Dare to Dye Differently:
Natural Dying of Easter Eggs

Melody Kraus
Adams County Master Gardener

The first day of spring has arrived after an Arctic cold February and the entrance of March as a lion. However, an early Easter is nipping at their heels. So, our thoughts turn to candy, flowers and decorations. Egg dying has been a long exercised practice to celebrate this holiday. The tradition derives from history and combines science and art.

To the best of historians' knowledge, the technique began before Christianity. The Saxons, a tribe of people living in northern Germany, believed that the egg symbolized the rebirth of life in the spring and, therefore, was considered a symbol of fertility. Early Christians in Mesopotamia (the area of modern Iran and Iraq) dyed eggs red to imitate the blood of Christ which was shed during His crucifixion. Later, the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches adopted this tradition. Since the egg shells symbolized Christís tomb, cracking them represented His Resurrection. Eventually, Pope Gregory I (circa 540-604) merged the traditions and symbols of the pagan spring festivals of the goddess Eostre with the Christian celebration of Easter.

Based on simple science, the secret to making an egg change color is vinegar. Shells are composed of mostly calcium. Vinegar is a mild acid and barely weakens the shell, allowing any dye to be absorbed. Therefore, when vinegar is mixed with colored water and contacts the shell, the liquid tints its surface.

Dying eggs naturally produces the same colors as the ones found in commercially produced kits. For example, according to www.allrecipes.com/howto/dyeing-easter-eggs, yellow can be produced from yellow onion skins or ground turmeric; orange from paprika; pink from cranberry juice concentrate, raspberries or red grape juice; red from beets; blue from blueberries, red cabbage or grape juice concentrate; and brown from strongly brewed coffee or tea or their grounds.

Simple instructions appear on-line at www.wholefoodsmarket.com. To begin, boil the eggs as normal for hard-boiled ones. Place your ingredients for coloring in a pot or pan with 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium or low. Cook for 10 minutes. Then, strain the liquid through a sieve and stir in 1 teaspoon of distilled white vinegar. Compost or dispose of any solid natural materials. Finally, allow the liquid to cool to room temperature.

Place the colored liquid in cups or other containers and submerge the eggs so that they are completely covered; monitor for tone and turn them gently for even coloration. When the shade is acceptable, remove the eggs to dry and place them in an empty egg carton or on paper towels. Avoid touching them, because the color may rub off while wet. After drying, rubbing a little vegetable oil on the shells can enliven the hues.

Tones will vary and not be as bright or intense as the ones from kits, which contain artificial dyes, not natural ones. Furthermore, the required soaking time is longer: thirty minutes to a few hours or even overnight. You will get deeper, darker colors with prolonged exposure.

For the best possible results, you may wish to take advantage of some of the following tips. Canned produce creates pale colors. Boiling the materials for coloring in water with the vinegar already added results in deeper colors. (See http://www.plantea.com/Easter-eggs-natural-dyes.htm for a discussion of the hot and cold methods of dying.) Use brown eggs for different shades. Finally, choose an enamel, glass, or Teflon pot because aluminum, copper, iron, or tin ones alter the hue of the dye.

Remember the eggs do not have to be solid colors. Rub or squish fresh blueberries and cranberries directly onto dry shells to create soft blues and pinks. Mix them up for blotchy patterns or overlap them. Let them dry before continuing. Also, wrap rubber bands around the shells. Remove the bands after the process and the result will be white lines surrounded by color. However, remove some or all of them approximately at the halfway point to create multi-shaded eggs. To experiment with color, put eggs first in one dye; then, let dry and place in another. Finally, the ingredients that usually have the quickest results are onion skins, turmeric, and coffee, which may be helpful when working with younger children.

Be creative and show off your works of art. Remember to follow all food safety precautions and enjoy your holiday.

Read other articles by Melody Kraus