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White round plates: Does food taste better on them?

(Clockwise from top left) cheesecake; deli sandwiches; chefs serve French food on white plates; bean soup

Some food lovers argue that food presented on white round plates looks better. But does it taste better too?

They seem to be de rigueur in many establishments serving beautiful food - and a common choice for home cooks and their dinner sets too.

"If it's on a nice white, clean plate, you get the main focus on the dish and then you see the colours of the food more," explains Kieran Lenihan, head chef at Farrells Irish Italian restaurants in Bristol.

"If you have sort of a patterned dish or plate they probably take the eye away slightly from the presentation... and you wouldn't be able to see the colours of the dish."

But there is another reason they appeal to diners and chefs alike. Specific plate shape and colour also interact to influence taste perception, researchers have found.

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Dr Peter Stewart, assistant professor of psychology at the Grenfell Campus at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada and his research partner Erica Goss ran an experiment looking at how people perceived the taste of cheesecake on white round and square plates, compared to black round and square plates.

They found that white round plates enhanced some basic judgments.

"Sweetness and intensity ratings were increased by white round plates but so were ratings of quality and liking," says Dr Stewart.

But why?

"The familiar look of the white round plate may have led to higher ratings," says Dr Stewart, "(but) it is also possible that the ratings were influenced by our learned associations.

"The colour white has implicit associations with feelings of purity, brightness, or possibly cleanliness (among many other things I suspect) and this can lead to a priming effect of sorts.

"It might even be as simple as sugar is white and white light is intense. The answer isn't clear," he explains.

Plates Cheesecake was presented to testers on white and black round and square plates

Knowing that food presented on a white round plate will be perceived as sweeter, could alter how chefs plate their desserts says Dr Stewart.

"If you want something that is quite sweet, to not taste too sweet then perhaps is should not be served on a white plate," he says.

"If something could do with an intensity boost then perhaps a round white plate would be best."

Leigh Evans the head chef at Chequers in Bath says it's very important to have the "correct vehicle to deliver a great dish" and would consider this.

"When we get an idea for a dish, firstly you start to think about flavour combination, then how its cooked, then what do I serve it on," he explains.

"A slate for example is often used for the sake of it. If you have a sauce or something than crumbles on the dish, then its best to stay away from it, as it will only create a mess at the table, therefore deterring from the actual dish.

"People don't want to be eating a roast rib of beef and all the trimmings on a crazy, wacky shaped plates. They want to be reassured that the food will speak for its self," he says.

David Wykes, head chef at Verveine seafood restaurant in Milford on Sea, Hampshire has already taken this concept to a different level with his dish "white" - where every single ingredient is also white.

"Most chefs will use a white plate to make food stand out and look very striking. I use it in the completely opposite way," he says.

"I serve a completely white dessert on a white plate to purposely make the dish look very flat and monotone, your brain is telling you that it all tastes the same, this is only possible because we've used a white plate.

"When you eat the dish the flavours are not only completely different and very bold but also because you were expecting flatness it has an even more mind-blowing effect."

"The idea of the plate to me as a chef is to convey nature, to present in a way that lifts the dish that gives the ingredients elegance and purpose.

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Previous research has shown that cutlery can influence food taste, as can tableware, atmosphere, smell, sound and shape and colour.

David Wykes' modern gastronomic style sees him use glass and slate to plate up dishes to evoke a natural connection to where the food is from - as his crockery and cutlery have to "belong".

"I literally have a dish and then look for the right vessel, there is always a sense of purpose to why we have created this dish at this part of the year - whether it be a green plate, a blue bowl, a rock, a sardine tin.

"A great idea on the wrong plate or the wrong cutlery isn't a great idea, the continuity has to flow from the dish to the plate to the cutlery to the service to ambience and finally to the identity of the restaurant."

He says while "there is nothing worse than a great dish served on slate for no reason" as it can be impossible to eat from and feel strange, serving a dish on glass under a glass dome is a way to convey "femininity, fragility, delicacy, beauty and honesty" in his food.

The study also found black square plates have a place, as food quality and food liking judgments were also increased when food was presented on black square plates as well as white round ones.

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Dr Peter Stewart says this may again be because people unconsciously pair colours with different learned associations which "whether the black or white object we see is of high or low quality".

"Many times the colour black is associated with elegance, sophistication, luxuriousness, and a high quality," he says.

"If you are not happy with the quality of the food, then it might be best to put it on a white round or black square plate - or better still don't serve low quality food," he says.

Many chefs and cooks feel black plates are a stylised proposition that need to be paired with a strong theme or cuisine - often Asian food.

Chef Kieran Lenihan says: "I like square plates but I'm not sure - to be honest I haven't used black.

"We try and in keep the crockery and cutlery with the style of the restaurant… If we sent something out on a black plate it probably wouldn't be our style.

"Thai food is very, very bright and vibrant colours... I'm sure it would probably stand out really well on a black plate."

But are there other alternatives that could work too?

Mr Lenihan is serving whole plaice on "really big light-coloured blue plates… there's lots of sort of rings on the plate and the plaice looks great on those".

Leigh Evans says: "I've never used a black plate, but have used a slate, and a granite colour plate to enhance the colour of the dish. I have a ham hock and piccalilli dish which really stands out on them."

Meanwhile Dr Stewart says he hopes to carry out more research to include some colours other than black and white.

"There has been some work in the past examining the influence of colour on various cups and mugs and that research revealed perception differences.

"I see no reason to suggest that plates would be any different.

"Whether chefs will be able to utilize this effect to their benefit remains to be seen."

And as Leigh Evans says: "It's no good looking pretty if it doesn't taste good."

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