11 (Mostly) Inedible Ingredients Photographers Use to Get Food Ready for Its Close-Up

John Ueland
John Ueland

Looking at the cover of your favorite cookbook or food magazine, it's hard for your mouth not to water. Unless, of course, you know what sort of decidedly non-tasty "ingredients" go into making your favorite foods camera-ready. Here are 11 of them.

1. GLUE

Milk makes cereal soggy, but those corn flakes will stay crunchy when bathed in white glue. Yogurt or shampoo will also do the trick.

2. COTTON BALLS

A piping hot dish looks tasty when steam is billowing, but it’s hard to maintain. As a fix, photographers will soak a cotton ball or tampon in water, microwave it, and then hide it in the frame to create that smoky effect.

3. SHOE POLISH

A tin of shoe polish
iStock

Most meat products aren’t cooked because they shrivel. Instead, steaks and burgers are seared with a blowtorch. Grill marks are added with a branding iron, and shoe polish or varnish creates a succulent sheen.

4. AND 5. CARDBOARD AND TOOTHPICKS

Prop burgers are supported with layers of cardboard, while toothpicks or pins keep the garnishes in place.

6. GLYCERIN

If a product looks cold or icy, it’s likely covered in glycerin. A sugar alcohol, glycerin subs in for condensation on shoots, making the sweat on beer bottles and the moisture on salads.

7. DISH SOAP

A sink full of dish soap and bubbles
iStock

Soda needs lots of bubbles. A little antacid tablet typically gets the stuff churning, while dish soap creates larger surface bubbles.

8. HAIRSPRAY

That delicious bunch of grapes has a matte look because it’s coated in hairspray.

9. MOTOR OIL

Pancakes absorb syrup like a sponge. To prevent this, food stylists will coat a stack of flapjacks with aerosol fabric protector. And since maple syrup isn’t as appetizing under bright lights, some photographers prefer motor oil.

10. PAPER TOWELS

Several rolls of paper towels
iStock

Ice cream syrup tends to droop, so photographers cut out pieces of paper towel, lay them onto the ice cream, and then cover the patches with syrup, which stays in place.

11. MASHED POTATOES

Speaking of ice cream, which melts under hot lights: mashed potatoes are dyed different colors and then shaped into scoops to look like they came from a creamery. Taters are also injected to plump up roasts and baked into pies to prevent slices from falling apart.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Canned Pumpkin Isn’t Actually Pumpkin

iStock
iStock

We hate to squash your autumnal dreams, but baking a pumpkin pie might not be as easy as you think. That’s because the canned pumpkin that normally makes pie prep such a breeze isn’t made of pumpkin at all. Food & Wine reports that cans of pumpkin puree—even those that advertise "100 percent pumpkin"—are actually made of a range of different squashes.

Most pumpkin purees are a mix of winter squashes, including butternut squash, Golden Delicious, and Hubbard. Meanwhile, Libby’s, the largest pumpkin puree brand, has developed its own unique brand of squash called the Dickinson, which is more closely related to a butternut squash than a pumpkin. The FDA is vague about what counts as "pumpkin," which allows companies to pack unspecified squashes into their purees and still list pumpkin as the sole ingredient.

While it’s a little unsettling to find out your favorite pie is not what it seems, pumpkin puree brands have a good reason for their deception. While pumpkins are a quintessential part of autumn, they don’t actually taste that great. Most pumpkins are watery and a little bit stringy, and turning them into a puree takes more work, and involves less reward, than other, sweeter winter squashes.

[h/t Food & Wine]

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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