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3D printing on food: 3 years of experimentation and 50 materials later…

Since the creation of La Patisserie Numerique in 2019, I have spent many (many) hours 3D printing food and itself often on food! So in this article, I share my findings and some of my recipes. I hope this can help, those who are already printing and inspire those who are hesitant to take the plunge!

I’m also writing this article, because it’s been more than a year since I got my hands on the first Cakewalk 3d prototype. This tool was the opportunity for me to easily make food 3D printing according to my desires. And to test day after day materials and supports adapted to receive, support and cook 3D printed food.

Make 3d food printing easier

3d printing on food: fruits

Cakewalk 3d is a culinary extruder that comes attached to many personal 3D printer models. And it enables realizing food printing with your own 3D printer and for a small budget!

This product was born from a frustration linked to the existing alternatives on the market. I wanted a product, that was perfectly food safe, easy to clean and disinfect, and could handle shrinkage.

The difficulties of extruding a material

If you have ever extruded a viscous material, for example using a piping bag. Or if you have ever observed honey flowing, then you know that this behavior is not linear. The material does not flow immediately upon the start of pressure (or the drop of the spoon). And it does not immediately stop flowing when you stop the pressure effort (or pull the spoon up).

3d printed fondant
Stopping a viscous material going out from a syringe pushed with a piston… not easy!

Calculating the extrusion and retraction latency of a viscous material extruded by a piston system is archly complicated to integrate into 3D printing slicing software. I spent hours and hours on it in 2019! With the team, we looked for software solutions and mechanical solutions. The mechanical development became Cakewalk 3d.

Here, I wanted to explain the origin of the product. Because, before I created and used Cakewalk 3d, I did a lot of 3d printing of food with syringe and piston systems. I’ve been 3d printing edible materials since July 2019, right after I passed the CAP Pastry exam.

Now it’s time to gather my findings and tips, for making successful 3D prints of food.

Protecting your 3d printer: the proper materials

3d printing food on baking sheet
3d printed meringue butterfly on baking sheet

Like many beginners in food 3D printing, I wanted to start with chocolate. In retrospect, I know this was a mistake, but it taught me one thing right away. When you 3D print food, you can get your 3D printer and everything around it dirty very quickly!

The silicone mat and the baking paper sheets

I started working with a homemade 3D printer that had a wooden tray… I’ll let you imagine to clean the chocolate! The silicone mat was put on the tray on the 2nd day. I started working with the baking paper sheets within the first week.

I think this comes from a baking habit. In the lab, baking paper sheets are ubiquitous and often written on. Therefore, it was the right solution to 3d print on and keep the variables of the test performed.

The baking paper has a constant thickness. As a consequence, this is very convenient for calculating the precise Z-offset value. Its surface is slightly waxed which is not necessarily suitable for all materials. To be sure to hang, I advise you to crush your first layer.

As the baking paper is light, you can move it from one surface to another with a quick tap without damaging the 3D print. If you are looking for a more durable solution, I recommend silicone matting. It often has a more adhesive surface than baking paper, but it is softer and heavier. Sometimes it is difficult to move it without breaking the part.

Both materials can withstand a baking or freezing environment. When I use a dehydrator to bake the printed object at low temperature, I prefer to use baking paper. I allow myself to cut it around the 3D shape to let as much air as possible circulate around it.

When 3D printing chocolate, I recommend using guitar sheets. These are polyethylene sheets that you can find in professional stores or on the internet. It really makes it easy to peel off.

Finally, to make a 3D printed decoration that can be peeled off the baking paper (or silicone/guitar sheet) I recommend a minimum height of 2 mm.

PS: in all Cakewalk 3d kits, we have integrated a graduated silicone mat, very practical to protect your 3D printer and position your dish before printing!

The difficulties of 3D printing on food

3d printing on food: cake
When the 3d printing is good, avoid to break it during transportation

Now that we’ve talked about non-edible materials (which I always advise you to install between the tray of your 3D printer and your food); I suggest you take it to the next level of difficulty.

Printing on food means accepting to work with a surface that may not be perfectly flat. A surface that may change shape during cooking. And finally, a surface that will interact with the printed material. Something very simple you see!

After all the food 3D prints I’ve done, I have to say that I prefer to work without baking afterwards to limit the variation in my design. Sharpness and legibility are important in pastry making and so a 3D print without baking fits better to my work.

But this choice is up to each person and for the Cakewalk 3d video presentation I experimented a lot with printed messages on baked recipes.

Some tips for getting started

  • To choose your support food, I advise you to work with soft food that your nozzle will easily tear if it ever has to come and “hit” it.
  • Before you start setting up your printing, I recommend checking the horizontality of your support food with a water level. This is really useful for large pieces like cakes and pies.
  • Also, I recommend setting your printer’s Z-shift to the lowest height if your food is not completely flat. During 3d printing, it’s easier to catch a sunken layer than a layer that’s laid “in the air.”
  • Tip #4: If you’re printing on a pie/quiche, be sure to grate the outer crust so that it’s at the same height as your filling. Your slicer can cause the print head to move with unimaginable suddenness. Seeing my pie move two inches on the tray has happened to me many times before I made truly flat pies!
  • Finally, if you’re looking for repeatability in your focus, I recommend 3D printing on food industry products rather than homemade or artisanal ones. Let’s be clear: the nutritional qualities of your dish will probably be greatly diminished. But a slice of industrial bread is calibrated in thickness and you are more likely to find identical ones in the package!

After these general tips, I will detail some results of 3d printing on food.

3D printing on food and cooking

3d printing on food and cooking

In this section, I explain some of my experiments and what worked well, didn’t work well. I hope this will help you move forward in your practice of 3D printing on food!

The frozen salmon steak

This salmon steak made my eyes glaze over right away. I found it full of assets: a relatively flat surface, hard thanks to the freezing process, and a limited variation in shape when cooked. The material to be printed: cream cheese and mustard. Baking in the oven after 3D printing.

This turned out to be a disaster because:

  • the frozen surface gives back water droplets that make the material slip during the 3D printing,
  • the cream cheese completely melted during the baking process, making the design unreadable.

End of the romance, since then I switched to 3D printing on smoked salmon slices!

Tortilla (corn or wheat pancake)

This is a good medium for 3D printing because the surface can tear if necessary during height variations. Here is a picture of the guacamole print from my Anet 8 3d printer. After baking the message remains readable.

3d printing on food: tortilla

Quiche

The quiche mixture is a very liquid preparation, often covered with grated cheese. And the edges of the dough are sometimes higher than the mixture poured in the middle. To print in 3d on quiche, I must admit that I had to cheat a little. I precooked the quiche and like that :

  • the surface of the grated cheese became smoother and more even
  • the quiche mixture had partially set

I was able to grate the edges of the dough so that they were not so high.
In the end, the result is readable but it’s hard work!

3d printing on food: quiche

Pizza

3D printing pizza is the dream of all makers since the NASA project! For my tests, I used an industrial pizza dough because it guaranteed a constant thickness on the whole surface. Then I spread some tomato sauce and I wanted to add a message with a basil mix.

It didn’t work at all because the tomato sauce made the printed material slide off and the pizza dough completely changed shape when baked. For the Cakewalk 3d video, I printed the message on a sheet of paper and placed it on the baked pizza.

3d printing on food: pizza

Omelet and egg preparations

When I first became interested in eggs, I immediately thought of Tamagoyaki, the Japanese omelet. The surface is slightly bumpy if you use a bamboo mat but it works. If you want to stay on western flavors, I recommend the Spanish tortilla, it works very well as you can see in this picture.

3d printing on food: tortilla

Sliced vegetables

I haven’t experimented much with this dimension of cooking vegetables after 3D printing. To limit the surface changes during cooking, I tried

  • frozen slices of grilled vegetables (zucchini)
  • slices of eggplant lacquered with miso


These 2 recipes did not work, the surfaces proved too slippery. With a little more research, I’m sure others will find the solution.

Sandwich bread

Finally, I present to you my favorite food to 3d print on and cook. Very simple food that lends itself to multiple recipes: sandwich bread! The slice of bread has a flat and flexible surface, capable of tearing in micro-relief. The cells of the crumb are tightly packed, so the first layer can be slightly absorbed but the writing is very legible from the second layer onwards.

You can make very nice French toast, croque-monsieur or grilled cheese… I’ll stop my praise of the sandwich bread here and move on to the second list of ingredients.

3d printing on food without cooking

3d printing on food: pie
3d printing of a cage decoration on a raspberry pie

I spent the majority of my 3D printing trials on food that was ready to eat, with materials that didn’t require additional cooking. This is due to my job as a pastry chef, it led me to test pastes like meringue, ganache, fruit jelly, creams… I didn’t forget to add my salty tests.

Gelatin sheets

It’s not a material you’re used to tasting as it is, but in the summer of 2019, I did a lot of 3d printing trials on gelatin films. This has an interest in cooking and baking if you want to use it as a transfer surface to come and put on another food. Float messages in a soup for example…

Nori leaves

Nori seaweed leaves are easily found and are used to make maki in Japanese cuisine. It is a very flat surface, which holds materials well. It can also be cut into special shapes before or after 3D printing, as a sheet of paper. I recommend this for beginners. Of all the dried seaweed I’ve looked for in stores, Nori sheets are the flattest and most common. I hope you can find them easily.

Sliced smoked fish

After my misadventures with frozen salmon, I quickly moved on to sliced smoked salmon. 3D printing on smoked fish is possible but I was not satisfied. I never got the precision I wanted. If you try it, I advise you to wipe your slice of smoked fish with a paper towel to remove the film of fat that will hinder the adhesion of your first printed layer.

Sliced cold meats

As with smoked fish, the difficulty with sliced deli meats is the fat on the surface. You won’t be surprised: my best results were achieved with lean meats: white ham, turkey ham… These are easily found in stores and allow you to re-invent traditional dishes like ham and potatoes!

Sliced cheese

I must admit that I am a very strange French woman, I don’t like cheese very much! So I didn’t experiment with hard cheeses already sliced like raclette, comté, or cheddar. If it’s not too hot in your kitchen and the cheese doesn’t sweat, in theory, it should work.

Now let’s move on to my favorite foods: bread and its derivatives, as well as sweets!

Crackers and savory cookies

Crackers seemed to me to be a good candidate very quickly because they are cookies that don’t rise much during baking. But in reality, they do rise a little bit and it’s hard to find uniform surfaces, even when buying industrial crackers. Below is a puzzle of crackers I made on TUC.

3d printing on food: crackers

I spent the majority of my 3D printing tests on ready-to-eat food I also did it on oat bran crackers which turned out to be much less flat than hoped!

Pancakes and crepes

Pancakes and crepes are great mediums for printing food. They are fluffy and slightly moist, which helps them absorb the shock of the nozzle, and they are grippy enough. I’ve never tried it with store-bought products, it’s always my own recipes. I think it will work in this case too. Here are two pictures of pancakes with 3d prints of spread and chocolate.

The sweet cookies

As with the savory cookies, my hopes were dashed with store-bought or homemade sweet cookies. Having a flat surface is possible, but it is often crumbly and can easily clog the nozzle. Below is a test with a commercial cake where we can see that the result is not very accurate.

3d printing on food: cookie example

If the cookies are glazed, then you no longer have a problem sticking to the surface. In this case, you may have no choice but to make them yourself.

3d printing on food: cookies

Bread and brioche

Brioche bread, sandwich bread, and brioche slices are great candidates for 3D printing on food! Because their softness and density allows them to absorb shocks. If you are working with a partially flat bread (for example a hamburger bun) I recommend putting it under a weight for 1 hour before printing, it is easier. In my various ketchup 3D printing tests, the bread gradually regained its shape.

Cakes

In this section, I only want to talk about travel cakes, i.e. preparations that are not covered with cream. For the layer cakes and other baked goods, those are the sections right after!

To get a perfectly horizontal cake, you can of course make a cake then slice it and check with a water level. If you want to keep the cake intact, you might want to look at cookie recipes with a lot of eggs. Muffins, sponge cake, dacquoise, Russian cookie, and a choux cookie worked well.

3d printing on food: muffin

Ganaches and curds

Sweet tarts filled with ganache or fruit curd are among my favorite desserts. So I tried them very quickly and I am really happy with the results. For all the chocolate fans, 3D printing on food like refrigerated ganache is an experience not to be missed.

Indeed, both the ganache and the curds are soft enough to be hollowed out by the nozzle in case of irregular surface. Another advantage is that they do not give back water, which does not change the design after the printing phase.

Almond paste and sugar paste

When making classic pastries such as fraisier, marzipan, and sugar paste are a popular choice. It also allows you to avoid cutting your cake horizontally. You just have to cover it with this flat surface. In both cases, I wanted to print royal icing. And each time it worked very well. Here are some pictures:

Icings

Icings are another good method to hide irregularities in a cake, and therefore a good candidate when you are interested in 3D printing on food. The results of my tests are correct but less accurate than 3D printing on marzipan.

The explanation comes from the change of temperature of the cake. In my tests I worked with frozen cakes. As the 3D printing of the decorations progressed, condensation formed on the surface, making the deposit of the material less precise. I haven’t tried it since with a refrigerated cake. Here is an example of a failed print of royal icing on an Opera (chocolate icing).

3d printing on food: icing
3d printing of clouds on chocolate icing: we quickly get into the fog…

Chocolate

The back of a chocolate bar is a good medium to 3D print food on. So, this is a very easy solution to try if you are just starting out with food 3D printing!

Caramel and nougatine

Nougatine and caramel are often used in French pastry, for example for the decoration of pastries. They are used as a support for messages drawn with a cone. The nougatine plate has an irregular and hard surface, which is not suitable for the nozzle. A smooth, flat caramel plate works, as long as it is not heavily oiled.

Sliced raw fruit and vegetables

And finally, we come to the last food on this tour: raw fruits and vegetables! With a mandolin, you can easily make slices of a consistent thickness (or with a sharp knife if you’re a pro!). These slices are potentially good supports for your food 3D printing. To do this, you need to make sure you use foods that don’t give off too much water. They also need to have some firmness.

In other words: carrot slice yes, cucumber slice no. The apple slice yes, the kiwi slice no.

One last tip about fruit: I like to make meringue decorations that partially reveal the cake underneath. When I do this for fruit tarts, I work with whole fruit. Because, in a way, they are watertight. I don’t use cut fruit, which would quickly destroy the decoration.

My recipes and tips for making flat materials

Now that I’ve finished this very long summary of my experiments with 3D printing on food, I’ll share two techniques with you. They are useful for me to make dough with a flat surface.

A calibrated rolling pin

When you have to make a very flat and homogeneous surface while you have a small ball of dough on the table, it’s not always easy. In bakeries, we have a special tool for this: the laminar. But it is very cumbersome to put at home. Personally, I like to use adjustable and calibrated rolling pins. They usually work with screw-on disks on the sides and allow for thicknesses between 1 and 10 mm.

Baking under a tray

To constrain the shape of your cakes during baking, one method is to place a plate with a weight on top of the cake. Be careful: you have to give outlets to the water vapor that will cause the cooking of your dough. In other words: this is possible with micro-perforated molds and low-liquidity doughs.

My favorite recipe: the chocolate tart with its 3d printed decoration

3d printed chocolate tart
The surface was not very smooth at first but everything went well in the end on this ganache

In conclusion, this retrospective of all the hours of 3d printing done with the different 3d printers of the Patisserie Numerique got me thinking. I looked for the dessert that I have made the most and with which I am the most confident. In a word: my favorite recipe, which I entrust with my eyes closed. It is the chocolate ganache tart, a great classic of French pastry. I like to decorate it in many different ways!

By the way, we have shot a complete video tutorial of how to make this pie. You can find it in our online store. And remember, this class is free to all Cakewalk 3d buyers!

What about you, what material have you chosen for your 3D printing trials on food? What other food would you like to see us testing? Feel free to tell us in the comments!

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