The Seasoned Traveler

Recipes and remedies using herbs, spices, and other natural ingredients from the world's pantry

Holiday Sugar Cookies with Natural Red Icing



‘Tis the season to make cookies, and this year, my friend Sarah challenged me to find a natural red food coloring to use in icing for sugar cookies. Did you know that most artificial red food colorings contain crushed beetle-like cochineal bugs? And those that aren’t derived from bugs often contain coal. (Here’s one helpful link in case this interests you, but be warned, there’s a picture of those red crawlies.) Now that doesn’t sound very festive or appetizing, does it? And recent studies found potential links between artificial dyes and hyperactivity and even cancer. That’s enough to turn me off of artificial food coloring, how about you?

It actually didn’t take me long to find some great suggestions online for natural food coloring. I focused on red, the color I found the most promising in natural form (so many dark red sweet things to choose from!). And after making my Secret Ingredient Tomato Soup, I had some leftover beet juice sitting in my refrigerator, beckoning me to try it. I boiled a 1/2 cup of the beet juice down in a little pot on the stove for about 15 minutes, until it reduced down to 1/4 cup. That stuff was deep, dark red and concentrated. When I mixed some (after cooling) into my simple icing (powdered sugar, a little lemon juice & a little milk), it turned it the most beautiful magenta-pink, then got more intense purply red as I added more drops.

The beet coloring was bright and festive on its own and could pass for holiday red, but I decided to add a bit of turmeric powder, and it gave it just a bit of a yellowy-orange hue to make the red less purply red and more of a deep red: bingo!

Now, what does this beet-turmeric-sugar icing taste like? Exactly like you’d expect icing to taste like — sweet and yummy just like almost like Mom’s! I dare you to serve it without giving away your secret natural ingredients and see if anyone can tell the difference. Happy cookie making, and Happy Saint Nicholas Day in Germany, where we’re getting our first snow of the winter today!

P.S. I’m waiting for someone else to experiment and find other natural substitutes for food colorings — anyone want to figure out green icing? Please let me know if you do!

Holiday Sugar Cookies with Natural Red Icing

(Cookie dough adapted from Alton Brown’s Sugar Cookie recipe)IMG_6372

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Powdered sugar, for rolling out dough


Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric stand mixer and beat until light in color. Add egg, vanilla extract, and milk and beat to combine. Put mixer on low speed, gradually add flour, and beat until mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl. Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 C).

Use a piece of parchment paper on the surface where you will roll out dough, and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking. If dough has warmed during rolling, place cold cookie sheet on top for 10 minutes to chill. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on greased baking sheet, parchment, or silicone baking mat, and bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack. Serve as is or ice as desired. Store in airtight container for up to 1 week.

Note: I added the vanilla extract to Alton Brown’s plain sugar cookie dough and like it this way; you might try it without, or perhaps with almond extract if you like that. I also chilled the dough overnight. Dough will be very crumby (but not crummy!) — I had to squeeze it together in the plastic wrap to form a ball. I was skeptical about this dough working when I retrieved it from the fridge and found it to be very dense, almost hard. But it does get more pliable as it warms and you massage it into a flat disc before rolling out. It’s a bit more work than other sugar cookie recipes, but very tasty. The dough isn’t very sweet but rolling it in the powdered sugar gives it the perfect amount of sweetness.

Natural Red Icing for Sugar Cookies

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs. milk
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • about 2 tsp. beet juice concentrate (*see below)

Directions: First make the beet juice concentrate by boiling 1/2 cup beet juice in a small pot for about 15 minutes, or until reduced to 1/4 cup. Note: watch it carefully, and stir/remove from burner if it’s bubbling too vigorously or thickening faster. Set aside and let cool.

Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice and half the milk and stir vigorously to incorporate. Slowly add more of the milk, a few drops at a time, until it is approximately the right thickness for your liking. Stir vigorously again to remove any lumps. Use some of this white icing on the cookies, if you would like. Then to color the remainder red, add the turmeric and mix, then 1 tsp. of the beet concentrate and mix. Add more of the concentrate drop by drop to reach the desired red color. You can ice the cookies through a piping bag – fill the bag and let it sit a couple minutes in the refrigerator to firm it up some before icing the cookies.

Note: As you can see, my red icing was a bit too liquidy as I propped them up to take pictures — if you find your icing too runny, just add more powdered sugar and/or wait for it to firm up fully before moving the cookies! Also, I imagine the beet-turmeric combo is highly stainable, but then again, I think people will be scarfing these down so fast you won’t have to worry about spills. Enjoy!


Author: Laura Haugen

Writer, Traveler, Foodie

19 thoughts on “Holiday Sugar Cookies with Natural Red Icing

  1. Excellent, Laura!!!!

  2. Beetles. wow! I heard artificial raspberry has some not so savory part of the beaver in it. Ugh… The beet coloring is beautiful and you can serve it with a clear conscience. Your cookies are so pretty!!

  3. Thank you, Laur! Perfect timing, too, as I’m planning to make the sugar cookie dough tonight and decorate the cookies with Nika tomorrow. Superb!

    • Thanks, Sar! I liked this challenge and I hope you like the results. You and Nika have a wonderful time decorating! xoxo

      • I think I did something wrong, Laura. My beet juice didn’t reduce to 1/4 cup of liquid – it reduced to a little clump of hard beet juice caramel after only 6 or 7 minutes. The only thing I can think of is that I got my beet juice by draining the juice out of a big jar of beets. This would seem logical, right? But there was some sugar in there (6%, according to the ingredients) so maybe that was the problem. I’m a novice at reduction so it could also be that I cooked it at too high a temperature…In any case, not all was lost. I used turmeric and we had some pretty yellow cookies and some pretty white ones. They tasted great! 🙂

      • Hey Sar, not sure what it was. I used plain 100% beet juice bought in the juice aisle, but I was thinking that beet juice strained from a can of beets should work too. Bummer to hear it didn’t work! Maybe the sugars hastened the thickening/caramelizing process. Anyway, happy you at least ended up with pretty and tasty cookies.

  4. Brilliant thank you 😊 I love the natural red icing recipe!

  5. I have long been horrified with the amount of chemicals and dubious additives in processed food. I make vanilla essence with brandy and vanilla beans and I make pink icing with strained frozen raspberries but never have tried green, now that’s a challenge! Love your use of beet and turmeric to come up with a red!

  6. Beets and turmeric do wonders (other than color too). These cookies look beautiful and adorable!

  7. Thanks Laura. I also prefer to use natural ingredients like beet juice for red coloring! Thanks for sharing and cute cookies.

  8. Great colour I’ll have to try it in a red velvet cake. Thank you!

  9. So cute Laura! And really love the NATURAL Icing x

  10. I love these, they’re so festive!

  11. I have bben searching for a natural red frosting recipe for spiderman cupcakes. How could I adapt your recipe for buttercream frosting? Thanks for your help!

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