Applied Color Theory in Cooking

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My chef-ing is basically chemistry combined with a flair for color theory, and a touch of humility (being able to jack something up and recover gracefully). Bork bork bork!



With help from what I learned from a damn good book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (non-affiliate link, Amazon Smile), and an amalgam of knowledge gained in my own cooking, my mother’s cooking, and in things I learned at my many restaurant jobs, I crafted my own version of color theory for cooking.

Color Theory” as it applies to food preparation is basically is the application of the relationships between colors in dishes you cook. Have you ever made something that tastes great but looks blah? The first thing I made that looked that way was a German dish called Rahmschnitzel with spaetzle (basically chicken with white wine sauce and pasta). It was all white, beige, and brown and not all that inspiring. Delicious, yes, but pretty, no.

monochromatic bleh.

Power of visuals

I subscribe (learned during my long tenure in Japanese restaurants)  as outlined in this semi-fawning, possibly orientalist post, that nonetheless has interesting and accurate points, to The Power of Five:

“Food should be enjoyed with all five of the senses: taste and smell are obvious, but sight figures predominately in Japanese cuisine. In fact, it can be considered just as important as taste. The artful arrangement of food on appropriate and beautiful tableware adds so much to the enjoyment of the meal that it cannot be stressed enough…

Touch is also important, not only for the texture of the food itself, which should be varied, but also for tableware, as it is customary to hold vessels and utensils in one’s hands…A feather-light hand-thrown porcelain rice bowl might cost ten times as much as a similar-looking factory-made one, but the enjoyment of touch adds so much that professional chefs and serious home cooks always opt for the pricier option.”

The color of food you eat, order, or prepare is critical to several aspects of persuasion, including perceptions of health benefits; flavor; quality; and connection to value and lifestyle, seasons, holidays, causes and community. If you’ve ever made an error in substitution (using red wine in white wine sauce creates a *lavender* cream sauce that makes it almost impossible to eat, who knew), you may have discovered that color can also negatively affect perception of food:

In [a] study people were given a steak to eat in a dark room. When the lights were turned on, they saw that the steak was blue and half of them literally got sick.

But if you’re trying to cut back on eating, putting a blue light in your fridge or using blue plates will actually suppress your appetite and prevent over-eating. So blue is pretty sick — in both ways, that is.

It turns out teal, blue, purple and black foods aren’t prevalent in nature, but mold and gangrene, and other poisonous things, are blue-green shades, so that may be part of the evolutionary distaste for blue foods. Unless it’s an ice pop and then blue is the color kids fight over because blueberry! Froot Loops’s packaging never said that the cereal bits of different colors were different flavors, but consumers assumed so, and were shocked when it was revealed that the cereal is one uniform flavor (!) A few years ago, a redditor in r/til (Today I Learned) linked to a 1999 article debunking this popular misconception.

Eating a rainbow” is also nutritionally valuable. Different natural food colors display levels of vital nutrients and the intensity of that food’s color (and intensity of color in general) is indicative of the nutrients in a particular item. This means that to have a balanced diet, you should eat many colors of fruits and veggies.

Levels of expertise

There are a few levels of better color inclusion in cooking.

The easiest way is to to add parsley or green peas to most savory dishes (fresh if you’ve got it, frozen or dried if you don’t cook often).

A bit harder is to use a diverse set of ingredients, like using red, green, and yellow bell peppers instead of just one color. This is more difficult because you need to know what certain ingredients taste like, and how their texture, cooked color, and flavor impact the final dish.

The third level is using artistic color theory and color wheels to select your palette.

Color Wheels

image courtesy of sensationalcolor.com

You’ve probably seen a color wheel before – it places the “rainbow” in a circle and allows for mathematic-ish comparisons of colors to be selected. The placement of colors around the wheel is not random. The arrangement of hues around the color wheel corresponds to the wavelengths of light as was first shown in the original color circle of Isaac Newton. There are primary colors, and then there are secondary and tertiary colors as defined by their distance from the primary colors on the wheel. This post is staying with the 12-part color wheel for simplicity.

L-R primary, secondary, tertiary colors. image courtesy of sensationalcolor.com

These are relevant when choosing naturally-occurring harmonious color combinations to enhance your cooking. In addition to color, of course, you must carefully weigh the texture or flavor of foods, and other differences in color like tint/shade, aggressive/recessive colors, or color symbolism. A raw eggplant is aubergine but a cooked eggplant is not.

While monochromatic is a color harmony, it’s not that difficult to do with food (see my rahmschnitzel), but difficult to do in a way that makes the food visually exciting. The only way monochromatic colors are attractive with foods is if there’s significant space between the colors in terms of tint/tone/shade.  Think of a slice of salmon sushi next to a carrot next to a piece of ginger. You ever notice how sushi chefs usually plate the sushi with that little green plastic thing? Usually separating the pink things from each other? Or the choice to make wasabi green? That’s all about color’s impact on the dining experience.

The next most visually-interesting color harmony is that of analogous colors that sit next to each other in the color wheel, usually in sets of 3. The most accurate analogous colors share the same tint/tone/shade, but with food that’s difficult to pull off. Think citrus hues and how well they go together. They’re prettier, but not necessarily “zingy”.

split complementary

direct complementary

 

Direct complementary colors are where this gets interesting. Opposites on the color wheel, any two hues that are complementary will “vibrate” when seen together. This is bad for text but good for food! This vibrant color harmony makes your food “pop” in an energetic way, making it more appealing and less bland.

BAD FOR TEXT/SIGNAGE:

bad for text – makes it almost illegible

GOOD FOR FOOOOOOOD:

this 해물파전 (seafood pancake) balances neutral colors (light golden brown, white) with the bright spring green of edamamae and the orange-red of shrimp for a vibrant look.

 

this garden crepe from Brio balances the deep red of the tomato compote with the emerald green of the spinach

 

this authentic orange chicken dish from First Chinese BBQ contrasts the reddish orange of the deep-fried chicken with the brilliant green of the blanched broccoli…detecting a pattern here? 😉

 

again with the warm color, green accent combo, this hotpot from Chino Hills’ Boiling Point individual 火锅 restaurant adds chili powder to the mix to create a nice balance of texture, flavor, and visual interest.

 

this carefully-orchestrated photo of deep golden curry, brown chopsticks, pink shrimp, and a blue-and-white spoon balances the near-analogous gold, brown and pink with the complementary bright blue print.

Final tip

I used to buy dishes of all colors, whatever appealed to me, but for now I exclusively purchase white dishes. They’re bright, good for photography as they add light to the image, and don’t conflict with the colors of the food. Also everything matches effortlessly now!

Thanks for reading, and I hope I’ve helped you become a better home chef!

2 Responses

  1. Abel

    Amazing article Mia! I’m going to try this and improve on the dishes I normally make.