How to Be a Cook Who Makes Food Look Beautiful
Have you ever sat before a plate of food that looked so irresistible and beautiful, you had to stop and audibly admire it before plunging in with your fork? Perhaps it was a surprisingly photogenic grain bowl at home, or a gleaming swirl of pasta at a restaurant. Why does food look so stunning at times, but not at others? How do you get food that tempts you to sneak your phone out for a photo at the table? The secrets of plating and presentation aren’t just fussy dressing for stylists and chefs. The last flourish of presentation can be so satisfying, so happiness-inducing, we have to share this as part of your education as a cook. With a few simple techniques you too can put together plates that look as marvelous as they taste.
Is How Food Looks Important for a Home Cook?
- Today’s Lesson: Plating and Presentation
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Hold up. So you don’t post food on Instagram, you would never pull out your phone at a restaurant, and, honestly, plating and presentation sound so fussy. Come on; is this important? Yes it is, although 90 percent of the time, presentation isn’t a big deal. After all, you only have so much time in the day, and it’s far more important that dinner be filling, tasty, and healthy. But getting a plate or a platter looking good has its place. There’s a reason restaurants and food publications (like us) put time and care into it: Food is tastier when it looks delicious.
Even if you don’t work at a restaurant or for a food magazine, there will be times when making your dishes look good is important — when hosting a dinner party, when trying to impress a date, or even when you want to zhuzh up a dish you made to show off on Instagram. You don’t need fancy equipment or highly technical skills to accomplish this (no, we’re not recommending squeeze bottles or tweezers, sorry!). There are a few principles and techniques anyone can learn to make their dishes look as utterly delicious as they taste.
4 Rules for Making Food Look Beautiful
There are four rules for plating and plattering food to look its best. These are the rules to internalize; good cooks often just do these automatically when serving up dinner.
1. Choose a neutral dish, not too big or too small.
High-end restaurants put time and thought into the plates they use, and professional photo studios keep dozens, if not hundreds, of different plates, silverware, napkins, and glasses on hand to meet a variety of different situations. This is totally not reality or desirable for a home cook, of course. Most people have one, maybe two, sets of plates.
Here’s how to make the dishes and serving pieces you already have work for the food, not against it. (Many of these tips and rules apply both to plated food and to platters and even casserole dishes, since often home cooks are serving family-style, not plated.)
- Put food on plates (or platters) that make the food feel abundant, but leave a little room between edge and the food. If the plate is too big, the food will feel lost. If the plate’s too small, it will look overstuffed. Therefore, choose a plate (and an amount of food) that makes the dish feel generous, but leave the lip still visible. Plates should have some room around the edges. Bowls should look filled, with food slightly more mounded up. When filling a platter, follow the shape of the platter as you arrange the food, and leave at least a quarter to a third of the plate’s volume empty around the edges.
- Opt for white plates. If you scroll through our Instagram feed (or that of nearly any food media), you’ll notice most of the plates are either white, or mostly white — and the rest tend to be natural, muted colors like charcoal or pastel blue. This is because bold, bright colors compete with the food (restaurants know this!). You can’t go wrong with white, or off-white colors.
- Choose curved plates and platters. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s often easier to make food look good on rounded plates and platters vs. square or rectangular.
Need to source new plates? If you’re looking at a set of bright-red, square plates in your cupboard and thinking you want something new, a good place to look is your local thrift store. It’s often easy to find beautiful, simple plates there without having to invest a lot in them.
2. Place the food to suggest abundance.
When considering between what is pretty and what is tasty, tasty should win out every time. After all, the point is to make people want to eat. Luckily, those two things are not often at odds. Food is often prettiest when it’s most delicious and looks full and abundant — at peak freshness and cooked well. People respond to caramelized browning, bright green herbs, and fresh, ripe colors. Here are some tips to make the dish look even better (and tastier).
- Pile food up, rather than spreading it out. If you’re serving a couple of slices of meatloaf, for instance, place one partly on top of the other. This helps give a sense of abundance.
- Follow the rule of three. You don’t want everything to look perfectly even, so it helps to include some odd-numbered items. This may mean setting a protein next to two sides, piling three pancakes onto a plate, or only putting the crème fraîche on one piece of French toast, instead of both, as pictured further down in the post.
- Leave room around the edges. Negative space applies here just as it does in the art world. Leaving room around the food helps draw the eye to the actual food.
- Don’t crowd. Similarly, don’t crowd food onto the plate. Leaving a little space helps add context.
3. Wipe the splatter off the rim.
This is one of the simplest and most easily overlooked ways to make a plate, platter, or even casserole dish of food look more presentable. After putting the food on the dish, but before garnishing, give the rims of the actual plate or dish a swipe with a clean dish towel or cloth, just to wipe off any fingerprints or food smudges.
If there’s something stuck on the plate, don’t bust out the soap! A mild solution of white vinegar and water will help, but go easy — you don’t want the plate to smell vinegary.
4. Garnish! (It’s about romance, not parsley.)
What is a garnish? It’s a final touch, a little swipe of shiny butter or a green shimmer of pesto to give a dish a tiny extra pop of romance. It’s woo-woo but true: The garnish is the little sparkle of love, like putting on lipstick or straightening your collar before a date with your adored partner. You don’t have to do it — you’re committed and going to have a great time regardless — but the garnish, the last peek in the mirror, shows that you’re excited for this encounter. You care. You choose to add a touch of romance.
So any dish you love and want to romance can and should be garnished. This goes double (triple!) for family-style food that might otherwise look a little heavy — the enchilada casserole (hit it with some fresh cheddar and cilantro!), the radically simple egg casserole (drizzle on some olive oil!), the platter of rotisserie chicken from the grocery store (girl, that’s what pesto is FOR). The days when every single plate had a pile of curly parsley and a bed of lettuce are gone, but garnishes are eternal to food.
A good garnish is always edible, and is often low-key. A garnish can be as simple as a few chopped herbs, a dollop of sour cream, or even some coarsely ground pepper or flaky salt. Simply think about what would provide a touch of contrasting color, flavor, or texture. The best garnishes are ingredients that are already in the dish (for example, celery leaves could garnish stuffing that has celery in it; lemon zest could garnish a lemon bar). But as long as it adds a delicious flavor, it will work. Serve up the food, give the rim of the plate a quick wipe, and then add garnish to make everything look pretty.
Contrast, contrast, contrast. The key to making most dishes look just a little better, pretty enough to draw a moment of admiration, is contrast. White chicken and dumplings? Pop some pepper on. Creamy risotto with butternut squash? Contrast color and texture with a handful of chopped green pistachios.
But in the end, anything close to hand and natural can give that last pop of contrast and romance. You can never go wrong with a drizzle of olive oil to add a perky shine, black pepper for drama, or a sprinkle of that five-dollar marvel, Maldon flaky salt. (If you don’t have this in your cupboard, why not? Five dollars! Amazon it! We’re gonna ask you tomorrow if you did this yet!) And again, as most of us aren’t actually plating up food to serve every night, this all applies in spades to a full dish of food as well.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
If you do nothing else, when serving food where you want to make a good impression, make sure there’s space around the edge of the plate or platter and give the rim a wipe-down with a clean cloth. This very simple gesture — possibly not even consciously noticed by your guests — can transform a plate of food into something just slightly more elegant, and worthy of presentation.
What You Don’t Need to Know
You don’t need to know how to make things look perfect. Perfect is the enemy. Don’t spend a lot of time fussing over your dishes. You don’t want your food to look overly precious, or like it was methodically arranged on a platter. You also don’t want to spend the time methodically arranging food on the platter! Otherwise it will get cold, and will no longer be as delicious. If it’s taking you more than a few moments, then you’re taking too long.
How the Pros Get Mouthwatering Photos
When you aren’t just serving the food, but want to take a picture of it as well, there are a few more things you can do to get a #nofilter photo that looks as delicious as the dish does in real life. Here are a few tips on getting that social-ready shot.
Find some natural light.
The best place to take a photo of a well-made dish isn’t necessarily on your counter or dining room table: It’s wherever you can set the plate near a window. This is because natural light — which is to say light from the sun, as opposed to from an overhead lightbulb or lamp — has a much wider range than standard household light bulbs, which tend to make photos skew a little yellow or a little blue. You can invest in special wide-spectrum lights to help mimic the feel of natural light — this is what studios do, so they don’t have to rely on the weather to get good shots. But unless you’re taking photos all the time, the cheapest and easiest solution is to just find a window.
But avoid direct light.
In general, however, you want to avoid putting your food directly into sunlight. This will cause harsh shadows, which you don’t want. If the sun is pouring right through the window you’re using, try pulling the curtains or holding up a translucent white cloth between the food and the light — a white napkin works well for this. It will give just a little of shade, and even the light out.
Upgrade your garnishes.
When making something specifically to impress, the garnish can be extra important. You can pre-chop garnishes, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time cutting things while your food is ready and waiting. Chopped herbs can be kept covered with a damp towel in the fridge. If you’re using garnishes that are likely to oxidize (radishes, apple slices, avocado) you can just submerge them in water. If the herbs you have on hand look a little wilted, give them a dunk in ice water before chopping — they’ll perk right back up. (Just dry them off well.) If you’re garnishing with salt and pepper, you want big, visible chunks. A nice pepper mill set to coarse will work — and a flaky sea salt (like Maldon) will look best. And if you want to deliver a fine stream of a condiment or sauce, a plastic squeeze bottle will give you a lot more precision.
Dissect what your favorite Instagrammers do.
Of course, one of the best ways to start taking great photos is to follow accounts that post photos you really love. And then look for a photo that really stands out to you, but don’t just casually double-tap the heart and scroll on: Take a moment to look at the elements, and pick out what you like. (You can just follow our 15-minute assignment, below!) The next time you’re taking a photo, you can try to incorporate those elements into your shot.
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.
- A nice pepper mill set to coarse for garnishing with pepper.
- A plastic squeeze bottle for adding sauces.
- If you’re looking to update plateware, both Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table are great places to start.
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
Review your favorite food accounts on Instagram. If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, take a look at your favorite food accounts on Instagram (in case you need some, we’ll list ours, and those of a few of our favorite bloggers, below.) Pick several photos that really stand out to you, and write down some of the elements you most like: How is the food arranged? How closely is it cropped? What sort of background is it on? What are the garnishes, and what other items — plates, forks, napkins, drinks — are in frame?
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Review your food photos. If you haven’t, complete the 15 minute assignment, above. Then take a look through your own photos of food you’ve cooked, and pick your best (or most recent). And compare it to the photos you found most striking on social media.
Check your work: What works about your photo? What could be improved? What would you want to do differently if you were taking that photo again? How would you garnish the dish? How would you arrange the food? Would you use the same plate, or would another plate in your cupboard have worked better? What elements would make the dish look more appetizing?
60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Make a photo-ready dish. If you haven’t, complete the 15-minute assignment, above. Then find a dish that seems both beautiful and makable — and which has a recipe you can make. Consider the dish you would use to plate the food (or if the food isn’t plated, the pan you would cook it/display it in). Pay close attention to the props and styling. Then make the dish, and try to plate it the same as in the photo. Garnish it, put it in a well-lit space, and take some photos!
Check your work: How do your photos compare with the originals? How close are they? Compare the photo to other photos you’ve taken. What is working, and what isn’t, in your photo? If you like the photo you took, share it on Instagram with the tag #kitchncookingschool!
What It Takes to Be Your Own Food’s Food Stylist
Even a small amount of attention to the way food is plated and garnished can go a long way toward making things look much more beautiful. As we said above, it’s not something that, 90% of the time, is even necessary to do. But having the ability to dress a dish up is an easy way to wow family and guests, and a fun way to elevate even a simple meal.
Meet Your Classmates
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.