Posts Tagged ‘denaturation’

Practical molecular gastronomy, part 4

Saturday, March 17th, 2007


(Photo by vintage_patrisha at flickr.com)

4. Learn how to control the texture of food

Taste and flavour normally get more attention when food is discussed, but the texture of food is equally important and our tongue is very sensitive, not only to taste and temperature, but also to the texture of food. The texture of food determines it’s mouthfeel and it is related to many physical properties of the food. Wikipedia lists the following aspects of mouthfeel (click to see the full description of each aspect) which can be useful when analyzing food:

Adhesiveness, Bounce/Springiness, Chewiness, Coarseness, Cohesiveness, Denseness, Dryness, Fracturability, Graininess, Gumminess, Hardness, Heaviness, Moisture absorption, Moisture release, Mouthcoating, Roughness, Slipperiness, Smoothness, Uniformity, Uniformity of chew, Uniformity of bite, Viscosity, Wetness

I will barely scratch the surface of how texture can be controlled by highlighting a couple of topics and point you to further resources. Hopefully it will spark your interest and give some new ideas for you to play with in the kitchen. Those interested in a comprehensive review of food texture are referred to the CRC handbooks on food texture (volume 1: semi-solid foods, volume 2: solid foods).

What determines the texture of food?
Put very simple, it’s the relative amounts of air, liquid and solids that determines the texture of food. This is complicated by the fact that liquids have different viscosities. Furthermore the air, liquid and solid ratio is not necessarily constant. A liquid can solidify or evaporate, solids can melt or dissolve, and air bubbles can escape during cooking or storage. An elegant but quite abstract way of describing the complicated mixtures of air, liquids and solids found in food, is to use the CDS formalism (CDS = complex disperse systems), introduced by Hervé This.


(Photo by Subspace at flickr.com)

How can texture be controlled and changed?
Texture can be controlled by temperature, pH, air/liquid/solid ratio, osmosis, hydrocolloids and emulsifiers – to mention a few. Here’s some examples:

  • Heating induces a change in the structure of proteins referred to as coagulation or denaturation. Typical examples are the boiling of eggs and the cooking of meat. When proteins denature they contract and become firmer. There are several helpful tables relating the doneness of different meats to temperature.
  • At around 70 °C (160 °F) collagen, the connective tissue in meat, turns into gelatin. As a result the meat becomes more tender, which is desireable in stews and other slow cooked meats.
  • Heat causes air/gas to expand and water to evaporate to give a foamy/airy texture. For example, experiments have shown that it is mainly the evaporation of water that causes a soufflé to rise.
  • Heat will cause certain hydrocolloids to solidify (for exaple methyl cellulose) whereas it will cause others to melt (such as gelatin).
  • Brining meat can greatly improve it’s texture and juicyness. This is done by immersing the meat in a 3-6% salt solution from anyhere between a few hours to two days before cooking.
  • Frozen water in the form of tiny ice crystals are important for the smooth texture of sorbets and ice cream. Ice cream that has been partly melted and frozen again will grow larger ice crystals that impart a coarser texture to the ice cream.
  • Acidic solutions (low pH) can cause proteins to denature. This allows fish to be cooked without the use of any heat. An example is the use of lime juice in ceviche.
  • Emulsifiers, thickeners and gelling agents have almost become synonymous with molecular gastronomy for many. They can greatly alter the texture of foods and typically only a very small amount is required. Where gelatin was the only gelling agent videly available to cooks in Europe and America only a decade ago, this has changed with the advent of many internet suppliers of speciality ingredients.
  • Cooking under vacuum can create new and exciting textures. First of all it’s a way of removing excess water without having to raise the temperature all the way up to 100 °C. When the water is removed, this will create pockets of air in the food, and when the pressure is released, the liquid surrounding the food that is prepared will rush in and fill these pockets. There is a commercially available vacuum cooker, but a DIY version can be made from a pressure cooker and a vacuum pump.

  • (Photo by Trinity at flickr.com)

  • Green leaf vegetables such as lettuce loose water upon storage. As the pressure inside the cells drops, the leaf becomes softer. By immersing the leaves in cold water for 15-30 min, thanks to osmosis, water will enter into the cells again. As the pressure increases, the leaves become crisper.
  • Air bubbles can greatly modify textures, and foams really are ubiquitious (which becomes obvious if you read the book “Universal foam – from cappuccino to the cosmos”). Ferran Adria’s espumas have become very popular, as has his recent invention, the Espesso. Air bubbles are also very important for the texture of ice cream, in fact ice cream is nearly 50% air (just consider the fact that ice cream is sold by volume, not by weight!).
  • A very recent addition to the modern kitchen pantry is the enzyme transglutaminase. The enzyme acts like a meat glue and Chadzilla has nice blog post on his transglutaminase experiments.
  • There are also enzymatic counterparts of transglutaminase available: proteolytic enzymes also known as proteases. You can find them in pineapple (bromelain/bromelin), papaya (papain), figs (ficin) and kiwi (actinidin) – and they are capable of degrading proteins and muscle tissue. Despite this, they have only found limited use in marinades, as their action can be difficult to control (as Nicholas Kurti experienced, look for the “But the crackling is superb” link).
  • When mixing flour and water, glutenin and gliadin react to form gluten which gives bread it’s elasticity and plasticity. Addition of 1-2% salt to bread tightens the gluten network and increases the volume of the finished loaf. Similarly, addition of 1% oil to the dough (after the first kneading) can further increase the volume. Larger amounts of fat added before kneading will interfere with the formation of long gluten strands, hence the name shortening.
  • The no-knead bread that recently hoovered around in the blogosphere challenges the conventional wisdom that bread needs kneading to get a good texture.
  • Once bread is baked, the staling process starts. Staling does not necessarily involve loss of water from the bread and is caused by crystallisation (or retrogradation) of starch. In this process water molecules are trapped. The process proceeds fastest at 14 °C, but is halted below -5 °C. This is the reason why bread should be stored at room temperature. The staling process can be slowed down by addition of an emulsifier such as lecithin which is abundant in egg yolk.
  • A way of turning high fat foods and oils into powders is by the use of tapioca maltodextrin. Hungry in Hogtown has shown how Nutella can be turned into a powder.
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    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.

    Egg white foam + microwave = Vauquelin

    Sunday, February 4th, 2007

    By beating air into an egg white you can increase it’s volume by a factor of approximately 8. Hervé This has shown that water is the limiting component. By adding more water you can significantly increase the volume. Addition of sugar further stabilises the foam by increasing the viscosity of the water. A very simple dessert kan be made by whisking egg whites with sugar and berries of your choice. In Norway we refer to this as “Troll cream”. There’s more on this over at eriks-food-ucation.blogspot.com. An interesting question for you to ponder upon is in what order egg whites, berries and sugar should be mixed to maximize the volume!

    But there is more to such a foam than trolls! For the following experiment, use one eggwhite and a berry syrup of your choice – I used a blueberry syrup (approximately 1,5 dL). Start by whisking the egg white. Add the syrup slowly over 5-10 min while constantly whisking. Observe how the volume increases dramatically. When I did the experiment I got roughly 2 L of foam (which corresponds to a 40-50 fold increase in volume). Make sure you use a clean bowl, preferably one of metal as fats and oil cling very well to plastic bowls.

    vauquelin-1.jpg

    Now comes the fun part: Put some of the egg white foam onto a plate and place it in a microwave oven to make the proteins set! Hervé This described this in a recent article and decided to name this dish “Vauquelin” after the french pharmacist and chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin. It does take some experimentation to find a proper combination of the power setting and the time needed for the Vauquelin to set. If you overdo it, the foam will just collapse. I used the 360W setting and 4 seconds for the Vaquelin in the picture below.

    vauquelin-2.jpg

    Cutting through the Vauquelin with a knife leaves a trace which does not refill.

    vauquelin-4.jpg

    Scooping out with a spoon also gives you an impression of the texture.

    vauquelin-3.jpg

    Instead of blueberry syrup you can try other liquids. Hervé This suggests orange juice or cranberry juice (both require addition of sugar). Liquours also work fine (although my experimentation suggests that the volume increases somewhat less), but remember to add sugar as this stabilises the foam and rounds of the taste.