Plating is the art of presenting food, and it’s a step that many home cooks skip, either because they're rushed at dinnertime, or they expect everyone is just going to dig in, anyway. Chefs use a variety of techniques to enhance the appearance of their culinary creations and anyone can learn this skill. The process involves choosing the right plate, balancing the food according to portion, texture, color, and height, and using sauces in an artistic way. Creative plating not only adds to the food’s visual appeal — it also turns any meal into an experience.
Classic plating or clock technique is easy to remember and an elegant way to show off your culinary achievements. Think of the plate as a clock face. Place the main ingredient between 3 and 9 o’clock and center it on the 6 o’clock position. Starches should sit between 9 and 11 o’clock and veggies between the 11 and 3 o’clock positions. If adding a sauce, drizzle it near the main ingredient or over top.
This contemporary plating method works especially well on rectangular dishes, but you can achieve it on oval-shaped plates, too. Picture the arrangements and colors of a well-maintained landscape garden, with its neat, vertical rows. Recreate the same arrangement for this linear plating style. It’s an attractive way to display food creations that lay close to the plate.
Abstract art fans and creative-minded culinarians will no doubt love the organized randomness of the free-form plating method. Although it may look haphazard to some, others will recognize its artistry. Free-form plating requires some planning but allows a cook to experiment with their own interpretations. Try a Jackson Pollock-like splatter using the plate as your canvas and the sauce as the paint, then carefully arrange the food on top of it. Free-form is an organic style. It works well when combined with natural wood, stone, or slate plates.
If you’re seeking a more dramatic way to show off your edible creations, stacked plating is the way to go. It features layered food items with varying shapes and colors. The secret to creating professional-level stacked plating is to offset the focal point — the main attraction — of the dish. Most chefs say it should sit to the left, slightly off-center. Create a base, such as root vegetable puree or fresh vegetable chips, then add the sauce in various shapes around the stack for the final touch.
With a focus on balancing the colors, textures, tastes, and appearance of food, Japanese plating methods interact with all the senses. Symmetry and balance are key to their final display. White space is a crucial element and tradition says that at least 30% of the plate should be empty. These are a few of the many different plating styles that enhance Asian cuisine:
Many cuisines around the world use bowls instead of plates to serve cherished foods. These versatile vessels are perfect for not only soups and stews, but also pasta or vegetable-laden, stacked creations. Avoiding carbs but love burritos? Use a bowl to create a layered, deconstructed version. Arrange foods by shape, size, and color to create an eye-pleasing dish.
Take a step beyond the usual plate or bowl to display your fare. Organic materials can enhance the appearance of many cuisines, especially rustic fare. Serve your edibles on wood slabs, ceramic tiles, or small slate slabs. Use earthen jars for serving liquidy foods or side sauces. Try a minimalist, Nordic-style plating by adding foraged, seasonal produce like wild mushrooms, edible flowers, or berries to frame your creation.
Planning is crucial for the defined, finished look this style requires. Serving dishes made from metal, glass, and other shiny, sleek materials help create an awe-inspiring base for a futuristic-style plating. Combine a variety of food shapes, textures, and heights to construct the presentation. Shiny or protruding garnishes in an array of shapes complete the sci-fi, ultra-modern look.
Edible garnishes top off a beautifully plated dish, but they should always enhance both taste and the visual element. Fresh herbs, veggies, and fruits are the most versatile. Create roses from cherry tomatoes, or use lemon, lime, or orange slices to create cartwheel twists for added pops of color. Use spiralized vegetables or chili flowers to top stacked foods for added height and color. Take desserts to the next level by adding an elegant and dramatic sugar cage to the confection. Isomalt is a sugar-free sweetener that you can use to construct transparent, decorative garnishes for all types of culinary creations.
You don’t have to be a professional chef to plate like one. With a little practice and a few simple guidelines, your home-cooked creations will look like they came out of a Michelin-star restaurant.