This post is about the technique of cooking vegetables so they keep their natural, vibrant colors.
In culinary arts, the importance of color is easy to grasp. One must see a black & white photo of a dish and compare it with a nicely colored one to realize that color is essential to bring unity. And unity is what we’re shooting for.
The complexity of color
When I first got seriously interested in color for culinary purposes, I realized that the physics of color is extremely complex and far beyond the scope of this little tiny blog of mine. I’m no dummy, but I’m not a theoritical physicist either. I’m just a chef trying to understand how using color helps me and others plate my food. Check out the Wikipedia page about color; if you can understand it, you live in Florida, you work for Nasa, and they send you in orbit once in a while.
The way we perceive colors is complex. We see colors because the human brain perceives through the eye different stimulations from the spectrum of light associated with objects. Our eyes can distinguish millions of different colors. For that reason and others, composing a colorful culinary display is a challenge.
To make things even more complicated, color composition is utterly contextual. A physical color not only is subject to physical and psychological perception, but our perception is also influenced by environment and how colors interact with each other. In other words, a color does not have very much impact on its own, but at the contrary needs others to reinforce itself. For instance, the color of a carrot in your veggie plate may look more or less orange depending on where it sits next to. This point, of course, represent the greatest challenge for a chef dealing with attractive color composition.
I’ll stop right there; I already lost enough readers between the beginning of this post and this sentence. In reality, it’s a little less abstract.
Why is color so important to the food we eat anyway?
The dominance of color
In the wild, for instance, herbivorous primates select appropriate leaves by their color, because it is the best way to collect information about the environment. As humans, we are programmed to look at food items and their colors to determine what is edible, ripe or spoiled. Today, we are still very receptive to the color of our foods, and we remain sensitive to those closely connected to nature. Blue food, for instance, is naturally rare, so we do not respond to it as much as other colors. As a result, the color blue is considered an appetite suppressant. On the other hand, bright green, red or yellow colored vegetables, extremely abundant in nature, are colors that we easily recognize and therefore are naturally attracted to.
Some scientific studies have shown that color actually influences taste on diners. Research volunteers in one study could for instance taste imaginary differences between two identical food products, one of which had previously been darkened with food coloring and thus had a different color. The same volunteers also tasted no difference between identically-colored food items, even when one of these was sweetened enough to alter its taste. In other words, the color of food dominates its taste. This is why brightly colored foods seem to taste better than plain foods. (via Erick Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation)
Diners expect carrots to look bright orange, spinach bright green and salmon a deep pink/orange. Therefore, the techniques used to prepare or cook ingredients must take into consideration the intention for the finished product. Respecting colors means respecting cooking techniques.
Which brings me to my next point: Let’s concentrate, for instance, on what is arguably the best way to bring sparkling colors to your plate: Blanching vegetables.
From Wikipedia again:
“Blanching is a cooking term that describes a process of food preparation wherein the food substance, usually a vegetable or fruit, is plunged into boiling water, removed after a brief, timed interval, and finally plunged into iced water or placed under cold running water (shocked) to halt the cooking process.”
Blanching somehow saturates the natural, vibrant colors of vegetables. That way, you can convey a sense of freshness, seasonality and joviality to the plate. There are two very important points. First, you need to plunge vegetables in BOILING water. And second, you need to shock them in an ICE BATH. Cold; then hot. It’s that thermal shock that fixes the pigments in the vegetable. Green vegetables (chlorophylle) look greener. Orange or red vegetables (carotene) look more vibrant too.
I will add the following comment, though: For the purpose of blanching vegetables to enhance their color, “steaming” is actually good too, and I’d say even better than using boiling water. There is no lost of flavor/color in the water.
The timing for blanching vegetables is important. In restaurants, we often use the term “flash-steaming”. Because really, most vegetables benefit from being just in and out the steamer (or the boiling water) in no time. Beginners often are afraid of undercooking vegetables. But really, we can eat our veggies raw and they don’t taste that bad: carrots, radishes, peas, asparagus, peppers, all can be eaten raw. So beginners, please take the risk of undercooking your veggies.
Disrespecting the classic technique of blanching or steaming, for instance by falling short of using an ice bath, may turn green vegetables brown, resulting in a less appetizing result.
For instance, you will see on the left the difference between a set of vegetables (above) that have NOT been shocked in ice water, and a second set of vegetables (below) that have been. I know that at first, the difference is minimal. But you will notice that the radishes on the top, for instance, have a duller color than the more vibrant set at the bottom. Same with the asparagus and, less noticeably, the carrots.
Quick advices when using color for culinary presentation:
- Always choose the freshest ingredients.
- Keep the finished result in mind.
- Choose cooking techniques that will enhance color, not dilute them.
- Take the time to sear meats, fish or vegetables in order to make a nice crust.
- Avoid dullness.
- Increase color saturation by cooking with the appropriate techniques.
- Small, high contrast elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements.
- Large, white plates usually provide a high contrast to plated foods.
- Think in terms of color palette.
- Playing on the unusual color of ingredients creates a focal point. For instance, using green tomatoes, or yellow raspberries or blood orange brings creativity to the plate.
Examples of commonly-used colors:
- The orange of saffron rice
- The sparkling white of steamed halibut
- The bright green of edamame beans.
- The dark purple of balsamic reduction.
- The saturated red of confite tomatoes.
- The deep maroon of chocolate.
I won’t even start with the notion of contrast; this will be the topic of another post. But as a general rule, chefs will want to increase the contrast in their composition, in order to enhance appearance with vivid, saturated and colorful presentations, and contrast those colors with their support (plate, platter).
Common visually-appealing, high-contrast combinations include:
- Brown and white:
Chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream
Chestnut and turnip
- Red and white:
Tomato and mozzarella salad
Nigiri sushi (raw tuna atop oval-shaped rice)
Fried, sunny side up egg
- Green and white:
Sea bass and spinach
- White and blue:
Panna cotta and blueberries
- White and black:
Rice and beans
- Cream and brown:
Flan (custard and caramel)