Dyeing eggs come Eastertime is a tradition that stretches as far back as Medieval times. Growing up, it was one of the things my brother and I begged our parents to do … the sooner the better. We made an egg for every member of the family, and one for the priest at church. We challenged each other to come up with wild designs and color combinations.
My dad was of Polish descent, and Easter eggs are “big” in Polish culture. They make carved eggs, intricate dyed eggs, and they are masters at delicately painted blown out eggs, so it was a natural part of our Easter traditions.
There are two parts to making the perfect Easter egg: the dye and the decoration. About ten years ago, I became fascinated with natural egg dyes that use common foods to create beautifully colored accents for the Easter table.
Here’s what you need:
White eggs (hint: vary the sizes for interest)
1 small head of red cabbage
4 large yellow onions
4 large red beets
4 c. of very strong coffee
Pour the coffee into a small, deep bowl and add 2 T. of vinegar; allow to cool to room temperature.
Pour a quart of water into three medium saucepans; add 2 T. of vinegar into each pot. (The vinegar helps set the color and helps the dye penetrate the egg shell.) Roughly chop the cabbage and place into one pot. Cut off the top and root end of the onions and peel off the skins. Roughly tear the skins into pieces and place in another pot. Trim and peel the beets and cut into quarters; place into the third pot. Boil each pot at least 30 minutes. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and allow the water to cool to room temperature.
When it comes to the eggs, there are some options. You can boil the eggs first and dye them in the cool dye. Or, you can boil the eggs right in the dyeing liquid (after the food is removed). Alternatively, you can dye the eggs uncooked and blow out the yolks to keep the eggs for years to come. (Honestly, the first time I made natural dyed eggs, I used hard boiled eggs and kept them in an egg carton and packed them away with the other Easter decorations. My mom swore they would keep, and they did, for about five years. Then one broke. It was a wretched stench, but they did last a while.)
No matter which dyeing method you choose, there are a few hints to ensure success:
• The color of the food does not necessarily equate to the dye color. Red cabbage produces the most beautiful shade of blue. The onion skin renders a peachy tone, while the beets produce a pink shade. The coffee turns the egg a beautiful shade of mocha.
• The longer the egg sits in the dye, the deeper the shade becomes. You can leave it in as little as 10 minutes, or as long as overnight. I’ve had good success with a 30 minute dye job.
• Colors can be combined. For example, after a 30 minute dip in beet, a short bath in red cabbage makes a lovely dusty lavender shade.
• Turn the eggs over from time to time while dipping them, to ensure an even color.
• Beets stain everything it comes into contact with, so use care when working with them. Protect your cutting board, your clothes, your dish towels and your cuticles!
When removing the egg from the dye, use a slotted spoon and blot dry with a paper towel. This helps prevent splotchy coverage. Use one towel per color because the dye can transfer onto the egg surface, especially beets!
The second aspect of Easter egg making is decoration. A Polish tradition is to wind cotton kitchen twine around the egg in an interesting pattern before dyeing it. This create a sort of Spirograph effect on the egg. You can also use the string to bind a small leaf to the egg, which will appear as a white design on the dyed egg. Wax creates a “resist” to the dye, and it can be used to write names or initials, or to draw a design on the egg before dyeing. Post-dyeing decorations include stickers and drawing with acrylic paints or markers.
Natural egg dyes are definitely more labor intensive and time-consuming than a $2 dye kit from the grocery store. The results are more than worth it, and the process is a fascinating look into the natural world. Try it, and you’ll be hooked!