Delores Custer has been styling food for 30 years, working with cookbook publishers and print advertisers ranging from Red Lobster to Cuisinart, and now she’s written a book explaining all her tricks. Although Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera (Wiley, May) is really a guide for professionals, it features plenty of fun tidbits for anyone who wants to make their food look good. When should you use a white plate, and when should you use a colored plate? How do you easily cut layers of cake the same thickness? Find the center of pies and cakes? Get that pesky “Sunkist” stamp off a lemon? Make pancakes that are an even color and consistent in size? Read on for a sampling of the book’s food styling factoids, and for truly drool-worthy photographs, visit Custer’s website.
Sometimes style trumps substance. Cheap cheese works best when photographing a sandwich, since the expensive, high-quality stuff dries out too fast. And cheaper brands of ice cream have more air, added gums, and produce a nicer “barked” or “ridged” surface when scooped than high-fat brands.
Perfect grill marks. They’re usually best done when the patty has cooled down. Custer uses a torch and a metal skewer.
The secret shrimp weapon. Tiger shrimp may be un-PC [http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx?fid=44], but they produce the brightest red color when cooked. To cook shrimp in water, add just a little cider vinegar to the water; it seems to produce a brighter red color.
Tampons’ alternate use. Known in the business as T-28s, tampons produce localized steam. Soak them in water, zap them in the microwave, and place them behind food.
Oatmeal is boring. So try to find interesting whole grains to arrange on top, or add melting brown sugar, flowing syrup, or chunks of fruit to add pizzazz.
Milk and cookies. And soap. To make a glass of milk look as if it’s just been poured, add clear liquid dishwashing detergent to some milk, beat it with a whisk, and then spoon the desired amount of bubbles onto the surface of the glass of milk you are shooting.
The perfect scoop. Use wires or long, double-handled cheese knives to cut lengthwise through containers of ice cream to get several good, clean surfaces to scoop from since you need to scoop from a flat surface.
Just picked. Custer uses the Hypo-200 glue applicator (with needle syringe) for jobs such as placing one or two drops of moisture onto a tomato slice or lettuce leaf.
Crowd control. The mistake you often see with kebab arrangements is food packed too tightly on the skewer; it is very flat and uninteresting.
Center your yolks. To ensure that an egg yolk is in the center of a hard-boiled egg, turn the egg carton on its side the night before cooking
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.