Food Styling Secrets

Do you ever wonder why your roasted turkey doesn’t look anything like the plump, juicy, perfectly browned bird in the photos? Or why your layer cake never even comes close to looking like the perfect cake on the box? The answer: Food styling tricks.

A few years ago, I worked as a lifestyle editor at a magazine, and got to work with food stylists on photo shoots, and even do some styling myself. It was an eye-opening experience and quite the education.

The first time I worked with a professional food stylist in Chicago, she unrolled a tool kit like none other. It looked like she might be preparing for a 12-hour surgery with an auto repair on the side. I’m sure I drove her crazy with all my questions. What does this thing do? What’s that for? Food styling is a different world, all right, and here are just a few of the mysteries unraveled.

That juicy turkey? Raw on the inside, blow-torched and painted on the outside. When you roast a turkey so it’s cooked through, the meat pulls away from the bone and it deflates. To make the turkey retain its plump, juicy look, sometimes the outside of a raw turkey is browned with a blow torch. Parts that aren’t quite brown enough are often painted or otherwise manipulated.

The cake that looks so moist and perfect on the box has most certainly been manipulated in several ways. First, there is probably a half-inch sheet of styrofoam between the cake layers to hold them apart. The icing you see between the layers is piped in front of the styrofoam. Didn’t you wonder how the light, fluffy frosting held up that top cake layer?

And, have you ever noticed that when you cut into a cake, the cake squashes down where the knife has touched the sides? In the photos of the cut cakes, stylists use a special tool called a cake comb, which they use to literally comb the flattened parts out of the cake. That’s why the cake, even though it’s been cut, still has that amazing texture.

Most people know that ice cream in most food photos isn’t real–it’s a potato-based mixture that only looks like ice cream, but won’t melt under the hot lights. But most people don’t know that when you must use real ice cream in a photo (in an advertisement for ice cream, for example, you are not allowed to fake the product because of truth in advertising laws), it’s probably been scooped to perfection by a food stylist who specializes in scooping ice cream. Yes, that’s really somebody’s job, and it’s not as easy, or yummy, as it sounds. Trust me, you never, ever, want to eat food that’s been used on a photography set.

So how does this relate to the home cook? Don’t beat yourself up if your creation doesn’t look like the one in the picture. At least yours is edible. And I have to say, after spending hours with long tweezers arranging coconut shreds just so for one small shot, I cut myself a lot of slack.