Violets : A Native Plant, A Natural Food Coloring
I’m in love with flowers right now. The bright showy ones, the hidden ones, and the ones that don’t even look like flowers. They all have my attention this year in a way that is new for a usually-quite-pragmatic person like myself. I developed this recipe not as a practical solution to feeding my family, but more as way to carry the joy of spring forward throughout the rest of the year. Gathering the petals takes some time, but there’s no need to make a chore of it. Whenever I need a break, I take half an hour to go outside and crawl around in my back yard picking violet petals. It has become something of a meditative practice, and a way to reconnect with my inner child. I highly recommend it.
Indiana and our surrounding states have quite a few native violet species, but the main one I encounter here is Viola sororia, the common blue violet. Not all Viola species are edible, so take some time to learn about the plants that grow in your area (and about safe foraging practices in general) before foraging. The common blue violet is very common, so we aren’t likely to damage its population by foraging it. If you don’t spray your yard, chances are good that violets already live there. And by raising awareness of the benefits of this plant, maybe we can encourage more people to ditch the chemicals and let their lawns go wild too.
I first tried violets as food on a vacation to France in 2009. It was the single best flavor I had ever tasted. I looked far and wide for this flavor when I returned home, but to no avail. I found recipes on the internet for violet syrup and candied violets, and I went outside to forage all the violets I could find. I made all the recipes, and they all tasted like….sugar. There was almost no violet flavor in any of my creations!
It took me years to discover the reason: the violets in Europe are a different species. Viola odorata (sweet violet) is the species commonly used in these recipes, and it doesn’t grow wild here. Our native Viola sororia has very little flavor, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless in the kitchen. Violets are nutritious and medicinal for most people, and their beautiful color can really make your culinary creations sparkle.
Since our local violets are not strongly flavorful, I set out to develop a recipe that was all about color. My mind traveled to my smoothie counter, where I have a collection of little jars filled with natural food coloring powders: red pitaya, yellow turmeric, and blue spirulina. All of these ingredients were shipped from far away, packaged in plastic, and paid for in cash money. Wouldn’t it be awesome to replace them with locally grown ingredients? I set out to experiment with violet petals as a natural food coloring.
In this article, I will first show you how to make the food coloring concentrate powder. Then I’ll show you how to use that powder to make violet colored salt and sugar garnishes. Then I’ll show you how to use those to make two gorgeous mocktails and decorated vegan sugar cookies!
Violet Color Powder
Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.
Read this article from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine to learn more about violet benefits and precautious: Violet’s Edible and Medicinal Uses.
Step 1: Gather violet petals. I recommend going out with a quarter pint jelly jar, as this about as much as I can gather in an hour. Select only the most vibrantly colored flowers. To pick, use one hand to gently hold the base of the flower, and pull the petals off with your other hand. The green calyx and stem are not useful for this recipe, and it’s easier to simply avoid picking them rather than to go through later and pull them off.
Step 2: fill the jar with cool water to clean the petals and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Strain the water off through a fine mesh sieve, reserving the petals. Repeat if necessary.
Step 3: Arrange your clean and drained petals on a screen on a food dehydrator rack. I do prefer to use a food dehydrator when drying flowers because I find that drying them very quickly preserves the most color, but I believe air drying on screens would also work. Dry them on the lowest heat setting possible until they are totally dry and crumbly. Check on them once per hour until done.
Once your violets are fully dry, you can powder them using any method you usually use to grind spices. A dry blender, a mortar and pestle, or a dedicated coffee grinder are all likely to work. Try to grind them as finely as possible.
Store away from direct sunlight in an air-tight container. Optionally, include a food-safe silica packet inside the jar.
Using The Color Powder : Violet Salt & Sugar Garnishes
Now that you have made this amazing violet color powder, you’ll surely want to start using it in recipes. Since several hours went into preparing the few tablespoons of violet powder that I was able to produce this spring, I put a lot of thought into how I wanted to use mine. I thought about putting it in my smoothies, but then I thought that might not be special enough. I thought about making purple baked goods, but my preliminary experiments using other types of natural food color produced lovely bright dough, yet disappointingly pale results after baking. I settled on creating two beautiful garnishes that will last me all year: violet salt, and violet sugar.
Note: As you rehydrate your violet powder, you might notice (as I did) a vegetable smell. I was worried that this was going to affect the flavor of the garnishes, but it really didn’t.
Note: Violet coloring will turn pink in the presence of acid. If you prefer to make pink colored garnishes, try adding a little lemon or lime juice to your mixture.
Violet Salt Recipe
1/2 Tablespoon Violet Powder
1/4 Cup Good Quality White Sea Salt
2 teaspoons water
Measure out your violet powder into a small bowl. Add the water and mix thoroughly. Allow it to sit for a minute or two to make sure all the powder particles are fully hydrated. This step is important to really develop the color. Add in your salt and mix thoroughly. If the color is too dark for your liking, you can slowly add a little more salt to lighten it. Spread out the violet salt into a thin layer and dry it for two hours on the lowest temperature in a dehydrator, or until totally dry and crunchy. Or allow to air dry for at least one hour before use or overnight before storage. Good results would likely also be achieved by drying in the oven on the lowest temperature, but I didn’t try this myself.
After your salt is fully dry, use a rolling pin to crush all the lumps. It should be crumbly and dry just like regular salt. Food processors and blenders do not do a good job at this step. I highly recommend the rolling pin.
A note about salt: almost every salt that I found at my grocery store contained anti-caking additives such as yellow prussiate of soda. Although our government says that these are okay to eat, I find them completely unnecessary and I prefer not to eat them. I suggest reading the labels and looking for an all-natural salt with only one ingredient (salt). If you use a salt containing additives, I do not know how it may affect the final color. Violet is a pH sensitive pigment, and when it comes in contact with an acid it will turn pink. I normally use pink himalayan salt as my go-to salt, but when I tried it in this recipe I found that the color came out a little bit dusky. I got a much brighter and more beautiful color using white sea salt. You may notice a few pink grains of salt in the photograph above- this is because I rimmed a lime-rubbed glass in this salt before I took the final photo. I think they look really good all mixed together!
Violet Sugar Recipe
1/2 Tablespoon Violet Powder
1/4 Cup Organic Cane Sugar
2 Tsp Water
Measure out your violet powder into a small bowl. Add the water and mix thoroughly. Allow it to sit for a minute or two to make sure all the powder particles are fully hydrated. This step is important to really develop the color. Add in your sugar and mix thoroughly. If the color is too dark for your liking, you can slowly add a little more sugar to lighten it. Spread out the violet sugar into a thin layer and dry it for two hours on the lowest temperature in a dehydrator, or until totally dry and crunchy. Or allow to air dry for at least one hour before use or overnight before storage. Good results would likely also be achieved by drying in the oven on the lowest temperature, but I didn’t try this myself.
After your sugar is fully dry, use a rolling pin to crush all the lumps. It should be crumbly and dry just like regular sugar. Food processors and blenders do not do a good job at this step. I highly recommend the rolling pin.
A note about sugar: I used Organic Raw Cane Sugar, which does have a little bit of molasses color to it. Granulated white sugar might give you a slightly brighter color, but I am very happy with the color I got from this lightest available color of organic sugar. Regular white sugar is highly processed and often contains non-vegetarian ingredients and GMO ingredients, and I prefer not to use it in my cooking.
Using The Garnishes
Either of these garnishes would make a beautiful decorative rim for cocktails or mocktails. Use violet sugar to decorate cookies and cupcakes, or sprinkle violet salt atop your guacamole or homemade compound butters for a festive flair. The only limit is your imagination!
Cucumber-Lime Mocktail With Violet Salt Rim
Prepare Your Glass
Slice a lime into wedges. Use one of the wedges to rub lime juice around the rim of your glass, just to moisten it so the salt will stick. If you break the lime wedge over the edge of the glass so there’s some fruit inside and some fruit outside, then you’ll get the best result. Dip your moistened glass rim into your violet salt. Note that the acid from the lime juice will make your salt turn a pinker color. If you don’t want this to happen, you can moisten your glass rim with plain water instead.
Make The Juice
2 cups honeydew melon cubes
A few sprigs fresh lemon balm
A few freshly picked violet leaves (optional)
2-4 Limes to taste (varies based on how large and how juicy the limes are, and how tart you like your juice)
I prefer to juice my limes separately using a citrus reamer, so that the bitter rind is not included in the final juice. The rest of the ingredients go into a regular juicer. Mix all the juice together and pour into your prepared glass. Top with a freshly picked violet flower, if available.
Strawberry-Pineapple Mocktail With Violet Sugar Rim
Prepare Your Glass
Slice a lime into wedges. Use one of the wedges to rub lime juice around the rim of your glass, just to moisten it so the sugar will stick. If you break the lime wedge over the edge of the glass so there’s some fruit inside and some fruit outside, then you’ll get the best result. Dip your moistened glass rim into your violet sugar. Note that the acid from the lime juice will make your sugar turn a pinker color. If you don’t want this to happen, you can moisten your glass rim with plain water instead.
For The Mocktail
2 cups strawberries, washed with green tops still on
1 cup pineapple chunks
A few sprigs fresh spearmint
3 ounces Watermelon Kombucha
I prefer to juice my limes separately using a citrus reamer, so that the bitter rind is not included in the final juice. The rest of the ingredients go into a regular juicer. I find that whenever I juice pineapple, my juicer produces lots of pineapple foam. I like to separate this foam from the rest of my juice to use as decoration. Mix all the juices and kombucha together and pour into your prepared glass. Top with pineapple foam and a freshly picked violet flower, if available.
Vegan Sugar Cookies Topped With Violet Sugar
For the cookie dough, I used this recipe for vegan paleo sugar cookies from Detoxinista. Before placing my formed cookies into the oven, I sprinkled them generously with violet sugar. The final result was both beautiful and delicious! Note that the cookies might not be considered totally paleo anymore with the addition of the sugar, but they’re still vegan, gluten free, and healthy enough for me!
I hope these violet colored creations will inspire you to let your imagination run wild! Please come back and share stories and pictures of your own violet treats in the comments section. Most of all, I hope these recipes help to raise appreciation of violets as an amazing native food plant! Maybe if more people were aware of the benefits of this common “weed”, there would be more wild unsprayed yards where violets, people, (and pollinators) can thrive.