle dough to make brightly colored strands. It’s that memory that empowered me to experiment with using a wide variety of vegetables and fruits to naturally color classic bread and bun dough.
By simply replacing the water or milk in dough recipes with the same amount of colored fruit or vegetable juice, you can make a rainbow of brilliant doughs. This method can be used to make almost any kind of bun: For steamed buns, I add blended carrots to these Carrot Buns with Fresh Ginger Custard to create a stunning bright gold color. Try swapping in other fruits or vegetables in place of the carrots for other color possibilities (see my guide below), or use this method to color the dough for any of the steamed and baked buns available in this buns recipe collection.
First, extract color from fruits and vegetables
Extracting color is as simple as blending an ingredient with liquid and straining to get its juice. You can use a blender or a food processor to blend everything together. I like to use a powerful blender like a Vitamix because it allows me to blend all kinds of produce into a fine purée, including tougher ingredients like beets and cabbage. Some recipes use milk while others use water, but both work great and have nearly identical results when blended with an ingredient. If your dough recipe calls for milk, use milk when blending the ingredient; if it calls for water, use water instead. In both cases, the liquid you extract from the vegetables will replace the milk (or water) called for in the dough recipe
To start, blend the fruit or vegetable (see below for specific amounts!) with water or milk until it’s smooth, adding more liquid as needed to help the mixture blend completely. In batches, pass the blended mixture through a fine mesh metal strainer, using a silicone spatula or spoon to press down on the solids and extract every last drop of colored liquid, which you’ll use to make your colored doughs.
Here’s a (partial) list of ingredients that I’ve loved experimenting with to add color to my doughs:
- Green: Spinach
- Pink/magenta: Red beets
- Yellow: Yellow bell peppers, golden beets
- Red/orange: Red bell peppers
- Purple: Red cabbage
Tips for extracting color
Color concentration: The proportion of the ingredient relative to the liquid you use dictates how concentrated the liquid will be and, in turn, how vibrantly it will color the dough. For example, if I want a lighter shade of green, I may blend just one handful of spinach with a cup of water to create a subtle mint green. Whereas if I want a deep emerald green, I’ll put in the entire bag of spinach along with the same one cup of water. The more of the ingredient you use in proportion to water, the darker your dough color will look once cooked.
Save leftovers: You’ll most likely have extra juice when making colored dough. Extra juice can be easily frozen and stored for up to a year. I typically make large batches of colored juice, then freeze in ice cube trays and store in a freezer-safe container. It allows me to pull a few cubes at a time (rather than a whole container) to thaw and use whenever I need.
Then, incorporate color into your steamed dough
Coloring dough simply involves replacing the milk or water in your bun dough recipe with the same amount of strained fruit/vegetable juice. Once you pour the colored juice into the flour and begin to knead, the color will become lighter as it gets incorporated into the dough. Because the amounts of the actual ingredient are so small relative to the flour, naturally dyeing the dough this way has little to no effect on the flavor.
When steaming colored dough, some ingredients hold their color better than others. Time can also play a factor as well, as the color can dull the longer the dough is cooked. Dough made with beets, for example, holds its color the least, transforming from a bold, deep magenta into a lighter pinkish red the longer it is cooked. Spinach and other leafy greens, meanwhile, hold their green color, more or less retaining their earthy emerald hue throughout the steaming process.
Your bolder bao color guide
The recipes below are for a few of my favorite colored doughs, but feel free to play around and try mixing different colors together to create your own shades.
- 1 to 3 heaping handfuls of raw spinach (use 1 handful for a lighter green, and 2 to 3 handfuls for a darker green)
- 1 cup (227g) of water or milk
In a blender, combine the spinach and water or milk. Blend until smooth, then strain through a fine-mesh metal sieve; you should have about 1/2 cup of liquid.
- 1 to 2 raw or cooked beets, peeled and chopped into rough chunks (use 1/2 beet for a lighter pink and 2 for magenta)
- 1 cup (227g) water
In a blender, combine the beets and water. Blend until smooth, then strain through a fine-mesh metal strainer, reserving the juice; you should have about 1/2 cup of liquid.
3 to 4 yellow bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
- Alternately, 1 to 2 raw or cooked golden beets, peeled and chopped into rough chunks (see the “magenta” section above for how to prep beets)
In a blender, blend the peppers until smooth. (Bell peppers hold quite a bit of water so you don’t need to add any extra liquid, but if they aren’t blending smoothly, feel free to add 1 tablespoon of water at a time until the mixture begins to blend smoothly.) Strain through a fine-mesh metal strainer, reserving the juice; you should have about 1/2 cup of liquid.
- 3 to 4 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
In a blender, blend the peppers until smooth. (Once again, bell peppers hold quite a bit of water so no need to add extra liquid, but if they aren’t blending smoothly, add water 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture begins to blend smoothly.) Strain through a fine-mesh metal strainer, reserving the juice; you should have about 1/2 cup of liquid.
- 1/2 red cabbage, cored and coarsely chopped
- 1 cup (227g) water
In a blender, combine the cabbage and water. Blend until completely smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh metal strainer, reserving the juice; you should have about 1/2 cup of liquid.
These colored doughs can be used many ways. Sometimes I’ll want something bright and go for red bell peppers or maybe carrots, which will later become the bright golden orange wrapper for a steamed bao featuring marinated chicken thigh and carrot. Other times I’ll want a visual contrast, so I go for two complementary colors like red cabbage (which dyes the dough a lavender purple) and spinach (which dyes the dough a bright natural green) that I’ll pair together for a striking dual-toned steamed bun. You can even get creative by extracting multiple juices from different vegetables and mixing the colors together to create a whole new shade. The joy of naturally coloring dough is that you really can’t go wrong — experiment, be playful, and have fun.
From brightly colored Carrot Buns with Fresh Ginger Custard to crispy, crackly Pineapple Buns (Bolo Bao), see all of the steamed and baked buns available in this new buns recipe collection.
Cover photo by Frankie Gaw.