Tricks of the trade

April 21, 2006, midnight | By Mary Donahue | 18 years, 1 month ago

How food stylists rope you in

As a picture-perfect hamburger flashes across a television screen, mouths water at the sight of the three-inch high morsel. But the flat, dry burger that appears on your plate looks nothing like what was advertised on television. So what got lost in translation? Well, that's where food stylists come in.

Food stylists are the miracle workers behind food advertisements. They keep ice cream from melting, meat from looking dull and sesame buns from getting soggy. "The point is to make food look good," says food stylist Stephanie Rose, who has put food advertisements together for many organizations, including Burger King and Giant Food.

Though food stylists most commonly are home economic majors, the most important prerequisite, according to Rose, is to have a strong background in food, according to Rose. Food stylist Debbie Wahl, who has worked with clients such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Pepsi, recommends also having a strong background in communications to assist in the advertising aspect of the business. "I wouldn't recommend going into [food advertising] cold because a big part of it is knowing the chemistry behind food," says Wahl.

Even though, according to Wahl, food stylists strive to create a "more natural look" in their advertisements, they still may fall back on a few tricks that make the food look even better.

The ideal burger

So what's the real truth about that delectable burger seen in the advertisements? Well, it is raw and takes hours to prepare.

The process begins with the bun selection. According to Rose, food stylists can examine hundreds of buns before they find the unblemished, unwrinkled bun they want. They then glue sesame seeds on in a seemingly random pattern, a detail most consumers will overlook, according to Rose.

Next comes "cooking" the burger. "If you cook the burger too much," says Rose, "it'll shrink and then it won't fit the bun." To prevent this from happening,

Food stylists tend to only cook burgers partially so that they appear plump and juicy. photo courtesy of and High Impact Photography

food stylists only cook the burger until the outside is brown and crunchy, but the inside is still raw so that it appears to be plump. Using a hot metal skewer, the food stylist brands grill marks into the meat and then paints the burger with vegetable oil and brown food coloring to give it a juicy appearance.

The arduous search for the perfect burger accessories then continues — this time for the perfect lettuce leaf and tomato slice, which should compliment the burger's size perfectly.

Finally, food stylists are ready to put the burger together. The bun must be lined with paper towels to prevent the burger's juices from seeping through and making it soggy. The tomato slice and lettuce leaf are then sprayed with water and glycerin to give them a fresh look. The bun is place on top and then a tiny pin is stuck through the entire thing to keep it all together.

You gotta love that chicken...

It's hard work to achieve the perfect roasted chicken, but advertisements always show Foghorn Leghorn in his prime. To achieve this, food stylists prepare it using similar techniques as those used for the hamburger. "Chicken's kind of tricky," says Rose, "because if it's cooked all the way through the skin gets very wrinkly."

To prevent this, the chicken breast, according to Rose, is washed clean of fat. The skin is then sewed taunt and stuffed with wet paper towels. The bird is roasted at a low temperature until the skin is dry and bumpy, but, just like the burger, the inside is still raw. Food stylists then spray the roasted chicken with a mixture made with ivory soap to reach the ideal color. The final touches are made with a blowtorch, which is used to brown the legs, wings and any other pale parts of the breast. Voilá, you have the perfect roasted chicken!

A not-so-frozen treat

One thing that tastes great on a hot summer day is an ice cream cone, but as soon as the cone is brought out into the sun, the ice cream starts to morph slowly into a sticky puddle. So how does ice cream last under the harsh heat of the spotlights? The truth is that, sometimes, the ice cream seen in advertisements is not really ice cream.

Ice cream advertising comes with a catch, though, because if the ad is selling ice cream, the real deal must be used, not an imitation product. "In this case you have to work very quickly when working with the ice cream," says Rose, "because, obviously, it melts quickly."

Since ice cream melts easily, food stylists use imitation products that can withstand heat from studio lights. photo courtesy of

If food stylists need to work with the actual ice cream, they deep-freeze it so that it will remain frozen for longer periods of time. They then fashion a collar around the ice cream scoop, which is also kept cold, and move very quickly.

Food stylists are given more leniencies when working with an ad that is selling hot fudge or some other product, in which case old tricks come in handy. While colored mashed potatoes are commonly used to replace ice cream, Rose avoids using them. "I've never had good luck with mashed potatoes," says Rose. "They look like mashed potatoes."

Food stylists may also use a mixture of vegetable shortening, powdered sugar and corn syrup as a substitution. This forms a clay-like substance that can be molded easily and will not melt. To top this ice cream mixture with the perfect splotch of chocolate sauce, Wahl cuts out a piece of towel in a random shape and then pour the sauce, slowly, onto it. This way the sauce stays in the desired shape she wants by clinging to the towel.

So the next time you see a mouth-watering food advertisement on T.V. or in a magazine, do not immediately start questioning your talents at scooping ice cream or roasting chickens. Creating those picture-perfect advertisements is a long, tedious process that takes food stylists longer to make than it takes the consumer to devour. And considering the ingredients that go into the food used in advertisements, you might not actually want to eat it.

Here are some more tricks that food stylist use:

Cake: hairspray keeps the cake looking fresh
Cereal: glue or cream cheese is used instead of milk
Chicken: to achieve that perfect drumstick shape, inject mashed potatoes under the skin
Fruit: spray with spray deodorant and give it a frosty look
Pancakes: spray with fabric protector to prevent syrup from soaking in and fruit topping is pinned in place
Pie: stuff with instant potatoes and then the filling is pinned in place on the tops and sides
Seafood: paint with glycerin to look juicy
Spaghetti: toss with liquid glucose to give it that glossy sheen
Swiss cheese: holes are added by punching them in with straws
Syrup: motor oil is used sometimes instead of syrup
Tomato sauce: thicken with tomato paste and then placed with a syringe
Water: plastic ice cubes are used in glasses, which are given a frosty look by spraying them with a dulling spray and then water

Mary Donahue. Mary Donahue is an 11th grade, vegetarian Honors student who is addicted to sugar. Whatever free time she can find is quickly swallowed up by Doback, "her" horse, or her crazy friends, with whom she scares mortals. She isn't happy unless she is moving, which … More »

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