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How to Color Buttercream

Learn How to Color Buttercream like a pro! This comprehensive tutorial walks you through how to create beautiful colored buttercream that’s rich, vibrant, and perfect for decorating cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and more. 

Once you’ve mastered coloring your buttercream, level up your skills with my guide on How to Use a Piping Bag.

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How to Color Buttercream Frosting Like a Pro

Who’s come across a beautifully frosted cake or a batch of brightly frosted cupcakes and thought, HOW?! My mom made cakes for every birthday when I was growing up, and they were always themed, always frosted with homemade buttercream in every color imaginable. In my eyes, there was nothing more awe-inspiring.

So, you could say that I’m a little passionate about buttercream frosting. It’s what inspired this series of frosting tutorials, where I cover everything from How to Use and Decorate with Piping Tips and then leveling it up with How to Decorate Cupcakes. Today, we’re deep-diving into how to color buttercream frosting.

I’ve made many, many homemade desserts over the years, and many of them involve beautifully colored buttercream. I mean, colored frosting is a must when decorating desserts for holidays and themed parties. It also makes such a difference when piping designs onto cakes and cupcakes.

There are so many reasons why you should learn to color buttercream! Let’s get into it.

What Buttercream Frosting Should I Use?

For this tutorial, I recommend using a basic vanilla buttercream frosting (although my recipe is anything but basic if I do say so myself- and readers agree!). I’ve included my go-to recipe for Perfect Vanilla Buttercream below the post. My vanilla frosting is colorless and versatile, and you only need 4 ingredients to make it. It’s the perfect blank canvas!

Overhead view of vanilla buttercream frosting in a glass bowl, surrounded by various bottles of gel food dye.

What Can I Use to Color Buttercream?

To color your buttercream frosting, you’re going to need food-grade dyes. I recommend gel colors over traditional food coloring, and there are two types of colors I primarily use: the Wilton Color Right Color System and AmeriColor. 

Gel dyes are highly concentrated with a thicker consistency, and you only need a small amount to achieve bold, rich colors. On the other hand, food coloring is less concentrated and also water-based, and it’s more likely to thin out your frosting as a result. Let’s take a more in-depth look at the different dye options below.

Wilton Color Right Color System

The Wilton Color Right Color System includes 8 basic colors, along with a guide for making 50+ different colors from those original 8. It’s a great option for experienced bakers and beginners alike since you don’t need to invest in a bunch of individual colors. You’ll also find refills for Wilton’s color gels at craft stores like Michaels, and at cake decorating suppliers.

AmeriColor

AmeriColor gels are best for finding unique, pre-mixed colors and shades (ie. teal, turquoise, pumpkin, terracotta, champagne, dusty rose, etc). They have well over 50 colors to choose from and also offer a starter kit of 12 basic colors (linked above). You can find AmeriColor dyes at craft stores, or online.

Food Coloring

Food coloring is commonly found in grocery stores and usually comes in 4 primary colors: red, yellow, green, and blue. It has a thinner, more liquid consistency, and I generally don’t recommend it for coloring buttercream. If you must use food coloring, consider adding a bit more powdered sugar to your frosting to balance out the additional liquid.

The Best Way to Color Buttercream Frosting

How much dye you add to your buttercream depends on the amount of frosting, and the color you’re looking to achieve. Generally speaking, I’ll use up to 3 colors at a time, with white or natural buttercream as the 4th color.

A rule of thumb to remember is that you can always add more, but you can’t take it away. Keep in mind that the color of your frosting will also deepen the longer it sits. Here’s the easiest way to color buttercream:

  1. Prepare the buttercream frosting. Follow the directions to make your buttercream. I recommend a stiff buttercream like my Perfect Vanilla Frosting (recipe below). If you’re making multiple colors, divide your frosting according to how much you’ll need for each. 
  2. Add color. Start by adding 1 drop of your color of choice to each bowl, and gradually add more as needed. For lighter shades or smaller batches of frosting (1 cup or less), I recommend using toothpicks when adding gel coloring to your buttercream. After a toothpick comes in contact with the frosting, do not return it to the gel bottle.
  3. Mix. Use a spatula or spoon to gently fold the color into the frosting. Afterward, transfer the frosting to piping bags or use it to decorate as is.

Frosting Color Variations

There is an infinite number of colors, hues, shades, and tints that you can dye a batch of frosting. Let’s have a look at some common variations and the best ways to achieve them:

Solid Colors

To dye an entire batch of frosting (4 ½ cups) a single pastel color, I recommend 2 drops of gel color for cup of frosting. If you’re aiming for a darker shade, I recommend gradually adding more as needed. If you’re dying less than 1 cup of frosting, you’ll need less than ¼ drop of gel. Sometimes it’s easier to use a toothpick to add just a touch of color to a small bowl of frosting.

Mixing Colors

When it comes to combining different dyes to create a uniquely colored buttercream, start with the lightest color first before adding your secondary colors. To make purple buttercream, for example, add your pink coloring first before adding blue.

Overhead view of vanilla buttercream frosting in a bowl, next to two bottles of gel food dye and a color chart.

Bold Colors

Achieving bold colors, like red, is sometimes a bit more challenging. When dying your buttercream in more saturated colors, I recommend using tasteless gels that won’t leave a bitter aftertaste (since you’ll need more dye to achieve a rich, saturated color). My go-to when dying red buttercream, for example, is AmeriColor Super Red.

When it comes to brighter colors, aim to prepare your frosting ahead of time and store it airtight. The color will become richer and darker the longer it sits. Once it’s on your cake, the buttercream will also set a little bit darker than how it looks in the bowl.

Black Buttercream

Like bolder colors, creating black buttercream frosting can be tricky. But it is doable! I recommend using a potent gel dye, like AmeriColor Super Black. Another trick is to start with a Chocolate Buttercream Frosting that’s already dark and add black dye. You’ll use less dye, and the color will be closer to black than if you begin with a base of white buttercream.

Can I Make Perfectly White Buttercream?

Vanilla buttercream is naturally off-white, sometimes yellowish, due to the butter and vanilla extract in the recipe. For this reason, if you’re looking to achieve vibrant, snowy-white frosting, there are a few ways to do it:

  • Use clear vanilla extract. Unlike real vanilla that’s brown in color, this is an artificial flavoring that won’t alter the color of your buttercream. 
  • Add white dye. Wilton also offers a white liquid color that you can add to your frosting to make it appear whiter. 
  • Add purple. You heard right! One more “baker’s hack” for white frosting is to add a teensy amount of purple color to your natural buttercream. The purple will offset the yellow in the frosting to make it appear more white. Use a toothpick to add the purple color in order to avoid tinting the buttercream.
A piping bag with a tip filled with pink buttercream frosting.

More Tips for Color Buttercream

Once you’ve learned how to color your buttercream frosting, the sky’s the limit when it comes to decorating your favorite cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and more. Below are some final tips for perfect colorful buttercream:

  • Always color more buttercream than you need. It’s very difficult to get the same color twice. You can always store or freeze any leftover frosting, see the section below for details.
  • Color your buttercream ahead of time. As mentioned earlier, it’s best to dye your buttercream 2-3 hours ahead of when you plan to use it. Because buttercream is a fat-based icing, colored buttercream will often darken 1-2 shades while it rests. Dying it in advance gives the gel coloring enough time to emulsify with the frosting and reach its final color beforehand.
  • Start with a thicker frosting. Since you’ll be mixing colors in by hand, it’s best to start with a stiffer buttercream so that the final result will be the right consistency.

A unicorn cupcake decorated with piped colored frosting swirls and sprinkles.

Ways to Use Colored Buttercream

Use your newfound buttercream coloring skills to decorate all of your best homemade desserts:

Three piping bags filled with purple, pink, and light turquoise buttercream frosting.

Storing Colored Buttercream Frosting

Once your colors are mixed into your frosting, I recommend storing your buttercream airtight at room temperature for 2-3 hours, to let the colors settle or up to 24 hours. For longer storage, transfer your frosting to the fridge to keep chilled for up to 7 days. Keep each color stored in a separate container, to prevent them from bleeding into one another.

Take your buttercream frosting out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature before you use it. You’ll also want to give it another quick whip either with a spatula or your stand mixer to stir before decorating your cake or cupcakes.

Can I Freeze Buttercream? 

Yes. Most buttercream frosting freezes well, simply store it in a freezer-safe airtight container or freezer bag and keep it frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw the frosting in the fridge and let it warm to room temperature before you use it.

Overhead view of three piping bags with purple, pink, and light turquoise buttercream frosting next to a cake decorated with piped frosting flowers.
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Three piping bags filled with purple, pink, and light turquoise buttercream frosting.

Basic Vanilla Buttercream

5 Stars 4 Stars 3 Stars 2 Stars 1 Star 5 from 3 reviews
  • Author: Julianne Dell
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: 4 1/2 cups
  • Category: Frosting
  • Method: Stand Mixer
  • Cuisine: American

Description

My best-ever Vanilla Buttercream Frosting is super versatile and perfect for customizing with your favorite color gels! Made with a handful of ingredients, this basic frosting recipe is easy to pipe onto cakes and cupcakes.


Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup (339 g) (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cold.
  • 5 cups (650 g) powdered sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons (12 ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) heavy whipping cream (or milk)

Instructions

  1. Cut the butter into pieces. Using the paddle attachment, whip the butter for 5-7 minutes, scraping down the bowl occasionally, and beating until the butter look light in color.
  2. Add 2 cups of powdered sugar and mix on low speed until incorporated into the butter then add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Beat for about 60 seconds.
  3. Next, add an additional 2 cups of powdered sugar and beat on low speed until sugar is incorporated. Increase speed to medium-high and beat for 3 minutes.
  4. Add the last 1 cup of powdered sugar along with the heavy whipping cream. Beat on low until the ingredients start to mix together. Increase speed to medium-high and beat for another 3-5 minutes to whip additional air into the frosting.
  5. Color your buttercream using your preferred brand of food coloring (see post for tips and tricks).


Notes

  • Store frosting in an airtight container. This frosting can be stored at room temperature if served within 24 hours. Otherwise, refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.
  • This frosting can be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated for 7 days. Store it in an airtight container. Bring the frosting back to room temperature and re-whip the frosting before use.
  • To freeze buttercream, seal in an airtight container or bag for up to one month. Thaw to room temperature and rewhip before using. 
  • Flavor with different extracts or zest of lemon, orange, or lime.
  • This recipe makes enough to frost 24 cupcakes. If you need to scale this recipe up to down, visit my tutorial for my vanilla buttercream, which includes scaled recipes. 

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 1/2 cup
  • Calories: 540
  • Sugar: 65g
  • Sodium: 6mg
  • Fat: 31.3g
  • Saturated Fat: 19.5g
  • Carbohydrates: 66.7g
  • Fiber: 0g
  • Protein: 0g
  • Cholesterol: 82mg

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30 thoughts on “How to Color Buttercream”

  1. 5 stars because every recipe of yours I have tried is amazing! I have a question about food dyes. Can you recommend a food dye that is safe? An internet search turned up all the dangers of Red 40, but I couldn’t find a list of alternatives. TIA!






    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Thank you Leilana! As fas as giving you a “safe” recommendation, I am not qualified to provide that. I did a Google search and saw that several reputable brands including King Arthur Flour and ChefMaster make natural food colors. Here’s what I found on: Chef Master but note that I have not tried these personally.

  2. Would this frosting work on sugar cookies?? It’s pretty similar to the frosting I make besides the heavy whipping cream.

  3. When is the best time to color the frosting if you are planning to freeze it? Before freezing or after you bring it back to room temperature?

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Hi Ginger. I usually color it first, as the more time it sits, the better the color will be. However, don’t be surprised when it thaws and you rewhip it, that the color gets lighter since your adding volumn back into the frosting. You can add a touch of color at that time if you’d like.

      1. What dye you use in white buttercream to make it a cream color like a light tan color?

      2. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
        Beyond Frosting

        I would pick a color like from Americolor, and then use a toothpick to add the color just a touch at a time until you reach the desired color

  4. Avatar photo
    Roberta Kreiling

    I’ve been using the americolor dyes for my cookies. I’ve been noticing after freezing the iced cookies, the color has gotten a lot darker. Is there a reason why and what can I do?

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Yes, I think this is very common and I am not sure it’s avoidable other than going lighter to start with. The frosting will saturate in color as it sits.

      1. Thanks for your ideas making cookies today and the buttercream to with color for christmas i hope i will be all right first time to do this i hope everything works thanks for sharing your ideas have a great day and christmas with your family

  5. Avatar photo
    Terry Christian

    This is definitely the best buttercream frosting I have ever made! Everyone loved it. Thank you.






  6. If adding almond extract or any other, is this in addition to the basic vanilla recipe or does it replace the vanilla extract entirely?
    Thank you

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      I like to use a combo of the two. It all depends on how strong you want to almond flavor to be. I would add to taste and then add 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

  7. Hi my name is Tammy., I am loving your emails and helpful baking hints with recipes.. I have a dilemma though I am a small hometown baker. I do struggle with cupcake cheesecakes. The centers sink more than they should no matter what I do. I don’t over mix , or over bake. Any helpful suggestions??

    Thank you

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Hi Tammy, have you tried checking the internal temp of you oven to be sure it’s not off? If they sink it could be the results of over mixing, under baking or old leveling agents.

  8. Hello, can u use this recipe to fill in cake layers as well?
    Thank u I will try it for my baby girl’s bday ❤️

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      You sure can! This is my preferred buttercream and I use it for all types of layer cakes. I hope she has an awesome birthday!

  9. Hi
    I am not a great fan of very sweet buttercreams. What is the best way to make less sweet buttercream frostings?
    Thanks

  10. This is literally life changing recipe.!! It’s perfect to pipe with and makes it look like it was store brought! Can’t wait to use it on my wedding cake






  11. Avatar photo
    Laura Graham

    Could you tell me how to change this recipe to lemon buttercream? I have 100% pure lemon essential oil.

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Hi Laura, I would add lemon zest, replace the vanilla with lemon extract and some of the heavy cream with lemon juice. I don’t know much about lemon essential oil and if you can or should consume them- so I can’t tell you how to use that specifically.

    2. Do not ingest essential oil. It is not made to be ingested. You either need lemon extract or lemon emulsion.

      1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
        Beyond Frosting

        Thanks for weighing in Heather! I am not familiar at all with essential oils but didn’t think they should be ingested

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Hi Sheila, do you live in a warm climate? The sweat happens due to drastic changes in temperature, and it’s difficult to avoid. When you are bringing it to room temperature, is it remaining covered in a container? I always like to remove the lid and give it some time to do the initial thaw uncovered to help prevent some sweat. Normally though I don’t refrigerate by buttercream cakes.