If you’ve ever been to a birthday party and seen a cake with someone’s photograph magically printed on it, you’ve seen the product of an edible ink printer. But how does someone’s baby picture make the journey from photograph to cake decoration?
Edible ink printers’ function in much the same way as regular printers do; the main difference is the materials used. The printer reads the image provided in the photo software, and ink cartridges containing special food coloring are loaded into the printhead. Depending on the type of edible ink printer you choose you can print directly on the baked goods or onto edible paper made of icing sheets or wafer paper, which are then placed on top of a cake or other dessert.
But just because they work the same way as your trusty ole’ Canon printer from college, it doesn’t mean you can go ahead and set up a specialty cake shop in your kitchen with the same printer you use to print your tax returns on.
Can You Print Edible Paper on a Regular Printer?
Technically, yes, if the printer is brand new and has never been used with regular ink. Practically, no, as regular printers are not designed to work with edible paper because the edible paper is made of a softer material (icing or wafer paper) and can lead to difficult-to-clean sugar clogging. You should also never use regular ink on edible paper as that is toxic and ingestion can lead to serious harm.
What Is Edible Paper and What Types Can Be Printed on?
Edible paper primarily comes in two types; Icing sheets (commonly known as frosting sheets) and wafer paper.
Icing sheets are usually thicker and sweeter than wafer paper and come with a plastic backing to help it through the printer while wafer paper is thinner and tasteless and can go through the printer with any backing.
Can You Use a Regular Printer With Edible Ink?
In short, see above. Even with a brand-new regular printer, the way in which edible ink flows and is controlled through an edible ink printer is different from how regular ink moves through a regular printer, and so mixing the two can result in weak colors and blurred resolution.
Additionally, even edible ink printers can have ink clogging if improperly cleaned or maintained, so if you’re using a regular printer, you would need to clean it very frequently to have any hope of keeping it functioning.
Unfortunately, most regular printers are not made to be taken apart and cleaned the way edible ink printers need to be, and if something does end up breaking while you are using the edible ink, your warranty will most likely be voided by the manufacturer, making repairing it even more difficult.
That said, there are several Canon inkjet printers that have been tested and been found to work well with edible inks. This is partially due to the fact that the printhead on these models is removable and can be cleaned whereas printers by other manufacturers such as Epson do not contain removable printheads.
What Is Edible Ink Made From?
Different edible ink sellers will have their own specific formulas, but the basic ingredients of edible ink are water, glycerin, ethanol, preservative, and FDA approved food colorants.
Cartridges are mixed in the same colors as regular ink: Black, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. The colors and vibrancy, however, will vary from seller-to-seller as well as from printer-to-printer, so the way one color might appear going through Printer A could very well look different from how it looks going through Printer B.
How Do You Make Edible Ink?
Ancient food colorings and dyes were originally made by using the coloring that came from fruits, saps, plants, and sugars, and were, of course, made by hand or simple machinery.
Edible ink, however, was developed in the early 2000s, and is engineered in a very specific way to make sure the viscosity, droplet size, charge, and other characteristics make it compatible with edible ink printers.
Because edible ink is ingestible, we only recommend buying ink that is FDA approved or certified by independent FDA Registered Facility which means that its considered free of harmful ingredients and compliant with federal standards and regulations.
If you’re trying to make it on your own, even if it’s just for your own consumption, you’re most likely going to have to decorate your goodies using something like edible paint, which is made with powdered food coloring and an alcohol-based extract, and can be applied directly onto the cake or dessert with a brush.
If you’ve already purchased the edible ink printer and paper, and are considering ways to save money, [making your own ink isn’t recommended].
Buying the edible ink recommended for your specific printer model will end up saving you money in the long run. But buyer beware, as with traditional home inkjet printers, using 3rd party ink can cause your printer to malfunction and lead to costly repair bills. There are edible ink companies that warranty their printers and edible ink so we recommend choosing one of them.
How Often Should You Use an Edible Ink Printer?
You should plan to use your edible ink printer at least once a week to keep the ink cartridges and printer heads from drying and clogging up. And don’t leave the idle for too long, this can cause water from the ink droplets to evaporate and leave behind sugar deposits, clogging up the printheads.
If you don’t have a cake waiting to be customized and are just performing regular maintenance, we recommend using a sheet of plain printer paper so you can save those tasty icing sheets for your next custom cake!
Not planning to use your printer for a while? You still want to at least power it on and off every other day to get the ink flowing to help prevent drying and clogging of the internal components.
How Do You Clean Edible Ink Printers?
You’ll know when it’s time for a cleaning when your colors start to appear duller than before or when you notice lines or missing colors.
For regular cleaning, you can run the printer’s cleaning cycle by finding the option in its menu and print a test to see if the clog is cleared. If it’s a small clog you are trying to clean out, this should take care of it. However, if it doesn’t, you can also use a steamer to loosen the clogs and clean them out.
Some ink sellers, such as Inkedibles, have printhead cleaning cartridges you can purchase. To use these, replace your regular cartridges with the cleaning cartridges, print a few pages with these installed, then run a printhead cleaning cycle. There are also cleaning solutions which you can buy separately to manually clean the printhead.
If you need an even deeper clean and have a Canon printer, you may consider something like the Canon Printhead Cleaning System for Edible Ink Printers (not affiliated). This system includes all the tools you will need to clean up the internal ink build up—a syringe, tubing with adapters, tweezers, soaking jar for the printhead bands, a bottle of non-toxic cleaner, gloves, and instructions.
Here are those instructions at a glance via Very Cherry Cakes, but be sure to clearly read the instructions that come with the kit:
- Open the printer to access the ink cartridges.
- Remove the ink cartridges. (Pro-tip: remove the yellow one first in case there is still ink in them; this prevents the colors cross-contaminating.)
- Lift the frame and remove the printhead.
- Open the soaking jar and pour in 1-2 tablespoons of the cleaning solution.
- Use the tweezers to remove the bands around the dispenser and place them into the soaking jar. If it’s been a while since you’ve used your printer, you may find large chunks of dried ink. You can use the tweezers to remove these as well.
- Once the bands are in the container, close the jar, shake it up, and set it aside to continue soaking.
- Then, clean your printhead under hot water and make sure the ink moves through each of the dispensers. (You may need to do this step a few times depending on the condition of your printer.)
- Attach the smaller tube to the syringe, draw a little bit of the cleaning solution, and attach the other end other of the tube to the dispensing holes in the printhead. Push the solution through the holes until it runs through the other side and wipe off the solution and excess ink. Do this for all the small holes.
- Repeat the process with the larger tube and hole.
- Remove the bands from the soaking jar. Rinse them under hot water and gently pat dry with a towel.
- Make sure the printhead is completely dry and replace the bands into the printhead.
- Then, replace the printhead and insert new cartridges as needed.
If all else fails, you may need to change out the printhead entirely.
How Long Do Edible Ink Printers Last?
With proper maintenance, a regularly used edible ink printer will last for at least 6-12 months; however, due to the varying nature of use, the quality of ink and electronic components, each printer will have different lifespans.
The lifespan will ultimately depend on how often you use your printer and any problems you may encounter while using it; if you’ve had your printer for a while, you might be able to give your old printer new life by replacing the printhead, but these can be pricey as well, and in some cases, it may be easier and more cost effective to simply buy a new printer.
How Long Can You Store Edible Ink?
Like food, edible inks contain a best by date as they contain food grade ingredients. However, unlike food, these inks which are comparable to food colorings have no taste or nourishing elements that would impact the intended use making the best by date less important.
Regardless, if the ink is FDA certified, the best by date will be required to be printed on the package. Because taste and quality will likely not be affected, you can feel comfortable using your edible ink past the best by dates but as goes with any food products if something doesn’t look or smell right be on the safe side and discard it.
The expiration date on the other hand is required to be placed by the manufacturer to let you know when a product is no longer safe to consume. The expiration date of edible ink is generally one year from the manufacture date or six months from the date the cartridge is opened.
Some higher-end printer models even include a feature that tracks the expiration for you and will notify you via the software when its approaching and once its passed. You’ll still be able to print with the expired ink, but most manufacturers don’t recommend it.
Whatever you end up doing, always keep in mind how often you plan to use the printer and how much you can invest, financially and timewise, in maintaining it.
If it turns out owning an edible ink printer isn’t the right choice for you, you can still purchase these fun custom cake and cupcake decorations for anywhere between $12 for a letter size sheet (8.5” x10.75”) to $15 for a legal-size sheet (8” x 13.5”) from online specialty shops that specialize in custom cake and cookie decorations.