You Can Rely on Brown

With the controversy that sometimes surrounds food colorings, it’s easy to get lulled into the assumption that coloring food is a recent phenomenon. In fact it’s been practiced for millennia, especially among the Romans and Greeks who were renown for their manufacture of caramel color. Caramel color? Isn’t that what they put in soft drinks? Why yes it is, but as any ancient Roman will tell you, it can be used to color sauces, breads and beer too.

The process of making caramel color is fairly straightforward. All you need to make some is a little sugar and a little heat. Of course the ancients didn’t have much crystalline sugar lying around, but there was plenty of honey, which works every bit as well (actually even better). You simply heat it until the simple sugar molecules start to break apart, about 340 degrees, at which point it begins to cease being sugar and starts to become, well…nobody is quite sure what. But it looks good and it tastes good. What more do you need to know?

Today the making of caramel color happens via some very elaborate contraptions indeed, but the basic process is the same. Some kind of sugar or carbohydrate (long chain sugar) is exposed to acid (citric acid say) to break it into its simple sugar components. Then those components are heated until the bonds holding their atoms together break, and the pieces recombine into all kinds of molecular oddities, only a few of which are there even terms for.

But boy, is that stuff handy. It’s used in sauces, breads and beer of course, but also candy, condiments, soups, vinegars, hard liquor, cereals, baked goods, gravies, pancake syrup, seasoning mixes, fruit preserves, chocolates, liqueurs, pet food and (you knew this one) carbonated beverages. In fact carbonated beverage makers use so much caramel color, most manufacturers don’t even bother shipping it to them. They just build a factory next door and connect a pipe. Seriously. Bet the Romans never thought of that one.

5 thoughts on “You Can Rely on Brown”

  1. I think one of my pastry books mentions how you can make your own “blackjack” in a pinch.

  2. There is a company in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville that makes caramel coloring. In the mid 90’s a railroad tanker of some precursor chemical got hot and exploded and dusted the entire neighborhood with green snow.

    1. D. D. Williamson. I know them well. But I haven’t lived here long enough to remember that particular incident. My house would probably benefit from something like that. It really needs a paint job.

      Thanks Blue!

      – Joe

  3. I’ve been using ‘Kitchen Bouquet’ for almost 40 years to give more color to my gravies, although when I worked in French restaurants we browned beef bones to obtain color in the stock.

    1. There’s a bottle of that in my cabinet even now! Nothing is more unappetizing that a pale gravy, no?

      But I agree that if you can do it the honest way, so much the better. A good brown chicken stock made with roasted bones looks better and tastes better.

      Thanks, Jose!

      – Joe

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