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I’m jumping into my rainbow themed food odyssey with both feet! To get started, I’ve put together a little survey of fantastic red foods and how to use them (and their color) to your advantage in cooking. My red food roundup is certainly not claiming to contain all red foods (notably missing: beef, tuna and cured pork) I’ve focused on the plant foods that have something spectacular about their color and offer great opportunities when you want to add color to a dish. I’ve already learned so much in this project I can’t wait to flesh out the rest of the rainbow. And check back later this week for my red recipe (hint: achiote+fish).
There are four types of molecules that create pigments in plants: carotenoids, anthocyanins, betalains and clorophyll. With the exception of chorophyll, all of these molecules can contribute to producing a red pigment. And as a complete opposite to the controversy surrounding health affects of artificial red food dye, red pigments in food nearly always indicate very healthy antioxidant substances.
I’ve divided the red foods based on the solubility of their pigments. Both groups can be useful as accents, or even as pigments to dye other foods. But it’s useful to know the difference so that you can know what to expect when you’re composing a dish. Since most foods have a large quantity of water in them, water soluble red pigments will easily bleed from one to the other. So that’s why the roasted beets in your salad will turn the lettuce red. Oil soluble pigments will not spread as easily (which is why tomatoes in the same salad don’t turn the lettuce red). Generally, if you’re looking to dye a non-red food red, you’ll want to look to a water soluble food, like beets or berries. If you’re looking for an individual element to keep its color (perhaps amidst other colorful elements) then look for a food with a fat soluble pigment.
Perhaps the most fantastically red of all red foods, beets are legendary for their ability to dye anything bright purply red–fabric, your vinaigrette, the goat cheese they’re sitting next to in your salad– beets will share their pigment readily and with abandon. You can use beets or beet juice as a dye (either for fabric or for food). The red in beets comes from a mixture of substances called betalains. Betalains can cause several different pigments, and this variety is displayed by the variety of pigments of beets available. Try using concentrated beet juice in place of red food coloring.
There are so many berries with a brilliant red hue: raspberries, currants, cranberries, strawberries. When berries are in season they are so delicious all by themselves, that they are the star red centerpiece of many an ice cream sunday or carefully arranged fruit tart. Berry juice can be used as a red dye. For an unusual red garnish try dehydrating some berries. You can either cut them into slices and serve the slices and let the slices dry into pretty accents or dry the fruit until absolutely crisp. Then you can pulverize it in a small rotary coffee grinder and have a delicious red powder to sprinkle on your ice cream or dessert plate. Even dust truffles with it! Just be cautious with the temperature you are dehydrating at. Too hot and the color of berries will fade or brown.
Pomegranate is not a berry, but most of the cooking implications are the same. Fresh, it’s a beautiful accent for salads and fruit dishes. Pomegranate juice also makes a colorful food dye.
Rhubarb’s red color is from anthocyanins. Water soluble, the red from rhubarb will easily leach out during cooking. If you’d like to preserve the red in your rhubarb, I suggest reserving any cooking liquid that leaches out, reduce the liquid and toss the cooked rhubarb with your sauce.
Sumac is a seasoning widely used in middle eastern dishes. Because of it’s hue, many people assume that it will taste hot like cayenne pepper. But, unlike cayenne or even paprika, sumac is quite good even when used liberally. The flavor of sumac is tangy with a dark smoky undertone. Mixed into a creamy sauce it will turn the sauce pink. Or sprinkle liberally on fish, poultry or pita bread for a delicious and attractive accent.
Grapes & Stone Fruits
Cherries, Plums, Grapes all have lots of pigment in their skin. Red wine gets all of it’s redness from the grape’s skin. Try roasting dark colored plums with their skin on. Some of the pigment will leach through to the fruit below. Remove the skins gently after they have cooled and you’ll have a gorgeous red fruit.
If you can get fresh hibiscus flowers, they make a stunning ornamental addition to a dish. Dried hibiscus is commonly available dried as an herbal tea. The flavor is acidic, but otherwise not very distinct. This makes hibiscus perfect to blend with other acidic preparations when you want a shot of color. Try using hibiscus syrup to sweeten lemonade or make stunning mixed drinks.
Some grains have heirloom varieties with a red color on the outside. (I know at least quinoa and rice.) Buying an heirloom grain is an easy way to add color to a dish. Just make sure to only cook the grains in the amount of water required, rather than draining excess water which will also take lots of nutrients and color with it.
Tomatoes get their red hue from a substance in the carotenoid family called lycopene (as do watermelons). Lycopene is an antioxidant. It generally considered to be very healthy and lots of research is being done around its association with reduced risk of cancer. Lycopene is not water soluble, but is a powerful coloring agent (that’s why tomato sauce will dye your favorite t-shirt red but not that pasta it’s sitting with). Because it’s pigment is not water soluble, tomato purees makes a great accent to contrast. Adding white or green foods together with tomatoes can create a striking contrast without dying those contrasting elements red (as a beet puree would do).
The pepper family is broad in flavor and color. I photographed flaked red pepper (spicy) and paprika (smoky-mild), but there is a whole world of flavor between these two extremes. Fresh peppers, roasted peppers and all manner of dried and powdered peppers can provide a brilliant red accent without dying their neighbors red.
Achiote (also called annatto) is a powerful pigment as well as a seasoning. Even if you’re not familiar with it’s use as a spice you might recognize the name. Annato is used as a coloring in cheese and margarine. Highly concentrated it is a bright orangy red. When more diluted it can be bright orange to yellow. Look for little boxes of achiote paste at well stocked grocery stores or stores that specialize in Mexican or South American ingredients. Try heating some cooking oil with a little achiote paste, or some whole annato seeds. Let the oil infuse over low heat for a few minutes, then use your colorful oil as an accent to fish or poultry dishes.