Taking beautiful food photographs isn't as easy as it seems. But with a few tips and tricks of the trade, you can make your food look like its best self. Join us for our Food Styling Workshop this August and our team of food stylists will give you the inside look at how we prep, plate, and shoot all the photos at Food52.
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Shooting 60 ice cream recipes for our newest
baby book in the heat of a New York City summer, in the middle of a bustling office, using only one ice cream maker?
Should be easy, right?
Not so fast. While we've produced cookbooks—some mighty fine ones!—out of the Food52 offices before, Ice Cream & Friends, with its, um, temperamental subject matter, presented new and exciting challenges. More chances to flub and flop, to laugh and learn, to overcome brain freeze.
And while the process surely would have been easier with an industrial-sized ice cream machine (or two), a walk-in freezer, and confectioners' sugar standing in for the real stuff, our set-up replicated, for better or worse, that of a home kitchen.
And, in the end, that means that some of what we learned along the way might help you, too—and that when you take this book into your own home, your ice creams will be as beautiful (if not more so!).
Here's what we learned styling ice cream (and its friends):
1. A normal-sized freezer won't cut it.
At the start of our shoot, we tried to make do with a regular, run-of-the-mill freezer. But soon, we realized that opening and closing said freezer every 5 minutes—for another pint of ice cream, to retrieve pre-scooped scoops, to chill a bowl—meant that the internal temperature could never get cold enough: Our ice cream wasn't freezing properly.
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So we rented a chest freezer and devised a system: The chest freezer would hold all of the ice cream we were working with at the moment, whereas the standing freezer would be used for "deep chill" and opened only on an "as-needed" basis.
If you're churning a large quantity of ice cream (for a party or an event), consider powering on the second freezer in your basement or, if that's not an option, dragging out the old cooler and filling it with ice.
2. Recruit helpers.
Whenever we did a multi-bowl photograph—and the dreaded "party" scenes, in particular—we found that it was best to get as many people scooping as possible. All hands on deck; all scoops in bowls.
We'd assign each person one bowl and one ice cream scooper, and then, when all the props were in place and the lighting optimized, we'd work to simultaneously plop ice cream into bowls. That way, the ice cream would all start melting at the same time—and we wouldn't have to deal with the first bowl turning soupy as the other scoops held their spherical shape.
This tip can be applied to scooping ice cream for dinner party desserts, too: If you wrangle friends into helping you scoop into bowls or cones and shuttle out to guests, no one's bowl will melt before the rest.
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3. Not all scoopers are created equal.
When you're scooping a lot of ice cream and your goal is precision and appearance rather than efficiency, some scoopers will rise to the top of the pack, and some will fall to the wayside. It's natural selection—nothing to cry about.
Behold, the most scooper of the bunch: this Solid Brass Ice Cream Scoop from Sir Madam.
While it won't win any points in the affordability category, its resulting scoops cannot be challenged. It scoops smoothly, gliding through any ice cream, no matter the texture, and—this is key!—it releases the scoops—and the feet/beard/skirt/ruffle, too!—like magic.
With this scooper-from-heaven, there is no need to thrust the utensil dramatically downwards in hopes of catapulting the ice cream ball through sheer momentum, and there is no releaser—like on cookie scooper—that forces out the scoop but disturbs its perfectly smooth surface. Instead, a small downward nudge is all it takes for the scoop to tumble out, softly.
I experienced visceral anxiety pangs when this scooper was not in our pile, but it was also handy to keep a variety of sizes on hand: When one scoop of ice cream is your star, you might want a softball-sized ice cream ball; but when you're constructing a sundae or a miniature ice cream sandwich, sometimes a ping pong ball is what you're looking for.
4. You'll get better-quality scoops from wide, shallow containers.
You're not going to get a good scoop of ice cream without good ice cream: You'll need to be confident in its texture (which is itself determined by the recipe and the way that recipe was prepared) and attuned to its temperature: Ice cream that's too hard will crumble instead of adhere; ice cream that's too soft will melt under the scooper's weight.
But what I found most surprising in The Quest for the Perfect Scoop was the importance of the vessel in which the ice cream was frozen. Those cute cartons and plastic deli containers will store neatly in your freezer and keep your ice cream fresher, longer, but it's much harder to achieve an A+ scoop—there simply isn't enough distance for dragging the scooper in an uninterrupted motion.
Instead, a long, shallow vessel—like a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan or an 8- by 8-inch baking dish—works best. (My preference is usually for the 9-by-5, as you'll get both surface area and depth.)
5. The most daunting frozen desserts are easier to style than a simple scoop.
I think I can speak for our whole cookbook team when I say that the thought of photographing the Baked Alaska sent chills through our bodies. A rounded ice cream mound, set atop a layer of cake, covered in meringue, and then... torched?! Who intentionally mixes ice cream with direct heat? This seems like a sick joke of a frozen dessert.
Yet the Baked Alaska photographed beautifully—it was much more cooperative than most of our single scoops. Because the Baked Alaska was so frozen-solid—a giant, cold hunk of ice cream—it melted much more slowly than any individual serving of plain old ice cream. That meant we had more time to fuss with it before it took on a too-melty sheen.
And we experienced that same sense of relief when working with frozen mud pies and ice cream cakes, too. The desserts that took the most time to assemble (and freeze) were also the most stable on set—and on your dinner party table, too.
6. Glass dishes photographed from the side are out to sabotage you.
Smudges, smears, spots, schmutz. Lots and lots of schmutz. These are all of the problems you'll run into when you try to scoop ice cream into a clear glass and shoot it "straight on," so that you're approaching it from the side, a position of reverence. We're on our knees!
It may seem like the most natural angle at which to photography ice cream—a picture window into all of its textures and swirls and add-ins—is also the most difficult. Every flaw is exposed, every drip obscures the view, and all mistakes at the bottom of the glass are impossible to recoup.
So applaud these stylists, who dared to dream!
7. Pre-scoop and re-freeze.
Occasionally, we scooped ice cream when it was at optimal softness, then froze those scoops on parchment-lined baking sheets (as if we were gearing up to make mochi ice cream or not-fried fried ice cream, in which this scoop 'n freeze process is critical).
This seems like an ice cream panacea! Except that pre-scooping ice cream can change the scoops' shapes, making them flat-bottomed, and their appearance: They'll be a bit matte, frosted-over from exposure to the cold of the freezer.
But pre-scooping did work wonders for photos like this one, where we needed a large number of scoops as quickly as possible—and the shape and texture were not the focus.
8. Freeze dishes! Freeze glasses! Freeze your hands?
It goes without saying that heat is the enemy of ice cream. To stave off melting, don't just make sure the ice cream is cold: Chill the large container you'll transfer the ice cream into once it's churned, and chill the bowls in which you'll serve the frozen ice cream in. The former tip applies not just for styling ice cream for a photograph, but the also for guaranteeing that your ice cream freezes to the intended texture, too.
If you'll be scooping the ice cream directly onto a surface (like a piece of marble), chill it down with a paper towel dipped into ice water.
And then there's the option of wheeling a fan—or a portable air conditioner—onto set (or near your table, if it's July and you're serving frozen desserts to a crowd).
9. Toppings are like cover-up for ice cream.
Unexciting ice cream can be gussied up with toppings galore (that's where "friends" come in): Chocolate chunks, granola, toasted nuts, and mochi are all low-maintenance ways to add intrigue to a scoop.
But for saucy toppings—caramel, magic shell, hot fudge—it's always a smart idea to do a test drizzle on a stand-in scoop in order to observe exactly how the two substances will react: Might the sauce seize? Might the ice cream melt instantly under its heat?
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10. When it comes to melting, ice cream has a mind of its own.
The first day of our shoot, six of us gathered near the camera, waiting for a scoop of ice cream perched just-so to drip a drop over the side of a mug. We waited for what seemed like years and even resorted to blowing on the ice cream with a bit of warm breath to expedite the process.
Once the first stream was a-running, more sprung—and fast, with seemingly no direction. It had been hard to predict exactly how the ice cream would melt—and whether it would be at all attractive. (In case you're wondering, we ended up redoing this particular shot.)
Throughout the shoot, we were reminded time and time again that every frozen dessert will melt a little differently. Some popsicles can hold their form for fifteen minutes; others seem to dissolve as soon as they come out of the mold. The best way to anticipate how an ice cream (or friend) will hold up is to do a test run.
The major upside about all of this advanced preparation and extra insurance? It means there's always extra ice cream around—and that's never a bad thing.
Our newest cookbooks come out on April 11—but signed copies are available for pre-sale right this instant.
We're re-running this post in celebration of the books finally being available for the world!
Favorite ice cream flavor? Tell us in the comments below.