Food styling tricks revealed

If you’ve ever flicked through the pages of a glossy food magazine you’ve seen what a food stylist can do.
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  • Updated:24 Jan 2002

02.Tricks of the trade

So what are some of the techniques stylists might use to counteract the tendency for food to discolour, sag and drip? Try these for size.

  • Meat tends to dry out and shrink when you cook it, so chances are the meat in the photo is only partially cooked, to keep it plump and juicy. Then it may be browned up with a coat of gravy browning or soy sauce and a hot air gun or blowtorch called upon to crisp up the edges. A final coat of oil gives a hot, fresh-looking shine. The perfect chook, gives an idea of the effect. You can do something similar with sausages to avoid explosions and burnt bits: simmer them first, dry them, then apply the paint, torch and oil. Hamburger being carefully constructed
  • A hamburger straight out of the wrap doesn’t usually look too inspiring (as most people would have experienced). That’s why creating a burger photo is a long and involved process. First find the perfect bun — you might have to trawl through hundreds, and even then it might need a few more sesame seeds glued on in strategic places.
    The meat patty is given a make-up job as described on the previous page, and perfect tomato slices and lettuce frills are chosen — hard to believe, but one stylist told us it might take her four lettuces to find the perfect leaf. Then you’ve got to construct the thing — layers are separated with cardboard or plastic to stop sogging and squashing, and pins hold it all in place and make sure the lettuce sits just so (see right).
  • You know what happens to breakfast cereal when it sits in milk — soggy cereal’s not a good look. How to fix it? PVA glue does a much better job than milk. The flakes stay put and stay crisp.
  • If you’re shooting a slice of cake, the air and lights make it dry out — but a shot of hairspray gets it back looking fresh and yummy.
  • Ever noticed chocolate sauce doesn’t stay put on top of ice cream for long? Get it to stay by cutting out a sauce-splodge-shaped piece of paper towel and putting it on the ice cream — then the sauce sticks to the towel.
  • And on the subject of ice cream — it melts, and fast. Some stylists still work with real ice cream — in editorial shots a bit of melt is OK: it makes the reader feel they want to lick it right off the page. But in product shots, it’s got to look perfect and that’s not easy — one tutorial on getting the perfect scoop of real ice cream is almost five A4 pages long and advises having as many as 20 two-litre tubs of ice cream on hand for each shot, not to mention more than 20 kilos of dry ice and an electric saw. 
  • Food stylist tool kitThe image, right, shows some of the tools food stylists use to get a shot that holds up till the photographer's finished.
  • If you’re not advertising the ice cream, you might decide to go fake — coloured mashed potato can make a reasonable substitute. Or instead there are various recipes using corn syrup, margarine, icing sugar and colouring to achieve just the right consistency — depending whether you want super-premium ice cream or a lower-fat look.
  • Maple syrup soaks into pancakes and goes a nasty dark colour — but not when you’ve sprayed the pancakes with fabric protector. Pin your carefully ‘scattered’ blueberries in place so they don’t get swept away with the syrup flow.
  • Plastic ice cubes (usually acrylic) don’t melt and spoil a drink shot. And to get that frosted look on the glass, spray it with a dulling spray and then give it a spritz with water spray.
  • Anyone who’s served up a slice of pie knows how it can disintegrate before you get it to the plate. Make it more stable by baking a pie full of instant mashed potato, then cut a slice, scoop out a little potato and put the filling on the side — the chunks neatly pinned in place.
  • If you want a perfect drip of sauce glistening on the side of your dessert, use a small piece of soft wax shaped like a drop and put it in place, then coat the drop with sauce for a perfect mid-drip shot. 
  • If you don’t want tomato sauce to run everywhere, mixing it with some tomato paste thickens it enough so it stays perfectly in place. Put it exactly where you want it with a syringe.
  • A simple white sauce with the right mix of colouring can double for sauces which are much more delicate beasts, like hollandaise. Noodles being styled
  • A thin painted-on coat of glycerine makes seafood look juicy. And tossing some liquid glucose through noodles makes them keep a hot, fresh look.
  • Stir-fries and things like pasta sauce are often not cooked according to the recipe — each vegie is selected and individually cooked, then put together with the sauce. Often the careful arrangement designed to look random is the result of painstaking work.

The wacky

We came across some truly bizarre techniques and suggestions while researching this article. The stylists we spoke to were by degrees horrified or amused by them — but they generally weren’t surprised that someone, somewhere (usually in the US) may have given it a go:

  • Maple syrup is much more popular in the US than here, and there are all sorts of tricks to getting it looking right, the most bizarre of which we heard being to use motor oil instead (as long as it’s the pancakes being advertised, not the syrup).
  • If your Swiss cheese isn’t looking photogenic enough, enhance its holes — use little round cutters or even straws for small holes.
  • Spray deodorant can give a nice frosting to grapes.
  • The perfectly shaped chicken leg can be achieved by injecting mashed potato under the skin and coating.

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