Posts Tagged ‘taste’

Copenhagen MG seminar: Food and science fun (part 6)

Thursday, April 28th, 2011


How much does air weigh? With a balloon and a microwave oven you can easily find out says Peter Barham.

Peter Barham’s presentation at the MG seminar in Copenhagen focused on how food can be used to make students interested in physics and chemistry (not a bad thing, especially since 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry) -Most people think science is boring and difficult, he said. But demos can help bring science to life, and believe it or not – experiments are much better when they go wrong. Using balloons, champagne, potatoes and liquid nitrogen Peter Barham proved his point. (more…)

Wonders of extraction: Ethanol

Sunday, June 8th, 2008


Extraction of cherries with ~45% ethanol in water

Ethanol is a molecule with both a polar and a non-polar end, so it’s properties are somewhat in between those of water and oil (which will be the topic of the next post in this series about extraction). This is easily illustrated by the fact that both water and oil are soluble in pure ethanol (albeit not at the same time – adding water to ethanol reduces the solubility of oil). Many taste molecules are polar whereas most aroma molecules are non-polar, and the good thing is that ethanol can be used to extract both groups of compounds.

I belive the most widespread use of ethanol for extractions in the kitchen is for sweet liqueurs where fruits or berries are extracted with ethanol and the extract is sweetened with sugar. The word liqueur comes from the Latin word liquifacere which means “to dissolve”, and this is essentially what happens – the ethanol and water extract and dissolve flavor and color from the fruit.

Some also make their own spirits by infusing spices and herbs. One example is aquavit which is based on carraway combined with a number of other spices for complexity such as dill, coriander, anis, fennel, liquorice, cardamom and lemon. Commercial aquavits are distilled, but at home it’s suffices to filter of the spices and herbs. As a result home made aquavits are always amber colored (such as the one pictured in a previous post).

For extractions like these, one always uses diluted ethanol, typically 30-60% ethanol in water would be used, and most often somewhere around 40-50%. One reason for this is that higher concentrations of ethanol would extract to many bitter and astringent compounds. Another reason is that in some (most?) countries it is illegal to posess, buy and/or sell ethanol at higher concentrations for consumption (pure ethanol for technical use is denatured if sold in normal stores and requires special permissions if used in laboratories).

Apart from the steping herbs and spices in ethanol to make liqueurs, the only other example of relevance for the kitchen I can think of is for extraction of vanilla beans to make pure vanilla extract. This is quite surprising actually, and although I really don’t know if ethanol is used for extraction in professional kitchens, it is my impression that ethanol extractions are underutilized in the kitchen.

There are several benefits with ethanolic spice and herb extracts:

  • fast – no need to wait for the spices to be extracted since they have been “pre extracted”, you can taste the dish immediately and add more spice extract if necessary
  • no residues – seeds, leaves or bark are filtered off before use
  • convenient – spice extracts are an excellent way of adding clean, concentrated aromas
  • stable – spice extracts keep very well (although the storage may also change the flavor profile somewhat and “mature” the flavor)
  • new flavors – some spices and in particular herbs will change upon extraction and storage and this can open up new possibilities (this needs quite some experimentation though – some herb flavors change to the worse…)

What are your experiences with ethanol extractions in the kitchen?

Wonders of extraction: Water

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008


Extraction of peppermint leaves with hot water

Water is a polar molecule, meaning that one end has a small negative charge and the other a small positive charge. Because of this water is a very good solvent for other polar molecules and ions. For instance water is the solvent of choice for substances that provide taste, be it salt, sour, sweet or bitter as these are normally quite polar molecules.

A general rule is that the solubility of molecules and ions increases with the temperature of the water. Extractions are therefore faster if the water is boiling. This is the reason why we use hot water to extract tea leaves or ground coffee beans, even if we want to prepare ice tea or ice coffee. But by lowering the temperature and extending the extraction time we can change the relative proportion of what we extract. It therefore makes perfectly sense that different temperatures are recommended for different types of tea. Using different temperatures for the same kind of tea will of course also influence the flavor profile.

Polar molecules are more easily extracted than non-polar molecules. This is evident if we leave a tea bag for a long time in hot water. The bitter taste is due to the slow extraction of large polyphenol molecules which are less soluble in water. If tea is brewed at a lower temperature, less of the bitter tasting substances will be extracted.

Although water is polar, less polar and even non-polar substances can be extracted with water, especially if the water is boiling hot. You do this every day when prepare coffee. If you take a close look at cup of freshly brewed coffee you can notice small pools of oily substances floating on top of the coffee. The more severe conditions used when extracting coffee to make an espresso ensure that even more oily substances are extracted. Other examples of extraction using water in the kitchen include preparation of stock, soups and gravies.

The principle of extraction is simple, but a number of questions remain largely unexplored with regard to flavor: How do ions affect extraction? What role does pH play? How does temperature influence flavor? There is surprisingly little research on this that includes a sensory evalution.

Practical molecular gastronomy, part 5

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

5. Learn how to control taste and flavor.

apple-pear.jpg

When invited over to friends for dinner, even before eating, you judge the food by it’s aroma, handing out compliments such as “It really smells nice”! Thankfully, nature is on the cook’s side, because when we prepare food and heat it, volatile aroma compounds are released which trigger very sensitive receptors in our noses. It is generally said that 80% of “taste” is perceived by our nose (what we refer to as aroma), whereas only 20% is perceived by our tongue. How important smell is becomes clear if you catch a cold – suddenly all food tastes the same. Too illustrate the importance of smell, prepare equally sized pieces of apple and pear. Close your eyes, hold your nose and let a friend give you the pieces without telling which is which. Notice how difficult it is to tell them apart. In fact, with a good nose clip you wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between an apple and an onion! Then, with a piece of either in your mouth, let go of your nose. Within a second you can tell whether it’s apple or pear!

Taste
Our tongue has approximately 10.000 taste buds and they are replaced every 1 to 3 weeks. Their sensitivity increases roughly in the following order: sweet < salt < sour < bitter. In addition to the four basic tastes there is umami, the savory, fifth taste. This taste is produced by monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium 5’-inosine monophosphate (IMP) and disodium 5’-guanosine monophosphate (GMP). Pure MSG doesn’t taste of much, but can enhance the taste of other foods. There are also some claims of a sixth taste.

A number of taste synergies/enhancements exist. I’ve also included three examples of how flavours can influence taste:

  • MSG, IMP and GMP enhance each other
  • IMP and GMP enhance sweetness
  • MSG, IMP and GMP generally enhance saltiness and vice versa
  • Salt enhances MSG, so foods with a natural high level of MSG (tomatoes) taste more if a pinch of salt is added
  • Salt and acid at low/medium concentrations enhance each other
  • Salt at low concentrations enhances sweet taste
  • Black pepper reduces sweet taste
  • Vanilla enhances sweet taste
  • Cinnamon enhances sweet taste
  • The only general, over-all trend which can be found is that binary tastes enhance each other at low concentrations and suppress each other at higher concentrations (but there are several exceptions!). Do check out “An overview of binary taste–taste interactions” (DOI:10.1016/S0950-3293(02)00110-6) if you’re interested in more details on binary taste interactions. I’ve tried to visualize taste enhancements (green) and suppresions (red) in the following figure using arrows to indicate the direction. For example, salt suppresses sweetnes at high concentrations.

    binary-taste-interactions.jpg

    In addition to taste, our tongue also percieves texture, temperature and astringency. An interesting thing about the temperature receptors is that they can be triggered not only by temperature, but also by certain foods. The cold receptor is triggered by mint, spearmint, menthol and camphor. There is even a patented compound, monomenthyl succinate, that triggers the cold receptor, but without the taste of menthol. It’s marketed under the name Physcool by the flavour company Mane.

    Substances such as ethanol and capsaicin trigger the trigeminal nerve, causing a burning sensation. Capsaicin also triggers the high temperature receptors of the tongue, hence the term “hot food” which can refer both to spicy food and food which is very warm. For a general article about taste, check out “Taste Perception: Cracking the Code” (DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020064, free download).

    Flavour
    Our nose has about 5-10 million receptors capable of detecting volatile compounds. There are about 1000 different smell receptors and they allow us to distinguish more than 10.000 different smells – perhaps as many as 100.000! In order for us to smell something, the molecule needs to enter our nose at a concentration sufficient for us to detect. Aroma compounds are typically small, non-polar molecules. The fact that they are small means they will have low boiling points – they are volatile and spread rapidly throughout a room. They are often referred to as essential oils and are very soluble in fat, oil and alcohol. These aroma compounds generally not soluble in water, but there are also water soluble aroma compounds; just think of a well prepared stock – no fat but lots of taste and aroma!

    A challenge with aroma molecules is that they should remain intact during storage and not be released until cooking (or even better, until consumption). A example would be to install a Liebieg condenser over your pot. Dylan Stiles has explored this in his column Bench Monkey by placing a bag of ice on top of the lid. He claims that his roommates prefereed the curry which has been cooked under “reflux conditions”. The study was performed in a double blind manner (which I will come back to in part 8 of this series).

    Because aroma compounds are volatile, spices should be obtained whole and stored in tight containers away from light. If possible, fresh herbs should be used. The flavour of herbs and spices can be extracted by chopping or grinding to increase the surface area. To speed up grinding in a mortar you can add a pinch of salt or sugar.

    grinding-saffron.jpg

    Heat can help extract flavour (just think of how we brew tea or coffee), but will also evaporate volatile compounds, so a general advice would be to add spices at the start and herbs towards the end of the cooking time. Some herbs can even be sprinkeled over the food just before serving. In Southeast Asia (and especially India) it is quite common heat spices in a dry pan or in oil. This matures flavours and allows reactions to occur (possibly Maillard reactions). Coarse spices should be added earlier than finely ground spices.

    In addition to adding flavour using spices, herbs and other foods, we can also use heat to create new flavours. When sugar is heated, caramel is formed. And if a reducing sugar is heated in the presence of an amino acid, they react and form a host of new flavour compounds in what is known as the Maillard reaction. Caramelisation and the Maillard reaction are known as non-enzymatic browning. Enzymatic browning on the other hand is detrimental to many fruits (such as apples and bananas), but there are a few exceptions. Enzymatic browning is essential in the production of tea (black, green, oolong), coffe, cocoa and vanilla, although this is rarely attempted in kitchen.

    Another source of flavour is fermentation. It refers to a process were sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action of a yeast. In the process a number of flavour compounds are formed as well which is why this is of great interest also from a molecular gastronomy viewpoint. Some examples of fermented products include wine, beer, cider and bread. Fermentation also refers to the process where some bacteria produce lactic acid. Some examples of foods resulting from lactic acid fermentation are yoghurt, kimchi and pickled cucumbers.

    Flavour pairing
    Cookbooks and recipes throughout the world are the result of billions of experiments. As a result, some very good combinations of herbs and spices have been discovered. Some of these mixtures have even been given names of their own and it is fascinating how easily one can forget that curry for instance is a mixture of spices. Wikipedia has a wonderful overview of herb and spice mixtures from all over the world. I must admit I only new a fraction of these:

    Adjika | Advieh | Berbere | Bouquet garni | Buknu | Cajun King | Chaat masala | Chaunk | Chermoula | Chili powder | Curry powder | Djahe | Fines herbes | Five-spice powder | Garam masala | Garlic salt | Harissa | Herbes de Provence | Khmeli suneli | Lawry’s and Adolph’s | Masala | Masuman | Mixed spice | Niter kibbeh | Old Bay Seasoning | Panch phoron | Quatre épices | Ras el hanout | Recado rojo | Shake ‘N’ Bake | Sharena sol | Shichimi | Spice mix | Tajín | Tandoori masala | Tony Chachere’s | Za’atar

    A book which I’ve found to be very useful when combining flavours is “Culinary artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It is the most comprehensive book about flavour pairing that I’m aware of, and I would say it is indispensible for someone who likes to cook without a cookbook. It has lists of basic flavors contributed by various foods. For example a sweet taste is contributed by foods such as bananas, beets, carrots, coriander, corn, dates, figs, fruits, grapes, onions, poppy seeds, sesame and vanilla (plus sugars and syrups of course). It has lists of “flavor pals”, a term attributed to Jean-Georges Vongerichten. For example, the flavour pals of ginger are allspice, chiles, chives, cinnamon, cloves ,coriander, cumin, curry, fennel, garlic, mace, nutmeg, black pepper and saffron. By far the most extensive part of the book are listings of food matchings. An illustrative example is pork which combines well with (classic/widely used combinations in bold):

    apples, apricots, bay leaves, black beans, beer, brandy, cabbage, Calvados, dried sour cherries, clams, Cognac, coriander, cream, cumin, fennel, fruit, garlic, ginger, hoisin sauce, honey, juniper berries, lemon, lime, marsala, molasses, mustard, onions, orange, parsley, black pepper, pineapple, Chinese plum sauce, plums, prunes, quinces, rosemary, sage, sauerkraut, soy sauce, star anise, tarragon, thyme, vinegar, walnuts, whiskey, white wine

    Despite the abundance of combinations, I dare say that little is understood about the science behind these flavour pairings. Why do these combinations of herbs and spices go particularily well together? Is it all about getting used to the combinations, so that we learn to like them? What influence does the complexity of the flavour play? These are easy questions that probably have rather complex answers.

    Very recently a different approach to flavour pairing has emerged. If two foods share one or more key odorants, chances are that they will go well together. The first step towards finding new pairings would be to identify key odorants. More info on key odorants can be found in the article “Evaluation of the Key Odorants of Foods by Dilution Experiments, Aroma Models and Omission” (DOI: 10.1093/chemse/26.5.533, free download). I’ve initiated the food blogging event “They go really well together” (TGRWT) to explore new flavour pairings and develop new recipes. There are also several blogposts with interesting comments on about flavour pairing.

    *

    Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the tips for practical molecular gastronomy. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at khymos.org might also be of interest.

    Chew more and taste more!

    Thursday, April 12th, 2007

    Were you told by your mom to chew each mouthful 20 or 32 times before swallowing? Her rationale was perhaps to prevent you from choking. But it turns out there is a link between chewing (or mastication) and release of aroma molecules. A group of French researchers have studied model cheese systems with varying hardness (J. Agric. Food Chem., 2007, 3066, 10.1021/jf0633793). Their key finding was that in hard cheese, more aroma is released, and it happens at a faster rate than in softer cheeses. It is slightly counter intuitive, because one would expect that volatile aroma molecules would have a harder time escaping from a hard surface than from a soft surface. The reason however is that when chewing a hard cheese our chewing pattern automatically adopts and we chew more intensely. Furthermore a hard cheese will break down into several pieces when chewed, resulting in a greater surface area from which the aroma components can escape into the air.


    (Photo by kurafire at flickr.com)

    Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy

    Saturday, January 27th, 2007

    In a recent survey 72% of chefs say they may want to experiment with molecular gastronomy in 2007. That’s an impressive number and considering the attention molecular gastronomy gets in media I bet many home cooks would want to experiment in the kitchen as well. Here’s a list of things to consider if you want to make a scientific approach towards cooking:

    1. Use good and fresh raw materials of the best quality available.

    2. Know what temperature you’re cooking at. A dip probe thermometer with a digital read out is a cheap way to bring science into your kitchen.

    3. Get a basic understanding of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance. “Heat” in this context des not imply high temperature since it also applies to the understanding of freezing/thawing.

    4. Learn how to control the texture of food. Some key points: temperature induced changes (freezing, heating), emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling agents, moisture content, pressure/vacuum, osmosis.

    5. Learn how to control taste and flavor. Some key points: flavor pairings, spice synergies/antagonies, influence of temperature (Maillard reaction, caramelization, temperature stability, volatility), taste enhancers, taste suppresants, solubility of flavour compounds in fat/water, extraction.

    6. Remember that prolonged exposure to a flavor causes desenzitation, meaning that your brain thinks the food smells less even though it’s still present in the same amount. Therefore, let different flavours enhance each other. Similarly, variation in taste, texture, temperature and color can open up new dimensions in a dish. This is referred to as “increased sensing by contrast amplification”.

    7. Be critial to recipes and question authority – they do not necessarily represent “the truth”. Nevertheless, you can certainly learn a lot from the experts.

    8. Dare to experiment and try new ingredients and procedures. Do control experiments so you can compare results. When evaluating the outcome, be aware that your own opinions will be biased. Have a friend help you perform a blind test, or even better a triangle test to evaluate the outcome of your experiments.

    9. Keep a written record of what you do! It would be a pity if you couldn’t recreate that perfect concoction you made last week, simply because you forgot how you did it.

    10. Have fun!

    blue_gas_flame.jpg
    Heat causes many changes in food, but few appreciate how important it is to know at what temperature they are cooking and at what temperature the desired change occurs.

    These tips for molecular gastronomy relate to the technical and scientific aspects of food preparation and eating, and I plan to elaborate on each of the points in separate blog posts. However, according to Hervé This’ definition of molecular gastronomy, one should also investigate the social and artistic components of cooking. A good example of this is the “Five Aspects Meal Model” developed at Grythyttan in Sweden (Gustafsson, I.B. et al. Journal of Food Service, 2006, 84.). Although intended for a restaurant setting, the general idea can also be applied for home cooking.

    The meal takes place in a room (room), where the consumer meets waiters and other consumers (meeting), and where dishes and drinks (products) are served. Backstage there are several rules, laws and economic and management resources (management control system) that are needed to make the meal possible and make the experience an entirety as a meal (entirety – expressing an atmosphere).

    Or to put it differently: average food eaten together with good friends while you’re sitting on a terrace with the sun setting in the ocean will taste superior to excellent food served on plastic plates and eaten alone in a room with mess all over the place.

    One last thing: once you’re finished in the kitchen with your culinary alchemy, your gastro physics, your cutting edge science cuisine, your molecular cooking, your hypermodern emotional cooking, your science food or whatever fancy name you attach to it – remember the social and artistic components when you serve the food. Just so people won’t refer to you as a techno chef, a mad scientist or a modern day Willy Wonka. After all, molecular gastronomy is about the science of deliciousness, not technical wizardry.

    Questions and topics for future blog posts are welcome at webmaster [a] khymos.org (substitute @ for [a]) or as a comment below.