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. Here's our tips on how to prep and style grilled foods for the camera and how to get perfect grill marks!
It’s time to get your grill on! Summer is just around the corner and, for me, June brings about a lot of opportunities to break out the grill. Father ‘s Day, year-end picnics and just warmer weather are all reasons to move cooking outside. This month, I’m sharing ways to improve your food styling when it comes to grilled food.
What Foods Can You Grill?
When I think of grilling, I think of steaks and burgers, but grilling isn't just for animal proteins. (See this article for some helpful hints on styling meat in general.)
Fruit and vegetables are making their presence known on backyard barbeques and for good reason. Grilled vegetables can keep their texture better than when you steam or boil them, not only resulting in superior taste but also making them easier to style. Asparagus, eggplant, bell peppers, scallions and even carrots are perfect vegetables to experiment with on the grill.
And don’t forget the fruit! The sugars in fruit will naturally caramelize when you grill them so you have not only a beautiful meal to plate but a delicious one too!
And, a great food to practice your grilling food styling techniques with — bread! A $0.99 baguette oiled and toasted on the barbeque is a great way to learn your grill's hot spots (you can also grill pizza!)
Grill Marks and Char
There are two things that are key to perfect when styling grilled foods: grill marks and char. The evidence of a little black from the heat of a grill and those perfectly uniform grate marks are what you're looking for when it comes to styling grilled food.
Here are three ways to achieve "Instagramable" grilled food shots.
1. Start With a Clean Grill
The key to achieving a beautifully styled grilled dish is those nice even grill marks. The most important step in achieving this is starting with a clean, oiled grill. Before the food go nears the grates, make sure they're clean.
I do this by scraping the racks first, then turning the grill on high to cook off any leftover residue. You may need to flip the grates over if they're really dirty. Once the grill is clean, you want to oil it. I recommend just a basic canola oil. Using tongs, dip a crumpled up piece of paper towel into some oil and rub all over the surface area of the grill. This also ensures the food doesn’t stick to the grill when it comes time to flip it.
2. High Heat
Grilling is definitely more of an art than a science. To create the perfect sear, you want to err on the side of high heat, not low heat, so crank the barbeque up. Lower heat will result in lighter brown grill marks that are less distinct and will therefore pop less when translated in an image.
With some foods, to prevent overcooking, you may want to turn one side of the grill on high but cook the food on indirect heat. Every barbecue is different so it may take some time to find that sweet spot. You want to go as high as possible, without scorching the food.
3. Perfect Grill Marks
As I like to remind readers of this column, we eat what we cook, or in this case grill! So in all cases I'm cooking the food all the way through and we're eating it after the shoot. To achieve perfect grill lines, though, sometimes I need to cheat a little.
There are three ways I help my barbeque get those perfect lines.
- Add Grill Marks After the Fact — First, If I didn’t get the grill hot enough and the food is cooked but I'm not happy with the lines, I use a product like this one, a Charcoal Starter. You could also heat up a metal skewer on the grill. Either way, you're taking a hot element similar in shape to the grates on a grill and pressing it into the food to further emphasize the grill marks.
- Grill Components Separately Before Assembling Them — Speaking of skewers, kebabs are one of my favourite things to grill. Because of the shapes of the food, however, sometimes it's difficult to get the entire surface area of each side of the kebab to touch the grill. In this case — say for example with pineapple or bell peppers — I grill the components of the kebab separately and then thread them on the skewer after they're cooked. This ensures each component of the skewered kabob has evidence of char or grill marks, making for a better styled photo.
- Press It! — Finally, a third way to achieve perfect grill marks for uneven food is to press it. A spatchcocked chicken is an example of something that will style and photograph better if you place a sheet pan over top of it and weigh down the pan with something heavy like bricks or a cast iron pan. This not only creates more even cooking but will produce nice long grilling lines.
No Outdoor Grill?
One final note, not everyone can grill outdoors on an open flame. These same pieces of advice apply to indoor grilling. Just make sure you choose a good quality cast iron pan and follow the same advice in starting with a clean, hot and oiled pan.
I look forward to seeing what you're grilling this summer!
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Lisa Bolton is food stylist, recipe developer and creator of beautiful food boards. You can find her work at lisadawnbolton.com. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC. Her first cookbook, On Boards, (affiliate link) is due to be released by Appetite by Penguin Random House in October 2018 and is available for pre-order. You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.