The art and not-really-science of pretty plating

So I finally decided to give making an amuse bouche a go, spurred on mainly by the singularly amazing amuse bouche spoons Jenn posted at My Boyfriend Cooks For Me. “How precious,” I thought. “I must put tiny amounts of tiny things on tiny spoons.” So I did, and the things were: blueberry foam (because I’ve been wanting to try making a foam for ages), baked flour nuggets (because I could kind of imagine what baked flour tasted like but I wanted to try it for real to confirm) and poor man’s sous-vide blueberries (where you use a sandwich bag, your lungs and a bowl of water over a saucepan of boiling water because you don’t have the $3000 of essential professional sous-vide equipment).

Then I arranged it all as prettily as possible on the spoon.

Then science told me I did it wrong.

That arrangement — all wrong. Shameful. Offensive.

Well, I don’t know if I’d say science told me, per se. This type of thing is a bit on the way to earning the inverted commas of “science”, but at the moment it’s more like you call it science but you narrow your eyes when you say it and look sideways in a shifty manner. Like, yeah… sciencesure

This study looked at the effect of balance and complexity of food arrangement on a plate upon the perceived attractiveness of that food, the willingness of people to try the food, and the ultimate liking of the food. Balance was investigated by making the food arrangement either (durr) balanced or unbalanced, whereas complexity was investigated by using either a monochromatic or coloured palette for the bits of food.

Now I have to say upfront that I have a number of issues with this study. The food presentation would baffle most people except perhaps the hardiest degustation-menu-ordering molecular-gastronomy-lovers. Seriously, it’s slices of water chestnut along with smears of tahini, and the tahini is either normal coloured or artificially coloured to be red and green. How something so stylised and so blatantly unappetising can be used to generalise results to, say, how to plate a confit salmon fillet and wilted greens or how to arrange berries as suitably as possible on a tart… I don’t know. But I’ll work with what I’ve got. I’ll try.

From the ratings given by the 68 undergraduate New Jersey university students, we find that balance and colour do affect the attractiveness of the food (at least to undergraduate New Jersey university students). And because the photos in the paper are copyrighted by the publisher, you have the honour of seeing my beautiful diagrammatic illustrations instead. Keep in mind: the little circles are water chestnut slices, the dot and the stripes are smears of tahini.

So, using colour in a balanced food arrangement…

… vastly improves attractiveness ratings compared to monochromatic balanced food arrangements…

Strangely enough, however, incorporating colour into an unbalanced food arrangement…

… makes it less attractive than a monochromatic unbalanced food arrangement…

Now the authors say that the explanation for these findings is that colour adds complexity in the balanced arrangement and is therefore visually pleasing, but the colour carries with it weight (it is perceived as being visually “heavier” than a lack of colour). So adding colour to the unbalanced arrangement causes the addition of weight towards the right-hand side of the plate, therefore causing even less balance, and the plating is perceived as less attractive. That’s certainly an interesting interpretation… given that there was actually no significant difference reported between the attractiveness ratings colour-unbalanced and monochromatic-unbalanced arrangements. Colour significantly increased the attractiveness of the balanced arrangement (from 16.8 on a rating scale of -100 to 100 for the monochromatic-balanced to 48.7 for the colour-balanced), but the colour-unbalanced and monochromatic-unbalanced just weren’t that different (12.4 and 19.4 respectively).

But we have to keep in mind that this is just ratings of attractiveness, as if the food was simply an artwork to be evaluated. What would be more interesting is the effect of balance and colour on the willingness of people to try the food. And it turns out… monochromatic is better. People were significantly more willing to try the monochromatically presented food:



But then I don’t buy that either. Sure, monochrome colours might make people feel like they’re taking less of a risk than bright colours (the authors explain that the plain brownish colours of the monochromatic arrangement might be more normal and familiar to people). However… maybe if you want to know if people are willing to try something colourful or not, you shouldn’t manipulate colour by adding it to something that’s not usually that colour. It has the texture of tahini, it has the smell of tahini… but it’s bright red. What the hell is it? Whereas if it was a bright red tomato purée… not so weird, huh?

In the end, we find out that the final outcome being assessed, liking for the food, is not affected by balance or colour — hurrah! So the effects of balance and colour on liking were non-significant, although I do wonder if increasing the number of participants would detect a difference, because there seems to be a trend there: monochromatic arrangements were enjoyed more than coloured arrangements, e.g. a rating of -1.7 for colour-balanced versus 13.3 for mono-balanced, and 2.2 for colour-unbalanced versus 13.6 for mono-unbalanced. (Granted, the standard deviations for the ratings are massive, i.e. the ratings were all over the place, so it’s difficult to know if it is an actual trend or not without the original data plus more data.)

So there you go. Maybe opt for a balanced food presentation, and maybe make it coloured. Or don’t. Or recreate a Piet Mondrian artwork with your food and see how that goes with your dinner guests. Who knows? Science doesn’t. Yet.

ETA: Check out the compositions from the Ikea cookbook — adhering to the science or defying it??

(Now I feel dirty for having written about such an underwhelming and inconsequential bit of research. It’s a little bit nifty, but… I promise arrestingly interesting genetics in relation to food in the next post. How do your genes influence your response to food? Ah, you wish you knew! But I’d need a shower first.)

Read on for the recipe for deconstructed blueberry pie.

Blueberry foam
Adapted from this recipe at Khymos

15g sugar
0.7g xanthan (I used Texturas Xantana)
100g water
20g blueberry syrup
8g lemon juice
1.2 methycellulose (I used Texturas Metil)

Grind the sugar and xanthan together in a mortar and pestle. Mix the water, blueberry syrup and lemon juice in a bowl. Sprinkle the xanthan/sugar mixture into this while beating with an electric egg-beater. Add the methylcellulose little by little, continuing to beat constantly. Mix for 5-10 minutes until it is nice and thick.

Roasted flour nuggets
This exact recipe from Playing With Fire And Water:

40 g. all purpose flour
8 g. confectioners sugar
.5 g. salt
13 g. tapioca maltodextrin
30 g. unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Spread flour in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast in oven for about 45 minutes, stirring often until fragrant and golden. Cool completely. Toasted flour can be made ahead and kept in a sealed container.
Preheat oven to 350F (180C) Place the flour, sugar, salt and TM in a bowl and toss to combine. Slowly drizzle in melted butter while tossing with a fork. Remove rounded nuggets as they form and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes and allow to cool completely before handling.
[This text © Playing With Fire And Water]

Sous-vide blueberries

Note: the idea with this is to get blueberries that taste cooked but that hold their shape and texture, more or less.

Place however many blueberries you like in a sandwich bag, and try to suck out as much air as possible from the bag as you seal it.

Make a crude bain-marie. So: fill a medium-sized saucepan about a third full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Rest a bowl on top of the saucepan, so that the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water in the saucepan. Put a cup or two of water in the bowl and cover with cling-wrap. Allow this water to heat up – it should get to about 50-60°C. Place the bag of blueberries in this water (weigh the bag down with spoons if necessary, trying not to let the spoons rest on the blueberries), cover the bowl with cling-wrap again and cook for an hour. You might need to add more water to the saucepan if it all evaporates during boiling.

Assembly of amuse bouche

Whip some thickened cream with some cinnamon to taste. Place about a tablespoon of this in the bottom of the serving spoon, then arrange the other components on top of it however you like and sift a little bit of cinnamon over the top. Done.

Zellner, D.A. et al. (2010). Art on the plate: effect of balance and color on attractiveness of, willing to try and liking for food. Food Quality and Preference, 21, 575-578.

  8 comments for “The art and not-really-science of pretty plating

  1. October 27, 2010 at 6:33 am

    This is useful post to read first time here on ur blog loved and arrangement of amuse bouche all wrong? i just love it :D

    • Jess
      October 31, 2010 at 9:10 am

      Who knew I could get it so wrong? Shame on me!

  2. October 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Jess… this post makes my brain hurt. It the sometimes smarter of you I go hmm-hmm pretty oops colour wheeee intelligentlewoman WHEEE!

    I kind agree with the unbalanced monochrome being better than the colourful unbalanced, though. Mostly I just want to try roasted flour nuggets, and eat (sweetened) cream with cinnamon. Which is odd, because I don’t even like cream.

    This is what your blog does to me. Confuses my inside mindness. And that’s why I love you.

    • Jess
      October 31, 2010 at 9:12 am

      I’m sorry I made your brain hurt, but this paper was so convoluted and had so many caveats (“Oh it’s totally different when you do this… but not really… but we’ll interpret it anyway… but we won’t interpret some other thing that was just as different… but we won’t tell you the data so that you know if we’re right in interpreting or not interpreting it…”) so it was unavoidable. By the time I had drawn the diagrams, there was no turning back.

      I like the unbalanced coloured the most. :\

  3. October 29, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I personally hope my genes have no bearing on my response to food because my parents have really bad taste. Literally.

    Your amuse bouche sounds so delicious! I don’t care what the studies say. I know what I like and what I like is that mouth full of deliciousness.

    • Jess
      October 31, 2010 at 9:16 am

      Uh-oh, I’ve just started writing a series of posts about the genetics of taste…

      Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s always going to be nature AND nurture. You aren’t condemned to a life of repressed and restricted food intake.

  4. October 30, 2010 at 2:31 am

    I’ve never thought about food presentation from that angle. I honestly don’t think I prefer monochromatically presented food but then I’ve never been very normal.

    • Jess
      October 31, 2010 at 9:15 am

      Yeah, I think a monochromatic plate of food at a restaurant would be pretty disappointing, but in the context of an experiment, maybe people just stick with something that looks less risky. Then again… a lot of people out there have boring taste and will still prefer something familiar rather than trying something new, unfortunately.

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