How to make beautiful all-natural dyes to decorate your Easter eggs

The Globe and Mail

Easter eggs coloured with food such beets, red cabbage and turmeric. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Want to craft an Easter centrepiece that is artful and old-school enough to impress Martha addicts and Edwardian Farm fans alike? It's not the pysanka method, which, while dazzling, is a serious time-sucker; even the marbleized finishes that were popular last year feel overwrought, and overdone. This year, stylish DIYers are colouring eggs with homemade dyes made from pantry basics like purple cabbage and chamomile.

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If you are easily unmoored by the thought of eating a non-organic Honeycrisp apple, this is the craft for you. Conventional food colouring is petroleum-based, so if you go to the trouble of avoiding plastic water bottles or make a sport of glaring at biosphere-indifferent engine-idlers, you probably won’t want to stick your hands (or tomorrow’s devilled eggs) in a broth of propylparabens.

What’s more, the safety of artificial colouring is up for debate: Last year, the Food and Drug Administration held a hearing, prompted by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, to scrutinize the safety of foods containing artificial colouring. (The panel voted against the necessity for warning labels, though research has showed that, in some cases, the symptoms of children with behavioural problems improved when artificial dyes were removed from their diets.) You will also appreciate this activity if glitter-encrusted Easter decorations make your eyes hurt; natural dyes produce appealingly muted results.

To begin, don’t blow it: Start with as many white hard-boiled eggs as you’d like to colour. And while some craft fanatics will insist that you pierce the raw eggs and blow their contents into a bowl with the force of your own mighty wind, don’t bother. Egg salad will be your reward for doing things the easy way.

Pick your stain: While a surprising number of craft bloggers will also have you waste time on dyes made of foods like spinach and lemon peel, which produce wishy-washy results, the very best dyes come from edibles with pigments that are strong enough to stain your hands from the get-go. Beets will turn your shells bright pink; turmeric will make them sunny yellow; and purple cabbage will produce a stain that ranges from lilac (after a few minutes of steeping), to deep purple (after half an hour) to navy blue (if you let the eggs soak overnight). Cabernet sauvignon works well, too. For additional combinations, soak an egg in one dye and then another. (Cabbage followed by turmeric produces a fetching greeny-blue.)

Getting the right mix: For every cup of chopped fruit or vegetable, use two cups of water. (For a dry spice like turmeric, six tablespoons will do.) Boil the edible ingredient in water for 20 minutes, then stir one tablespoon each of salt and vinegar into the mixture and you’re ready to start dying.

The big soak: Coffee mugs or eight-ounce mason jars make excellent vessels for soaking eggs one at a time because. (If you place more than one egg in the liquid at a time, you may find the colour uneven wherever the eggs are touching.) Set out an oilskin tablecloth, don an apron and use a spoon to gently lower each egg into the liquid. (And save your egg carton to use as a drying rack.)

Once an egg has reached a satisfying colour saturation, lift it out of the liquid, gently pat it dry with a clean cloth (one you don’t mind getting dye on – or, if you must, use paper towel) and set it down in your egg carton-cum-drying rack. Once eggs are dry, you can wipe them with vegetable oil to give them a subtle shine; matte eggs are equally stylish.

Fancy tricks: For a modern geometrical look, wrap eggs in rubber bands before you dye them. The dye won’t penetrate the areas under the bands, leaving an off-set pattern behind. (To avoid smudging the effect, be sure the eggs are fully dry before you take the bands off.) You can also make decals out of masking tape, which will likewise reveal a silhouette once the egg is dry and the tape is removed. Or, if you aren’t thoroughly Type A and don’t mind a fuzzy result, melt a tea light over a double boiler, dip a paint brush into the wax and use it to paint a design on your egg. (You can also draw on the egg with a white birthday candle or crayons, if you’re loath to dirty another pot or you’re doing this craft with children.)

Small-fry rating: It depends on your philosophical outlook, and their attention span. Some steeping time is required before natural dyes take hold, so the instant-gratification factor of this craft is low. But they will be able to eat the results.

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