It’s a truth as old as time, or at least as old as the 1st century A.D. text “Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome,” attributed to Apicius: Before you take a bite, you first eat with your eyes.
In a 2014 study published in the now-defunct journal Flavour, researchers found that “art-inspired presentation resulted in the food being considered as more artistic, more complex, and more liked” than the same dish with its components mixed together on the plate or presented as individual elements. The NPR blog the Salt reported on this “taste of Kandinsky” study the same year.
But artful plating has its limits. When a dish arrives at my table, adorned with a sauce that has skidded across the plate or bowl just so, I shudder. Such a smear, especially one of an earthy tone, takes my mind to a matter that I’d rather not associate with something I’m about to ingest, however stylish its intentions.
“Certain applications could work,” says Aggie Chin, pastry chef at Mirabelle in downtown Washington. “When plating, people try to be creative.” But, she adds, the texture of the sauce is key — smooth and shiny is better than dry and crusty — and traditionally brighter desserts or vegetables are more likely to look appealing than proteins with brown sauces.
To be clear, I adore sauces savory and sweet. I am simply anti-smear. Even the word is shudder-inducing. Webster’s defines the action as meaning “to cover, daub or soil with something greasy, sticky or dirty.”
Hungry yet? Didn’t think so.
“Absolutely, a smear of sauce can be beautiful,” says Susan Volland, the Seattle author of “Mastering Sauces: The Home Cook’s Guide to New Techniques for Fresh Flavors,” (W.W. Norton, 2015). But “it’s a way of using sauce as a decoration, which is not what I want it to be. . . . Sauce should be integral to the dish.”
For me, Volland’s comments come down to this: When a sauce is actually part of the dish, it’s likely to already be incorporated into the food. A plate of noodles with peanut sauce, for example, arrives at the table dressed as the chef intended. Why muddy the presentation with a superfluous smear? I acknowledge the purpose of a beautifully composed plate, because we do eat with our eyes. But first impressions can break a sauce; restraint must be shown.
So, dear chefs, can we retire the smears until campaign season?
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