When decorating cakes, cookies, or macarons, it’s common for bakers to use food coloring diluted with vodka to paint their designs. Vodka is used instead of water because the alcohol evaporates faster, limiting any texture changes in the food. Only the color is left behind and the flavor of the dessert is unaffected. After decorating my own macarons with this technique, I thought I’d apply it to my sourdough loaves.
Here, I’ll share my go-to recipe, tools, and the baking experiments I did to find out what works better: omitting vs using rice flour, water vs vodka, and when to add finer details. I hope you find these tips helpful and this technique to be a fun addition to your sourdough designs!
I use this simple sourdough recipe by Alexandra. Sometimes, I like to change it up by altering the hydration level (370-385g of water), substituting 20% of the bread flour with different types of wheat (einkorn, red fife, etc.), or laminating in other ingredients such as cheese, peppers, or olives.
If I think a certain design will take me a long time to paint and I’m worried about the dough overproofing, I freeze the loaf in its proofing basket for about 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes, I’ll start preheating my oven with the dutch oven inside, gather all of my tools, and turn the loaf out onto a parchment-lined tray or large plate. If it’s just a quick design, I’ll skip the freezer method and will go ahead and paint.
- Sourdough loaf: Unbaked, already proved loaf in its proofing basket.
- Rice flour
- Paint brushes: Keep a variety of sizes on hand, especially a fine detail brush.
- Food coloring: My favorite brand is ChefMaster Liqua-Gel Food Coloring. Another popular brand is Americolor!
- Water or Vodka: A lot of bakers use Everclear vodka.
- Paint palette: I don’t have a fancy palette—I just use a large plate!
- Lame: I use this lame by Wiremonkey.
- Edible food markers: For extra details post-bake. Slightly easier to use than a paintbrush, but limited in colors/shades.
Is Rice Flour Necessary?
If you want the colors to remain relatively the same from pre-bake to post-bake, then YES! Dusting your loaf with rice flour stops the colors from drastically darkening. In the loaf above, you can see how much the colors changed in my Handsome Squidward painting post-bake. The photos below show a loaf that I liberally applied rice flour to before painting. Even though the colors slightly darkened, you can still see all of the different features and shades.
Dilute with Water or Vodka?
When using either, I mix a few drops of the liquid with my food coloring. This dilutes the food coloring, making it thinner and easier to paint with.
Since vodka is mainly used because it evaporates quickly, I don’t bother to use it in my pre-bake painting. I use water because it’ll quickly evaporate while the bread is baking. I’ve tried painting with both water and vodka pre-bake, and the texture of the crust was similar.
Post-bake, I use either water or vodka. It really depends on how much time I have to let my bread dry. If I’m in a time crunch, I’ll use vodka. If I have a lot of time to let it dry, I’ll use water. Either way, the texture of the crust still doesn’t change when you’re painting post-bake.
When to Add Details
After the bread is done baking, I let it cool for a few minutes. I paint the loaf while it’s still warm, fixing any discolorations, adding outlines, or writing words. I use a fine detail paintbrush + food coloring diluted in water or vodka, and some edible food markers. I add these details post-bake because when you’re painting pre-bake, the colors tend to bleed. Drawing outlines or making fine details can be difficult because the paint spreads out, making it look somewhat messy.
In the video below, I tried adding small details to the character on the left before baking. To be honest, I messed up his eye, which wasn’t proportionate to the rest of his face! Then, the outline of his eye started bleeding through the other colors on his skin and I ended up having to kind of smudge it out.
I decided to leave the smudged eye alone and bake the loaf. When it came out of the oven, I simply painted over the smudge and used a fine detail paintbrush to redo his eye (I painted this off-camera). I did a lot of touch-ups to this loaf post-bake.
In the next video, you can see how I painted the main shapes before baking, saving the outlines/details for later. You can also watch the bread proving as I’m painting it—there was a huge bubble on part of the orange bench before I put it in the oven. I ended up adding a few slashes in that area to get rid of the bubble, in case the dough split there while baking.
Always score the perimeter of your painting. If you forget to score your bread, the dough will split wherever it wants while baking. Additionally, sneak in some light scores within your painting to help relieve extra pressure buildup, which would otherwise lead to other cracks/splits in the dough. You can try adding very surface-level slashes into parts of the background or use these light scores as decorative elements. In these pictures below, I share one example of when I didn’t add extra scores.
Here, I painted the poet Amanda Gorman (art inspired by @bbbarrios). After taking this photo, I scored the perimeter of the painting. However, I did not add smaller slashes within the painting.
Since I didn’t add any extra cuts into the painting, the loaf ended up splitting where her face is. If I were to go back, I would add slashes into the pink background or parts of her hair to allow the pressure to be released from those areas instead.
- If you’re worried about the dough overproofing while you paint, freeze the loaf in its proofing basket for ~30 minutes before turning the dough out.
- Before painting, liberally apply rice flour to the surface of your loaf.
- Dilute your gel food coloring in water. Don’t add finer details—only paint the main shapes/colors.
- Score the perimeter of your design. Add a few slashes within the painting to stop the dough from splitting in extra places when baking.
- Bake according to your recipe.
- After baking, paint the loaf to fix any discolorations/add finer details. You can use an edible food marker. No need to wait for the loaf to cool completely.
- If you’re in a time crunch, use vodka so the paint dries faster. If you have time, you can use water.
How to Paint Sourdough
- Sourdough loaf, pre-baked
- Rice flour
- Paint brushes
- Gel food coloring
- Edible food markers
- Paint palette (I just use a large plate)
- Water or vodka
- Parchment Paper
- Dutch Oven
- Set up your work station: a) Pour your water/vodka into a cup, and place your paintbrushes in it. Keep your paint palette/plate and gel food coloring nearby.b) Preheat your oven + dutch oven/baking steel according to your recipe.
- Prepare your bread:a) If you are worried about how long you will take to paint and don't want your dough to overproof, you can freeze your dough in its basket for ~30 minutes. Proceed with the following steps. b) Place parchment paper on top of a large plate or tray. Turn out your sourdough onto the plate/tray.c) Liberally dust the surface of your sourdough with rice flour. d) If needed, I lightly outline my drawing using a cookie scribe/toothpick.
- Squeeze your choice of gel food coloring onto the plate. Using your wet paintbrush, mix in a little of the water or vodka into the paint. Mix different colors to create shades of your choice. Go ahead and paint! Note: Do not focus on outlining anything in this step. It is easier for the food coloring to bleed into the unbaked dough, so focus your time on painting the main shapes of your design. After baking, you can go in with fine detail brush or edible food marker to outline, write words, etc.
Score your loaf:
- Using your lame, score the perimeter of your painting. This will cause the bread to burst at the edges of your painting, allowing your design to stay in tact. Also sneak in some VERY light scores into the painting to prevent extra splits in the dough.
- Place your scored loaf into your dutch oven/baking steel. Bake according to your recipe. Let cool on wire rack for a few minutes.
Touch up your design:
- Depending on the brand and how much you diluted your gel food coloring, the colors may fade in the oven. If so, you can repaint parts of the loaf. You can also add any finer details at this point. It may be preferable to use vodka because the paint will dry faster. You can also use edible markers.
Some other painted loaves: