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… science… sure…
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.