In our Food Styling 101 series, Lisa Bolton offers up food styling tips for conveying the stories you want your food to tell. Her advice will help you create food photography that entices readers to make your recipes and read your articles. This month she shares her tips for styling raw and cooked animal proteins of all kinds.
Welcome carnivores and pescatarians! In this month's column the focus is on how to approach food styling raw and cooked animal proteins. For the purposes of this discussion, "meat" refers to any animal protein including fish.
The interesting and unique element to photographing raw meat is that what ultimately makes the shot intriguing lies in its potential transformation. For example, a strawberry is a strawberry. A photo of a strawberry does not necessarily signal there will a transformation to an altered state. However, a photograph of raw meat persuades the audience to use their imagination to eagerly anticipate what the meat will look like in a future state.
Beef is one of my favourite proteins to shoot in its raw state. The deep red hues of the flesh can pop dramatically against nearly any background. It's so well suited to minimalist styling. An interesting backdrop, some butcher paper and a few herbs or pop of green is about all you need.
When shooting cooked beef — particularly steaks and roast — the rest time is critical. Before you slice, let it rest a minimum of ten minutes to ensure your plate/board/setting does not become, literally, a bloody mess.
Some key points to consider when styling beef:
- Butchers are your best friend. For the freshest, best quality you'll want to start with your local butcher. If your grocery has a fresh butcher counter, visit it.
- If working with grind, try have your butcher grind it fresh for you. Meat that's been exposed to air for lengthy periods of time may start to oxidize and lean toward a brownish hue. While taste isn't impacted, if you want to style it raw it'll be far less appealing.
- On that note, also make certain steaks aren't overlapping. When beef is cut, exposed to air but then deprived of air, the colour will go from red/purple to brownish. This does not affect the taste but will impact the look of the steak.
- Beef cooked to a well done state doesn't highlight the protein in its best light. Keeping with the spirit of “we eat what we style,” if you prefer your meat well done, considering shooting it at the medium rare state and then returning it to the grill to cook to your liking.
On the opposite end of the scale, styling raw poultry to excite the reader can be challenging. The feather plucked skin and fat is often gelatinous and unappealing. Add to that a constant general concern for contamination running through people's minds when they see raw chicken.
One way to reframe the way your audience processes raw poultry visually is to shoot those images minimalistically in black and white. A more subdued image disconnects the viewer from the uncomfortableness of raw poultry.
If you do want to shoot the chicken in full colour, capturing the bird in the process of receiving a flavourful rub can bring excitement to the dish. A multitude of chopped fresh herbs, or a smoky paprika rub will bring vibrance to the pale pink poultry flesh.
The good news is that cooked poultry produces some beautiful styling opportunities. Unlike beef however, you'll want to shoot whole bird poultry as soon as possible after it comes out of the oven. Ensure your props are set and ready so all you need to do is place the chicken on the board and get your shot.
Time is of the essence because when a chicken is fully cooked the meat shrinks and can dry out, so you can lose the plump and juicy look of it. This is less of an issue with bone-in chicken pieces like wings or drumsticks.
The ease of styling raw pork falls somewhere in between beef and poultry. There are certain cuts of pork, namely the tenderloin and bone-in cuts, which have some interesting hue variations that, when styled with complementary herbs like rosemary or sage, can look quite beautiful.
If you're looking to practice styling meat-centric dishes, cooked pork — specifically pulled pork and ribs — are both super-forgiving meals to practice with. They can be easily manipulated and handled and don’t lose their structural integrity.
When styling pulled pork, go easy on the sauce at first so the texture of the shredded protein is visible. Then add extra sauce after the fact and chase after the perfect drip.
With ribs, the most droolworthy ribs have a balance of sauce and char. If you need extra char, sprinkle a little brown sugar on the ribs and place under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes for some beautiful caramelization; it'll taste good too!
Fish has the unique position in this meat discussion as being a protein that can be styled in nearly every state: whole, butchered, raw or cooked. For the reasons I outlined in the column on food styling raw ingredients, I highly recommend capturing shots of your fish along the way. The rainbow of colours that come out of the skin and the flesh can be stunning.
I recommend styling fish from overhead or 45 degrees in most cases. The majority of cuts do not have the height to shine in a straight on shot (a fish burger being the exception). One of my favourite ways to style and capture fish is in a simple cast iron pan. Whether whole or in fillets, the contrast of nearly every fish against the black, highlighted with a pat of butter, vibrant yellow lemon and garden green herbs is a recipe for beauty.
A Note About Props, Edible and Otherwise
One final note when it comes to raw meat: if you're deciding on edible props for the shot that will be placed alongside the raw protein, select only those that will be cooked. For example, if I were styling a steak salad, I may include spices, or herbs or marinade ingredients to convey to my audience the flavour profile, but I wouldn't add lettuce as a style element for the raw ingredient shot.
As always with food styling, the accessories have to make sense, and when I make a salad, raw proteins are kept far away from the lettuce.
Limit the props to what's realistic for the protein. Carving and butcher knives, herbs, salt and pepper, parchment and twine are all accessible props you likely have in your kitchen already.
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Lisa Bolton is the creator, writer and photographer behind Food Well Said, her blog about thoughtfully prepared, whole food recipes. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC and you can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.