Garnishing is simply any attempt to add color and/or flavor so as to accent or dress up a dish you are serving. A garnish ties everything together!
Whether you are cooking at the White House or just at your house, it can go a long way towards making an otherwise hum-drum meal appear interesting and appealing. Moreover, as any cook worth her salt knows, the more anxious your guests are to get started, the more likely they are to rave about the food.
I look at garnishing as one of those things that requires very little extra effort, but delivers a big payoff. For more garnishing tips sign up for my free newsletter.
- Garnishes should always be edible, with the exemption of shellfish claws, lobster shells or similar components in a relevant dish.
- Use only relevant or complementary ingredients or flavors.
- A zester is a great tool to use to add flavors such as chocolate, lemon, orange, etc.
- Fresh herbs are a fantastic and very easy way to add instant visual interest, color, fragrance and flavor.
- Use lemons to make a splash! Hollowed out lemons filled with sorbet or gelato make beautiful dessert presentations. Cut the tops off whole lemons (reserve these and add a mint leaf) scoop out the pulp. Take a thin slice off the bottoms so the fruit will sit flat. Fill with the sorbet and gently lay the top of the lemon (with the mint leaf) slanted on top.
- Lemon wrapped vegetable bouquets are made of steamed white and green asparagus, carrot sticks, and spears of red and green bell peppers. Gather one of each cooked vegetable to form colorful little bundles. Insert that through the slit you cut in the center of a lemon disc. Add a little butter, and viola!
- Make a beautiful roast chicken by loosening the skin of the chicken all over the breast and thighs and insert thin slices of lemon and fresh sage leaves under the skin. Brush the bird all over with a mixture of olive oil and melted butter. Salt and pepper the bird generously and roast as you normally would. The lemon and sage infuse the meat with flavor.
- To create beautiful caramelized lemons to serve with roast fish or chicken, slice lemons in half and brush them with olive oil. Place them cut-side down in a very hot, clean, dry skillet and cook to caramelize (brown) about 8 minutes.
- Create a stunning centerpiece by filling a clear vase with beautiful lemons. Arrange stems of tall, bold flowers like Gerbera daisies or sunflowers.
- WOW your guests with a simple rose flower. Take a firm tomato, and using a sharp paring knife, peel the tomato as if you were peeling an apple. Try to keep the peel as thin and long as possible. Blot the tomato peel with paper towels. Carefully roll up the peel in a coil to make a flower shape.
- When garnishing soups, chili or stew, rather than the old stand-by of crackers, consider serving fried tortillas strips. These can be made by cutting out coils or other shapes in soft flour tortillas or won-ton wrappers, then deep frying them quickly so that they draw up to make unusual shapes.
- Make baguette croutons – Slice a baguette, brush with flavored olive oil and bake at 300 until crispy. You can also top the baguette with a flavored cheese, melted cheese, or diced vegetables (use an ingredient in the soup). Top with grated cheese and/or chopped herb.
- Soup’s not just for family dinners, they are wonderful to serve when entertaining. Guests love sipping pureed soups from diminutive espresso or demitasse cups, and the options for garnishes are practically unlimited. Dollop, swirl or drizzle flavored creams or mayonnaise-based sauces, pestos, salsas, yogurt or sour cream or oils. Sprinkle leaves or sprigs of herbs, crumbled bacon or crumbled blue cheese or goat cheese. Float croutons crisps or cheesy, crisp tortilla strips (as mentioned above) translucent slices of vegetables or fruits, chopped onion or scallion or shallot, little haystacks of grated cheese, dumplings or spaetzle. Serve on the side as with Vietnam’s pho, or Mexico’s posole, wedges of lime for squeezing, along with little dishes of garnishes with which to customize one’s individual bowl. Let me recommend a delicious soup book – “Sunday Soup”
- Decorate a cheese tray by starting with an attractive arrangement of cheese cut into wedges (Camembert Style, Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, Cheddar etc.) Add cranberries, dried fruit, grapes, or nuts between the wedges, then decorate the rim of the plate with additional dried fruits. Make sure to include some crackers and/or slices of baguette/bread.
- Onion/Celery Curl: Cut the white root end off of a green onion, and trim the green leaf end to about 3 inches. Using scissors or a sharp knife, cut through each leaf lengthways, leaving about 1/2-inch joined to the whites of the onion stem. Place the green part of the onion in a bowl of iced water for 30 minutes so the leaves will curl. The longer the onion sits in the water, the tighter the curl will be. For celery curls, cut through the stalk using scissors or a sharp knife and place that end in the iced water.
- Consider creating a decorative pattern in your dessert sauces. Start with a cream glaze of melted custard that has been allowed to cool. (Tip: A cheat for this is melted ice cream. You could even add a little rum). Pour the sauce into a plate and use a spoon to smooth it out evenly. Using a bottle with a needle-nose spout (squirt bottle, see below) and some raspberry puree, create evenly spaced horizontal stripes across the top of the glaze. Next, use a toothpick to create a design by drawing the point of the toothpick slowly across the stripes. Top off this delicious and visually elegant sauce-presentation with a piece of chocolate cake or chocolate cheesecake.
- Chocolate is such a great ingredient for garnishing. You can grate it, shave it, melt it, whip it, shake it, marbleize it and probably do a lot more things I haven’t tried yet. For easy melting, I always start with chocolate chips and heat them in the microwave. This is the safest and simplest way to melt chocolate without the risk of scorching. Melt in 30-second increments, stopping to stir and test (it’ll only take a minute or two). Then reheat as needed.
- Make chocolate hearts with white icing – Melt semisweet chocolate chips in the microwave (see above). Pour onto a sheet pan lined with waxed paper. After about 60 seconds, drizzle on melted white chocolate. Use a knife to gently draw patterns through the white and dark chocolate. Let set until firm. Barely warm a metal heart-shaped cookie cutter in the oven and use to cut out heart shapes. Use the marble hearts to decorate cupcakes, layer cakes or ice cream sundaes.
- Use a commercial cake stencil (purchased at a cookware store) to make a cocoa design. Place the stencil onto a cheesecake (or a smoothly frosted cake) so that it’s absolutely flat. Put dark cocoa powder into a small flour sifter or tea strainer and gently tap it to shake the cocoa powder evenly over the surface of the stencil. Carefully lift the stencil straight up to remove without blurring the design. This simple trick makes any cake look gourmet!
- On a plate or saucer on which you’ll be serving individual pie slices, use a stencil as a guide, and sprinkle cinnamon over it to create word art or designs of your choice.
- Have some fun with footed glasses such as parfaits, dessert coupes, champagne flutes and cordial glasses. Layering is the key to these sweet whimsies. Use whipped cream and frostings; berries and other fruits; caramel and chocolate sauces; mini cupcakes, cheesecakes, brownies and lemon bars; crushed candies, sprinkles, toffee and chocolate chips. You can virtually put anything in a stemmed glass! Make sure everything is bite size. For example a brunch starter could be bite size coffee cake with cream cheese and fruit layered. Or you could do a dessert with bite sized cut up lemon bars, assorted fresh berries and whipped cream. Bite sized chocolate brownies, chocolate mousse, caramel sauce and toffee bits. Presentation is what this is all about. Think about ways to add charming touches, such as placing each glass on a decorative saucer or small plate. You could add dessert spoons that have been dipped in chocolate or white chocolate. Think of full-size desserts such as trifles or strawberry shortcake, then consider how you can deconstruct and miniaturize them! Possibilities for garnishing are almost endless. Fresh berries; crushed candies such as peppermints, toffee or lemon drops; chopped toasted nuts; cylindrical pirouette cookies for height; crushed cookies; mini candy canes or stick candy; mini chocolate or other flavored chips; chocolate curls or shavings (use a swivel-bladed peeler on a block of chocolate); sprinkles, jimmies and dragees; toasted coconut; candied ginger; cinnamon sprinkles or freshly grated nutmeg.
- Oranges are wonderful to use as garnishes. They can add warmth to a winter holiday table as easily as to a summer barbecue. Plus the vivid orange color is flattering to nearly all foods. Slice oranges into 1/4″ discs. Insert a small cluster of grapes and mint or bay leaves into the center of each slice. Arrange these on a platter in a lush, bountiful border around your roast turkey, ham or goose on your holiday table.
- Oranges can be studded with cloves to become a centerpiece for your dining room table or buffet.
- To make a stunning orange cheesecake, stand one thin slice of orange upright in each slice of cheesecake. Melt orange marmalade (1 teaspoon per serving) in the microwave and drizzle over the orange slice. Add a small mint leaf on the plate for contrast!
- Squirt bottles are a chef’s best friend when it comes to garnishing. You can fill them with wonderful sauces and oils to decorate plates. You can also use them to fill chocolate molds. The bottles are cheap enough to buy several and have fun with designs . . .
- The components of a dish can be the garnish itself. Use the colors, shapes and textures of the food to create visual appeal.
- Top a beef entree with mixed greens, perhaps very lightly tossed in a viniagrette.
- Edible Flowers – Decorate your plate by using edible flowers such as pansies, roses, lavender, nasturtium, and chive blossoms. Buy them from the produce section of the grocery store if they are available, or if not, use organically grown flowers. Do not use regular flowers from a florist, as they are usually sprayed with pesticides.
- They come in liquid form too. Sauces and flavored oils can add visual interest as well as finish the dish.
- Use a red or green pepper as a bowl for vegetables or dips if that type of food allows.
- Sprinkle herbs, preferably mild ones, on the edges of the plate or let them rain down on the entire meal for a burst of color. Don’t let the edges of the plate get too sprinkled.
- Avoid a color scheme cop-out – for example, adding a red tomato to every green dish – unless, of course, the taste combination makes sense.
- Try not to use the same one on every plate.
- Prepare in a way that best accents natural beauty and patterns, but doesn’t disrupt the dish itself: crispy, curly bacon on a bacon flan; a blanched savoy cabbage “rib” placed gently next to its bumpy, buttery leaves; julienned lemon zest on a citrus tart.
- Don’t repeat on different plates within the same meal and don’t repeat main ingredients of different plates within the same meal.
- When deciding, your creativity and sensibility are your only limitations. Don’t get in a parsley rut (although it’s a fine garnish for the right situation), and use ingredients in the dish itself to decorate the plate. This is the easiest and most sensible way to garnish, because you know you can’t go wrong with matching tastes.
If you really want to get fancy with garnishing, let me recommend a garnishing set and a great book “The Book of Garnishes”. I have had some creative fun with these!
I make it a point to try to add at least a little garnishing to almost every dish I serve, both to guests and my family.