What to know about the latest food trend of unicorn water

The most interesting thing about unicorn water is that it can be used as a natural, additive-free food colouring

Unicorn water became a trend in 2019. Courtesy Scott Price 
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You've already seen the cupcakes, sipped the milkshakes and possibly even slathered cream cheese on the multicoloured bagel, and yet the craze for food inspired by the mythical unicorn shows no sign of galloping off into the sunset just yet. 

Unicorn water is another beast ­altogether, though. The first thing to note about this up-and-coming incarnation of the colour-crazy trend is the absence of refined sugar, glitter, rainbow sprinkles and artificial food colouring that have so far acted as something of a signifier. That’s not to say unicorn water isn’t still ever so pretty, with its own sense of mystique.

Try the trend

At this point, homemade unicorn water is the way to go – and it’s really quite easy to make. Roughly chop half a red cabbage, put in a saucepan and cover with 500 millilitres of water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat. After five minutes or so, the water will have turned indigo, with the colour deepening over time. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and the liquid magically (yes, magically – this is unicorn water, after all) takes on a pinkish tone.

The science behind it

Cast your mind back to high school ­science lessons and you might well ­remember learning that, just like beetroot, red cabbage contains a natural pigment called anthocyanin, which can be used as a basic pH indicator. In this case, the anthocyanin in the cabbage leaches out into the water and dyes it – the higher the ratio of cabbage to water, the darker the colour achieved. When an acid is introduced (for example, lemon), it reacts with the anthocyanin and turns the water pink.

How to use it

There are plenty of people who advocate drinking unicorn (cabbage) water. The cruciferous vegetable is packed with vitamin C, contains beta-carotene, fibre and folic acid, and is known for both its immunity-boosting and antioxidant properties.

If you can’t quite get your head around guzzling the strained and cooled water straight up, or if it’s too reminiscent of the 1980s cabbage soup fad diet, then you could try blitzing both the cabbage and water in a blender and treating it as the base for a fruit smoothie.

Still not convinced?

Fear not, unicorn water isn’t just for drinking. The most interesting thing about it is that it can be used as a natural, additive-free food colouring. This is quite the game changer if you or your little ones dream of making rainbow cakes of many colours, but can’t quite embrace the inevitable sugar rush and subsequent downward spiral that ensues, thanks to all those E numbers.

Use unicorn water to make cake icing. Scott Price 

Here’s how to do it: put the roughly chopped leaves from a small head of cabbage in a saucepan filled with 600ml of water and simmer for 30 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by approximately two-thirds. Remove the cabbage from the pan and discard, then add two tablespoons of honey, agave or maple syrup (this is optional), and continue to heat the liquid until it is a deep purple and has reduced to about 125ml. Leave it to cool completely, then gradually add it to cake batter, ­buttercream or royal icing until the desired colour is achieved (for pink icing, just add lemon juice to the reduced liquid).

If you want to extend your natural food-dye options beyond these blues, purples and pinks, saffron and ground turmeric are great for creating subtle shades of yellow-orange, while matcha powder will provide a lovely green hue, and activated charcoal will allow jet black icing.

For keen Instagrammers

Say hello to unicorn noodles. In a similar vein, these are made by soaking glass noodles in unicorn water until they turn shades of pastel blue and purple. While naysayers might dismiss doing so as pointless, given that it makes no difference to the flavour of the dish, we say au contraire. It’s a fun little project that’s perfect for entertaining crafty kids during school holidays, and the noodles look so good you’ll struggle to resist sharing snaps of them on social media – #unicorngoals.

Unicorn noodles. Scott Price 

For maximum visual impact, pile the noodles into a serving bowl, surrounded by a rainbow of other ingredients – think thinly sliced radishes, chopped green salad leaves, crumbled feta and wedges of lime.