Food

Before and After: How to Make Your Recipes Look Amazing

Yossy Arefi salad

Ever wonder why the cookbook photo of the dish looks so much better than what you just served — even though you followed the recipe to the letter? Well, over the past few years as a food writer/Instagram enthusiast, I’ve realized that…

…a lot of the beauty of a dish comes from how the components are sliced, especially when it comes to vegetables and salads. There are a few techniques that have brought me ridiculous amounts of satisfaction, with barely any effort expended. Here how to do it.

Yossy Arefi tomatoes

Take tomatoes for instance. I swear, ever since I learned to cut the little grape ones horizontally into quarters (right) as opposed to halved across its belt (left), it has upgraded the way my everyday salads taste.

Yossy Arefi snow peas

And eating a properly sliced snow pea has the same effect. Instead of chopping them into graceless squares (left), I now slice them into thin strips lengthwise (right). It’s a little fussy and you might be questioning your sanity as you do so, but persist! I promise they will taste better when their consistency is crispy as opposed to chunky.

Yossy Arefi cucumbers and radishes

With vegetables like cucumbers and radishes, I like slicing them thin to the point of translucent. When they’re thicker (left), they dominate whatever forkful they find themselves in. Plus, they look so graphic in rows atop a salad before you toss it. (You would be forgiven if “graphic” is something you never considered missing in a salad until now.) To get the half-moons, I halve the whole vegetables before slicing.

Yossy Arefi carrots and scallions

When it comes to long skinny things, such as carrots and scallions, you can’t go wrong with slicing on the bias (right). That means your knife is angled, almost-but-not-quite parallel with whatever vegetable you are cutting.

Yossy Arefi avocado

If you learn only one thing from this post, let it be the proper way to slice an avocado, measured strictly by the “look-at-those-avocados!” compliment you receive when serving it to someone. In darker days, I used to slice the flesh right in the shell in a grid pattern (left) which no one will arrest you for, but once I learned how to fan the insides (right) a whole new world of pretty opened up. To do this, halve your avocado the normal way, peel off the skin, then slice the half, cut-side down, into thin strips.

how to make a beautiful salad (before and after)

Does the one on the left look bad, per se? No, of course not; we’d all be crazy not to dig into it immediately. But, by comparison, don’t you just have an uncontrollable urge to click the like button a thousand times when you see the one on the right? That avocado! Those radishes! Someone get me my phone… and a fork.

P.S. Breakfast salad, and my sister’s killer salad recommendation.

(Photos by Yossy Arefi for Cup of Jo.)

  1. This is fab – it’s crazy how such a small change really makes a huge difference to the overall look of the dish!! I need to memory bank that!

  2. Wendy says...

    Commenting superlate to say that I cut my snap peas like it was recommended here for a quick stir fry tonight and they came out so much better and my toddler ate them! Yay!

  3. Lisa T says...

    This was such a helpful post! It made me want to eat a salad and I will definitely cut my veggies like you demonstrated from now on. Thank you!

  4. Amy says...

    Fantastic and inspiring post! I had put little thought into this previously, while taking what I now realize were very boring pictures of my food for Instagram posts. My next shot will be a work of art! *snap :-)

  5. Marie says...

    What kind of DRESSING is that? It looks so fresh and yummy!!

    • Franny Eremin says...

      Hi Marie! It’s the Gotham Greens Green Goddess dressing. SO. GOOD.

  6. rachel says...

    both salads look lovely to me! i want to eat both!

  7. EM says...

    This feels like a stupid question but does anyone have any tips for learning how to best slice or cut ingredients, either for salads or in recipe? I never learned and now everything takes me so much longer to do than most people, according to the estimated recipe times. (If it says, “while these bake for 15 minutes, chop those,” it will inevitably take me 30!)

    • I found that a smaller knife works so much better for me. I feel more in control of it and it is easier to manoeuvre. The knife I use also has a round edge in the end. Maybe finding the right knife might help! Also, before I start a recipe I cut and prep everything before hand as it always makes things easier and more enjoyable :)

    • Sadie says...

      Just YouTube! Pick a vegetable and search “how to cut” or “how to slice.” I learned from YouTube and I’m always getting compliments on my finely-sliced and evenly-diced vegetables… which is weird, but hey, why turn down compliments?

  8. Julie says...

    This blows my mind. Similarly to how, when growing up, my family was strictly a canned vegetables/iceberg lettuce/dry carrot sticks family, so when I visited a college friend’s house and there were fresh sliced veggies or even roasted fresh veggies with seasoning, I was just blown away. Or how much better massaged kale tastes!

    • Emily says...

      100% related to this comment so much. I grew up on canned and microwaved everything and remember having such secret revelations in my head in college when I started eating fresh veggies with buddies and their families.

  9. Jane I. says...

    I am so here for this! I am often the food envy of my co-workers because I actually take the time to plate my food nicely. It’s a moment of joy at an otherwise mundane lunch.

  10. Jill D says...

    So interesting, I actually prefer the image of the tomatoes cut on the horizon… I think it is because the color is more robust without the exposure of the long pithy tomato membrane. Regardless both are beautiful.

    I cannot wait to try the snow peas thinly sliced. I have always loved snow peas as a solo snack or in stir fry but avoid them in salad because the raw chunks are reedy and annoying among other salad ingredients. Great tip!

  11. Lisa says...

    I love this post – we truly do eat with our eyes. I am 100% precent craving salad RIGHT NOW.

  12. Molly says...

    I love tips like this, and used them last night for our salad! Really did make a difference.

  13. Allegra LaViola says...

    On an early date with my now-husband, we made pizza and salad at my house. As he began to cut the cucumbers into thick chunks I yelped “What are you doing?!”, grabbed the knife away from him and began to very thinly slice the cucumbers into translucent slivers. About 3 second into doing this I realized he might think I was totally insane and not want to date me, so I sheepishly returned the knife to him and apologized profusely. We now laugh about this moment (and my controlling ways about how to slice salad vegetables), but this post has confirmed that, actually, I was right all along!

  14. Mom says...

    Either way, eat your vegetables!

    • Sasha L says...

      Lol. Mom says……..
      You made me laugh so loudly. And I have to agree. Eat those veggies folks!

  15. Callie says...

    Love this! Strange how making a dish “pretty” can make it more fulfilling, and the shape of something can change the taste, to me at least… shaved deli meat vs. thick slices, pretzel sticks vs pretzel shaped pretzels (why are the sticks sooo much better?!).

    One little chopping trick has stuck with me. We were in Boston several years ago and went to Tatte where the yogurt/muesli had apples sliced in thin straw like pieces instead of chunks or slices (think shoestring french fries). !! I just had it this morning at work and I always feel FANCY when I’m in our office kitchen making my Tatte copycat bowl. Someone always says “that looks GOOD”… Google image it– you’ll want to start doing it that way too, and your coworkers will wish their breakfast looked as fancy.

    • Franny Eremin says...

      I love Tatte, Callie! You’re so right about the apple slices.

  16. Lindsay says...

    May I ask what dressing Jenny used for this salad?

  17. Sara says...

    My life has been forever improved thanks to this post.

  18. Jamie says...

    I have been waiting for this post for my whole adult life. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!! I can’t wait to make a more tasteful and harmonized salad!

  19. I call these composed salads : they are so pretty and do photograph well for instagram @mangotomato.

    Once I take the photo, I add all the ingredients to a large bowl with extra dressing and mix them up :)

  20. Marisa says...

    Very fun post to look at!! I’m with you except on the avocados- I think they taste better in chunks, rather than in slices. (although the slices do look better) I have another tip I’ve discovered recently. When using large seasonal tomatoes, I like slicing them thinly and fanning them out on the side of the rest of the salad. I spoon a little vinaigrette on them, or pesto. They look prettier and are they are tastier :)

  21. Abby says...

    My biggest aha moment in slicing was this Bon Appetit recipe. They suggested slicing the celery thinly on a diagonal while having the two side end facing you instead of facing down (wow, Food writing is difficult! have a look at the picture it comes with for better understanding haha)
    Also my favourite BBQ salad to bring as a Vegetarian – always big praises by everyone (even the celery haters).
    https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/celery-slaw-with-seeds-and-dates

  22. Christy says...

    I read this yesterday and thought about it first thing this morning while I was slicing cucumbers for my daughter’s breakfast pickles (weird, I know). What a nice article. This is the kind of cooking advice I need. So simple but I feel like it will help me every single day!

  23. So interesting. Love this post!

    Any tips for how to deal with applying salad dressing or sauces?

  24. Anna says...

    Love this SO MUCH. What a fun little topic I never would have thought of but makes complete sense! Thank you.

  25. Lynn says...

    Ummm … this post is kind of genius! I looked at the post title and thought, snore. But the pictures sell it! I’m totally going to try this – thank!

  26. Maria says...

    Has anyone found THE perfect salad container to bring to work?! I eat salad for breakfast (and sometimes lunch when I lack any imagination). And I’m still at a loss. Mason jars are awkward to eat from, bulky square containers don’t fit in a bag, and don’t get me started on dressing spillage. The salad struggle is real!

    • Kate says...

      I keep a big glass bowl at work for eating salad, and I bring them in any old jar or tupperware I have at home. I put dressing in first, then toppings, then greens so the greens don’t get soggy. Then shake, dump in my bowl, and viola! Salad at work! (Not as pretty as the picture up there, but it works for me!)

    • Amy says...

      I can’t find the exact one but try a Pyrex bowl with a leak-proof lid. I had one for my salads and my husband has now stolen it for his lunches. A bit heavy but you take the lid off and – et voila! – your salad is already in a nice glass bowl. https://www.bigw.com.au/product/pyrex-cook-go-medium-1-6l-round-container/p/646277/

      Hot tip: my salads are always giant so I get the bigger bowl for more salad satisfaction.

    • Stacy says...

      I love meal prep containers from amazon – the kind with black bottoms and clear plastic lids. I think I bought a pack of 15 to start, the ones I bought are diahwasher safe, and I still have at least half of them two years later. The round deep ones are great for salad lunches. Not totally leak proof, but pretty good!

    • Marina says...

      I have this one https://black-blum.com/products/box-appetit# and it’s perfect, there’s even a little container for sauce. Might be a little tight for a huge salad but for an average one it’s very practical. And it’s never leaked in like 4 years.

    • Abby says...

      I use a Rosti Mepal round dish for my salad. Round plastic lid (no Spillage in my experience) and the colours and sturdyness of the bowl make me enjoy my salad a lot more and you can eat right out the bowl.
      https://www.mepal.com/de/vorratsdose-volumia-350-ml-latin-lime-hellgrun-102760091200?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=MP%20-%20DE%20-%20Product&utm_term=mepal%20rosti%20volumia&utm_content=Volumia%20-%20Exact
      But I also second the Pyrex Cook & Go suggestion. Major plus points for the oven-proofness and thus reheatabilites/microwaveability of this one!
      https://www.pyrex.eu/de/products/frischhalte-dosen/cook-go-plat-carre-verre-couvercle-16×16-cm.html
      They have a similar option at Ikea now too!

    • jill says...

      I have a big tupperware-style bowl with attaching lid that I use for salads, and a small container with a screw-top lid for the dressing. In the past I’ve just brought a bottle of my favourite dressing to work and left it in the fridge. As for “bulky square containers don’t fit in a bag” – consider getting a bigger bag. I searched for a really cute and smallish insulated lunch bag before I realized that we already had a soft cooler pack that I could use. It’s big (think tote-bag sized), but it’s got a zipper top, and I can fit SO many snacks in there with my lunch.

    • Annearchy says...

      I use the pampered chef 4 quart collapsible serving bowl with a lid. It packs down to save space, holds a big salad and has a lid.

    • Anna says...

      I also really wanted a container that wouldn’t be too bulky in my purse, especially if I have plans after work. I found these Kuuk collapsible containers on Amazon that I’ve been using for over a year now and I love them (I use the second-largest sized blue one): https://www.amazon.com/KUUK-Collapsible-Silicone-Storage-Container/dp/B07JLYRMB4/ref=lp_10405589011_1_2?srs=10405589011&ie=UTF8&qid=1547742500&sr=8-2. It fits snugly but neatly in my medium-sized purse and when I’m done, I tuck my fork or spoon into the container, collapse it, and then barely takes up any space in my bag!

      As for the leak-proof, I haven’t tested these for that, but maybe you can bring a separate little jar for that or maybe bring a big batch in at once and leave it in the office fridge (if there is one)?

    • Maria says...

      To everyone who commented with container ideas… YOU ARE SALAD GODDESSES. Many, many thanks!

    • Melissa says...

      for salad dressing: I use the tiny 1oz Medela breastmilk containers. since they’re designed for milk, they’re leak proof and perfectly sized. I bring almond milk vanilla creamer for my work coffee in the 2.5 oz size :)

  27. Sue Mc says...

    Very true. And it’s also about change. If you always chop something the same way it doesn’t excite on the plate any more! I like to shave eneven quarter moons round and round a cucumber, or long thin shreds with a peeler. Also lettuce – vermicelli fine shreds, torn, long spears halved down its stalk – mix it up!!

  28. Alli says...

    Ha, yes. My husband and I are both food industry professionals and call the salad on the left “Mom-Salad” because that’s the style we grew up with on the kitchen table! Somehow it seems that all moms of the 80’s made salads like that (and both of ours still do!).

    • beth says...

      hahaha

    • Erin says...

      hahaha, all it’s missing is some raw sliced mushrooms!

  29. N says...

    Such beautiful slices! I love the second photo- I do find the long slender slices more enjoyable to eat. Now I feel empowered to assert my preference in the kitchen lol

  30. Oh, I love this! I also think it depends who you are making a salad for. I have an 8 y.o. and she loves salads but only if all veggies are chopped very finely and there are olives. Children are weird, I know now))) Or is it only mine, ha-ha!!!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Haha so cute!

    • Erin says...

      Not just yours … I can get my moderately picky 5-year-old to try almost anything if I say “But look, it has olives!” (Really, he’s not a super picky eater but he is QUITE skeptical about new foods. We had a long discussion last week about the fact that orzo is actually noodles — which he loves — and not rice, which he merely tolerates. And that was after I had added olives to the orzo recipe to try to encourage him to eat it.)

  31. For some reason I naturally do a little of each. We have a salad every evening to accompany whatever main course and I cut the veggies in random ways. Not intentional, I didn’t even realize until I read this post.
    I used to be a wedding photographer and now I just capture real life moments so maybe it appeals to my personal visual aesthetic.
    I wonder if there is a Myers/Briggs for that :) I do know that I am highly optional in my life as opposed to procedural. Also do not like my clothes to be too matchy matchy. Wow, deep personality traits revealed through the cutting of vegetables. How Zen :)

  32. Suzy Prince Quinn says...

    Interesting! And yes, veggies and a cheese platter would be fun to see too. any plating! Desserts!

    • Sarah says...

      Cheese board suggestions would be amazing!please!

  33. Aria Cole Asher says...

    All of the tips you give made sense to me while ready and look beautiful along the way, but I honestly prefer the look of the end result on the left!

    I go for what tastes better, though, so I still may end up trying some of these suggestions.

    • Me too! (Except for the thin snap peas:).

  34. Alison says...

    Can I suggest that Jenny do a part two, focusing on how to slice and arrange vegetables for a raw vegetable platter? Carrots, celery, peppers, zucchini, etc. This is another place where mine look blah, but I see ones with the exact same vegetables that look crazy delicious.

    Thank you, as always!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Great idea! And a cheese plate!

    • beks says...

      check out sorellacollective.com for seriously beautiful looking veggies boards!

    • Heather says...

      Yes! A cheese plate! :D

    • Jessica says...

      Yes yes for a cheese board!
      And this post is brilliant.

    • Nancy says...

      In a nutshell, when arranging veggies, fruit, cheese, dessert squares, etc., go for contrast in shape, size, and colour. Try not to have the same colours or same shapes next to each other. It will look more appealing if you have say, round, red, cherry tomatoes next to green celery sticks, then white mushrooms, with orange carrot sticks next, (better yet, purple carrots). If you group all of the round veggies on one side, and sticks on the other, or all of the greens together, it is less visually interesting. You can also slice veggies in different ways to create the variety of shape. Zucchini can be sticks or slices (slightly on the diagonal is visually more interesting).
      With cheese, try slicing some in squares, others in triangles, and contrast textures too. Have some orange and white firm cheese, maybe a soft Boursin, semi soft brie, and some with visual texture such a blue cheese or herbed Havarti. Tuck a variety of cracker shapes sizes and textures amongst the cheese and add some sliced fruit… geez, now I’m hungry.

  35. ErikaMC says...

    Great tips on slicing veggies – something I never really considered. I will say though with the side-by-side of the salads I like the look of the one on the left better because it has more color and the one on the left just looks all green.

  36. Shannon says...

    Love the photos in this post — great visual explanations!

  37. Ro says...

    This is amazing. I love that it’s not just about making the salad prettier, but getting a better taste from each vegetable.

    Also, I wonder what it says about me that I naturally do all of the chopping techniques on the left? Haha

  38. Karin Neff says...

    A trick I learned from my mom for fruit and pasta/bean salads:
    Chop everything to the size of the smallest whole component in the dish — so if you are using blueberries in a fruit salad, chop your melon/pineapple/strawberries to blueberry-sized chunks.

    Same is true for corn kernels/black beans/etc in a savory salad.

    It has the same bizarre beautiful aesthetic = beautiful flavor effect as the suggestions above.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Ooh good tip!

  39. angela says...

    i know this is silly, but… i liked the photos so much. Can’t wait to make a prettier (and balanced) salad!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      So glad! We shot them quickly this morning at my apartment and then ate both salads haha :)

  40. Sophia says...

    Beautiful! Great tips. You definitely eat with your eyes first :)

  41. Christine says...

    This is awesome!!

  42. agnes says...

    Great post! My goal in 2019 is to learn how to slice onions just like chefs do. I find it fascinating and it is SO enjoyable to watch I am sure it is enjoyable to do.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      My friend once took a knife skills class at a local culinary school and she said it was one of the best things she ever did!

    • Lauren E. says...

      I second Joanna’s comment. When I was feeling particularly low about life, I signed up for the 5 week knife skills class at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. I felt SO fancy in my chef’s whites, got a beautiful set of knives, and learned the knife skills I still use today that makes everyone think I know what I’m doing in the kitchen when I’m really just a beginner. Highly recommend.

  43. Melanie Bowman says...

    I love this so much – but hard to visualize based on descriptions alone! Does anyone have a good YouTube vid for these kind of techniques?

  44. Cynthia says...

    Presentation is everything!

  45. i love this post and I love that there’s some one who cares about this as much as I do!
    I picked up some great tips here too.
    I love cooking and also making my food look good! I have an instagram specifically for this purpose! (@somehavefood)
    <3

  46. Himali says...

    ummm.. i liked the left one better.. sorry!
    Love ya Jenny! big fan of DALS!

  47. Kathy says...

    I just made a salad and all of the components are like those pictured on the left side of this post :(
    Next time I will do them all right :)

  48. Lindsay says...

    Love these tiny trick posts – they have seriously upped my game in more than one area over the years!

  49. Alison says...

    A little embarrassed to admit how much I loved this and also I’m going to be having feelings of chunky chopped vegetable regret when I dump my salad out of a jar here in about 10 min. Tomorrow it will be better. ;)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Hahahaha :)