Instagram is such a wonderful tool for sharing your life and food stories with others. We love it. And we love posting on it. But, let’s be honest, styling and taking the right photo to post can have its challenges. This is why we’ve enlisted the help of someone who we respect greatly on and off social channels. Well, that, and we really wanted to know more about her new cookbook, Alternative Baker, and snag her recipe for Buckwheat Bergamot Double Chocolate Cookies (the holidays are right around the corner, after all).
As a New York Times food stylist, author of The Bojon Gourmet blog, and brand-new cookbook author, Alanna Taylor-Tobin wows us with her gorgeous photos of almost-to-pretty-to-eat (almost!) recipes–we’re long-time fans of her Instagram feed. She excels at styling, so we asked her a question or two about how she does what she does so well. Here’s to pretty pictures!
Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey from food stylist to cookbook author?
Sure! My background is in art history and pastry. I started my blog, The Bojon Gourmet, seven years ago just for fun and am a mostly self-taught food stylist and photographer. A couple of years ago, I lucked into a regular gig styling food for The New York Times here in California. Around the same time, my publisher contacted me about writing and photographing a book. I couldn’t be happier with these turns of events!
What is your most photographable recipe from your cookbook?
Since I’m a stylist and photographer, I took special care to make my recipes full of vibrant colors so that they’d be easy to shoot! But one that I just couldn’t take a bad shot of was the Blueberry Lemon Verbena Bundt Cake.
Which recipe is the easiest, especially for an amateur baker?
I have a list of the easiest recipes in the book at the beginning (How to Use This Book), but one that requires zero baking skills is the Tart Cherry, Chocolate and Hempseed No-Bake Oat Bars.
Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like behind-the-scenes at the New York Times? Any fun stories you’d like to share?
I have the pleasure of working with Sarah Menanix (of the blog Snixy Kitchen) out of her lovely home in Richmond, CA. Our photographers, Jim Wilson and Craig Lee, are seasoned photojournalists and they always regale us with stories of following campaign trails and shooting interesting events around the country. Some of the recipes we style are from their archives and weren’t always designed with photographs in mind, so we often have to get pretty creative with the styling. For instance, yesterday we styled a rice pilaf that was essentially just rice and onion. We topped it with black pepper and thyme and surrounded it with pretty props, but it was essentially white rice on a plate!
What’s your favorite food to work with?
Right now I’m really into making and shooting pies made with my GF crust from Alternative Baker – they’re fun to style and they always turn out a little differently from one another. And as for my least favorite food – any raw meat or fish. I’m extremely squeamish! Luckily Sarah styles all the meat dishes for NYT. I love her.
What principles do you have for the photos you post to your IG account?
I’m pretty intuitive about my IG account, I just post anything I deem pretty or interesting enough to share – which most of the time is food or cats!
What are the main considerations when taking a food photo for IG?
I find that closer-in photos tend to do well, and I usually edit the photos a little more bright and colorful since they’re usually viewed on a small screen. Photos shot on a dSLR always look more detailed and professional, but I’m lazy about bringing my camera out and about since it’s so heavy. When I shoot with my phone, I always shoot straight down since the lens tends to distort from other angles.
What is one of the greatest stumbling blocks you see in IG food photos? What would you recommend to avoid it?
Harsh indoor yellow light – it pretty much makes all food look horribly unappetizing. Shooting in natural, indirect light coming from a window to the side of the subject always flatters food nicely.
What advice would you give to someone when it comes to plating? Any guidelines that might be helpful to make your guests go wow?
Small quantities served on wide plates or shallow bowls made from natural clay, and fresh produce with bright colors always looks appealing.
Is there a must-have prop or tool needed for amateur food stylists?
Sarah and I almost always add a rumpled natural linen napkin or towel to our shots. It gives every photo a casual look and adds easy movement to the frame. (Fog Linen is my favorite source!)
Can you provide 5 quick tips on how to style stunning food photos for social media?
- Start with the freshest, happiest ingredients you can.
- If cooking vegetables, undercook them so they stay bright and hold a shape.
- Try composing your shot so that the subject isn’t right in the middle of the frame but off to one side (this is one of my biggest challenges!)
- Choose natural materials in neutral colors, and preferably with some texture, to let the food be the star (i.e. marble, wood, metal, concrete, or fabric backgrounds; natural pottery; vintage silverware; linen napkins or kitchen towels; cast iron or enamel pots and pans; etc.)
- Set up the shot near a window with soft, natural light coming through.
Whose food photos on IG do you most love to see scroll up in your feed?
Oh wow, so many! To name a few:
Amanda from Heartbeet Kitchen
Sherrie from With Food + Love
Sarah from Snixy Kitchen
Liz from Floating Kitchen
Amisha from The Jam Lab
Emma K Morriss
Kayley from The Kitchen McCabe
Lily from Kale and Caramel
Buckwheat Bergamot Double Chocolate Cookies
These little chocolate pillows are essentially brownies masquerading as cookies, packed with the flavors of citrusy fresh bergamot, nutty buckwheat flour and crunchy flakes of Maldon salt. Whipping the eggs with the sugar lends an airy texture, and plenty of warm butter and chocolate give the tops a pretty, glazed crackle. The trick to the crackly tops is to have the melted chocolate/butter mixture hot enough to partially dissolve the sugar but not so hot as to cook the eggs or melt the chocolate chunks once added. The mixture should feel pleasantly warm, but not scalding hot, to the touch. If you don’t have access to fresh bergamots, use orange zest in its place. Or you can leave out the citrus altogether and you’ll still have the most divine chocolate cookies imaginable. -Alanna
These little chocolate pillows are essentially brownies masquerading as cookies, packed with the flavors of citrusy fresh bergamot, nutty buckwheat flour and crunchy flakes of Maldon salt. Whipping the eggs with the sugar lends an airy texture, and plenty of warm butter and chocolate give the tops a pretty, glazed crackle. The trick to the crackly tops is to have the melted chocolate/butter mixture hot enough to partially dissolve the sugar but not so hot as to cook the eggs or melt the chocolate chunks once added. The mixture should feel pleasantly warm, but not scalding hot, to the touch.
If you don’t have access to fresh bergamots, use orange zest in its place. Or you can leave out the citrus altogether and you’ll still have the most divine chocolate cookies imaginable. -Alanna
Makes: 30 2-inch (5-cm) cookies
- 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
- 12 ounces (345 grams) bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao mass), chopped (about 2 1⁄4 cups), plus several chunks for the tops of the cookies
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (1 grams) packed finely grated zest from 1 medium bergamot (or orange)
- 1/2 cup (65 grams) buckwheat flour
- 2 tablespoons (15 grams) tapioca flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (130 grams) organic granulated cane sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Flaky salt such as Maldon, for the tops
- Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350ºF (175ºC). Line 2 rimless cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- Place the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan set over the lowest possible heat. Add 8 ounces (230 g) of the chocolate and the bergamot zest, and melt together, stirring frequently to prevent the chocolate from scorching. Continue cooking until the mixture is pleasantly warm, but not super hot, to the touch. Remove from the heat and keep warm. Sift the buckwheat flour, tapioca flour and baking powder into a small bowl and set aside.
- Meanwhile, place the eggs, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and whip on medium-high speed until the mixture is very light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Turn the mixer to low and stir in the vanilla until just combined, then the warm chocolate butter mixture. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a flexible silicone spatula to fold in the remaining 4 ounces (115 g) chopped chocolate.
- If the batter is very runny, let it cool for a few minutes until it firms to the consistency of a thick brownie batter. Use a #40 spring-loaded ice cream scoop or 2 spoons to drop heaping tablespoons of batter onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them at least 2 inches (5 cm) apart. Top each cookie with a few chunks of chocolate and a few flecks of flaky salt.
- Bake the cookies until puffed and cracked and the edges are set, 8 to 12 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Let cool on the pans. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. The cookies are best the day of baking but will keep, airtight at room temperature, for up to 3 days.