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Motor Oil and Cotton Balls: Food Photography’s Tricks

How about a nice big bite out of a juicy cardboard, glue, and toothpick “hamburger” or a mile-high stack of pancakes steaming with microwaved cotton balls and motor oil syrup? No? Steak and brown shoe polish perhaps?

Ever wonder why your perfectly executed recipe doesn’t look exactly like the photo in the cookbook? Photographing food is tricky business. Unlike unruly children and unpredictable animals, it does sit still. However, it also melts, wilts, falls apart, dries out, cools down, and basically ends up looking quite unsavory.

Foods that are used in ad campaigns are required to be the real thing, but in other photographs, anything goes. Since hot and cold foods are so unstable, non-edible and durable, structured products are used to give the illusion of perfectly prepared food. Other items are used to enhance overall appeal.

So next time you see photos of mouth-watering food, consider just what it is they’re made of.

Make Mine with Motor
Motor oil is very commonly used in place of syrups, which are non-photogenic. And, to prevent motor oil from soaking into pancakes piles high with berries, a fabric spray protector is used. (Imagine how this stuff will protect your couch!)

Want to achieve that perfectly browned edge to hamburger patties and poultry flesh? Try a blow torch. And the perfectly browned chicken or turkey you see in a photograph is actually raw. Additionally, the reason that raw bird looks so juicy and plump is because a syringe has been used to inject mashed potatoes just under the skin.

Speaking of mashed potatoes, why doesn’t your freshly baked strawberry pie slice into those perfectly uniform slices? Because you didn’t fill your pie with mashed potatoes and then slather the edges with strawberry filling.

A hot steamy plate of anything is steaming because of the wet, microwaved cotton balls that have been placed strategically within the food.

A Freshening Spritz
If you’d like to impress your guests with your straight-from-the-garden and freshly rinsed salad and freshly caught seafood, remember to spritz with glycerin just before serving.

Cold, rinsed grapes, though very tasty, always have a slightly dusty look to them. The “secret” here is quite literally “Secret Deodorant”—in the spray version. Apparently, it’s strong enough for men, women, and grapes. 

Food that begins to dry out can be revitalized with hairspray—any brand will do.

Steaks that have that perfectly seared look have had strategically placed grill marks enhanced with brown shoe polish.

To prevent the lettuce and tomato from wilting under the moisture of a raw burger (except for the blow torched edges), cardboard is placed between burger and lettuce, where the cardboard prevents the meat from smashing and wilting the lettuce. And if your burger doesn’t have enough sesame seeds—or perhaps you would like the seeds more artfully arranged, you can always glue some in the desired places.

White glue is also used in place of milk when photographing a bowl of cereal. It’s also handy in repairing anything crumbly.

Syrups that are lavishly drizzled over the top of ice cream are usually made out of shortening, powdered sugar, and food coloring. And to get this concoction to stick to the top of the ice cream, paper towels are torn into small pieces and placed on the ice cream prior to the shortening drizzle.

So next time you’re wondering why your meal doesn’t look like those in the glossy food magazines, don’t fret—remember theirs involve cardboard, motor oil, hairspray, and shoe polish.

Bon Appétit!