We’ve all made that dish. The one that starts with lofty intentions but ends up just a pile of food on a plate. The purée browns, the ice cream sags into a puddle on its way to the table, and what was supposed to be an artful drizzle of sauce looks more like something dreamed up by a B-movie special-effects crew. It happens all too easily when we forget to plan ahead: We end up sweating our way through cooking without cleaning as we go, swearing loudly because the sauce is burning on the stove and there are no clean spoons to stir it with. As we rush to serve our increasingly impatient guests, plating becomes an afterthought — if we even think about it at all.
This is the last thing you want to happen when you’re debuting an awesome dish you’ve worked hard to master. And luckily, it can be avoided, provided you’re ready to exercise some discipline and care. Learn a few quick tips and tricks, from the art of mise en place to using temperature-controlled dishes, and you’ll be plating dishes like a pro in no time. Below, our friends at ChefSteps used some of their favorite recipes to illustrate the key concepts of plating. Read on for everything you need to know to create a dish that looks as good as it tastes.
Plating Tips & Tricks
1. Prep, prep, prep
We can’t say this enough: taking care with your mise en place will save you every time. What exactly is mise en place? Literally translated, it means “put in place,” and it refers to prepping everything you can before you even start cooking.
It may sound like a chore, but mise en place can be fun. Give yourself time to make it enjoyable — pour a glass of wine, cue up a favorite playlist and indulge in the meditative peacefulness that comes from readying a great meal. Peel and trim vegetables. Transfer oils and sauces into squeeze bottles or covered pots ready to be heated. If reheating a sauce, ready it for the sous-vide bath. Trim herbs and store neatly between two cold, damp paper towels. The trick here is to prep as much as possible without sacrificing quality.
2. Stay Organized
Kitchens may look chaotic, but there’s method to the madness. Before you lay things out on your workstation, write down every step required to create the dish. This will keep you organized and allow you to consult the steps as you go to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. Similarly, keeping a handy list of all the components that make up your dish will prevent you from forgetting an ingredient as you cook and begin plating.
3. Keep It Clean
One of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is forgetting to keep things clean as they go. This is a surefire way to ruin a multi-course meal by running out of counter space or usable tools. Clean tools right after you use them, and put them back where they belong. Don’t let pots and pans pile up in the sink if you’re going to need that space later.
In the heat of the moment, this can be a tricky thing to stay on top of, especially when your attention is on the meal at hand. But trust us: keeping it clean will significantly improve your workflow and help your mind focus on the food instead of the mess surrounding it.
4. Put These Tips To Work
Below, we show off the tricks of the trade using one of our favorite recipes:
(see full recipe here)
Steak tartare is the ultimate dish to use to practice plating. Most chefs will bust out a ring mold right away and get going with a traditional presentation, but we love changing things up a little. Really, there’s no way to go wrong if you use these two simple tricks.
Season just before serving: This rule is super important not just for presentation, but also for taste and texture. The salt and acid that you use to season this dish will change the texture of the meat and begin to cook it ever so slightly, like a ceviche. Waiting until the last second to season ensures it will stay beautifully raw when you serve it to your guests.
Build layers: Use the other components of your dish to create interesting layers. For example, in this tartare recipe, we layer Kewpie mayo, fish roe, radishes, sprouts, and crispy tendon puffs. Because we build this dish on a mound of tartare rather than a flat surface, we start with components that help the others stay in place. First up is the mayo, which acts as a glue for the other toppings. We finish with light, crunchy items that add airiness and pop to the dish as you eat.
ChefSteps comprises a team of award-winning chefs, filmmakers, scientists, designers and engineers focused on revolutionizing the way people cook by inspiring creativity and encouraging expertise in the kitchen. You can also get access to all of ChefSteps’ Premium content — including paid classes and dozens of recipes available only to Premium members for a onetime fee — for $39. Classes include Sous Vide: Beyond the Basics, Fluid Gels, French Macarons and more!