tactile experience: szechuan pepper

I’ve been thinking more and more about how important the feel of a drink is. I’m talking literally texturally. I’ve been coming at the idea from a few different directions for a while now, and have just realised that in all cases I’ve been playing with the same concept of messing with the sense of touch.

Most recently I started thinking about if there was a way to make something tickle a little, or give the impression of actual movement beyond carbonation bubbles, and I stumbled across an article about an experiment with Szechuan pepper. Szechuan pepper has a little guy in it called (hydroxyl alpha) sanshool which actually produces a tingling sensation akin to vibration. Apparently this vibration (measured in studies at a frequency of 50.0 Hz: Science20) can give your tongue and lips the impression that a drink of still water is actually fizzy.
This suggestion got me pretty excited, because I have been mulling over some ideas for a drink or drink/food pairing for a while, that might trick you into thinking a still drink was carbonated. Perhaps there is a sound track of the very light, tickling crackling sound of teeny bubbles, or the food, a dust on the rim of the glass or a mousse (emulating carbonation foam) on the top has something like pop rocks in it. Sanshool might solve this! So how to infuse/extract it? Can I find it in foods other than Szechuan pepper?

creative vs commercial production

One of the things I enjoy most at work is the act of translating a small scale experimental recipe into something that makes sense on a high volume menu. Often when someone brings a syrup or infusion recipe to me it’s something they have made in small batches to workshop the recipe until they can achieve desired proportions. Sometimes that means that the methods originally used are a little unwieldy, and it’s quite interesting to figure out how to adjust it into something that makes sense in terms of time and money, while still retaining the right flavours and the intentions of the person who created it. If something takes hours of work and multiple pieces of equipment to produce, then it’s unlikely to sit well amongst a large cocktail menu, no matter how delicious it is. It also means that it may be hard to reproduce the same flavour consistently when there are so many variables at play.

Some inconsistencies are truly beautiful things. The way a fruit changes throughout its season, and the different flavours you can find between hard to distinguish species is so interesting, but unless you’re willing to make that difference a staple on your menu, then sometimes it’s just not going to work for you. I recently developed a recipe that required fresh peaches, and I know that this may be a problem in the long term. I’ve done my best to specify between species as I know that white peaches show a more consistent, although less rich, flavour profile through their season and ripening stages than yellow peaches, but what happens when their season ends? I’m going to need to develop an alternative method to keep that drink on the menu. If I can find a high quality peach nectar to mix then I may be on the right track, (a puree probably won’t work in this circumstance), and then I will also cut down on techniques and save on production time. I just have to force myself to let go of the fresh fruit, trust that someone else out there knows what they’re doing, and let them handle a small part of my recipe for me. I’ll call it outsourcing.

foams, airs, mousses: part 2

Soy lecithin has proven to be an overwhelming success for my purposes, although now I would like to experiment with how the starting texture, density and acidity of the liquid impacts the size of the bubbles and the ratio of lecithin required.

The drink I am working on is the first of a five course degustation. The foam is a very strong, sweetened hibiscus tea, or tisane really, that will be layered extravagantly over the top of a punch bowl. The punch itself, (peach & fenugreek syrup, white wine vinegar, Star of Bombay Gin, and still water), is a very pale yellow-pink, so the bright pink foam will slowly seep into the drink and colour it. The levels of sweetness need a little tweaking, and a more solid concept of how much foam I would need to produce per serve is required too.

Out of curiosity, I first made a foam with a whole egg white (approx 40mL) and 200mL of the tea, although the foam held excellently, it was far too dense for my purposes. I then made the foam with soy lecithin powder, using 1g to 200mL of tea (a proportion of 0.5%). Pictured below are the foams at least 30 minutes after making. Egg white is on the left and lecithin on the right. At the bottom the two punch glasses show the look of the foam after it’s been in a drinkers hands for a while, again egg white on the left and lecithin on the right. The soy lecithin foam is so much prettier, while the egg white foam has grown clumpy and dry.


egg white (L) vs soy lecithin (R) foams


I get the idea that perhaps the more acidic a liquid is, the less lecithin is required? The chef tells me he uses just 1g of lecithin to 1000mL liquid to make a foam using vinegar, and he creates large bubbles in that air, so perhaps in my sweetened, low acidity liquid, I can push the proportion of lecithin much higher to achieve the same results. I have more to research, I guess.

foams, airs, mousses

When you consider texture in drinks that often only extends to the viscosity of the drink as a whole, often in relation to dilution or the desired impact of the flavours. The light astringency of citrus or other acids is great for palate cleansing aperitif style drinks, and the rich tongue-coating effect of chilled gin or vodka is somehow syrup-like and refreshing at the same time. We use foams all the time in sours and fizzes with egg white, but I want to go a step further, and make that layer of foam a separate flavour. I’d seen chefs using coarse foams on dishes, and the last few iterations of the menu at work have included a drink or two topped with a dense, egg white based, flavoured mousse.

Recently, talking with my workmate, Jimmy, we were pondering how to incorporate the sweet distinctive flavour of cola into a cocktail without it immediately dominating the drink. He suggested a flavoured foam, of the style we already used (the dense, egg white based mousse), and it got me thinking about the huge volumes of effervescent fluff you create when you first open and pour a room temperature bottle of carbonated soft drink. It’s even better if you’re pouring the room temperature drink over ice. The fast temperature change must shock it into foaming up even more. In my experience Diet Coke is best/worst for it. (Waiting for your mixer to settle when it’s busy is the worst.) So. what if the foam was actually that light, aerated froth rather than something dense and almost creamy, and how was I going to get it to keep its form for longer than a few minutes?

Peering over shoulders in kitchens had informed me that the creation of a flavoured, beer-head style froth was a pretty common technique, so I turned my research to culinary foams, which has been enlightening. There are wet foams and dry foams, coarse foams and airs with large bubbles, and dense mousses with tightly beaded and bonded bubbles. I even learnt that bread is a “set foam”, which actually makes a lot of sense coz when you look at slice of bread its whole structure is a network of bubbles. I’ve seen Lecithin powder amongst the modern ingredients of the top shelf in the kitchen, so tomorrow, armed with the very handy digital scales, I’m going to attempt a flavoured, (and coloured), coarse foam/air.

So far I know:

-Soy Lecithin is a commonly used stabiliser and emulsifier, which can be used to replace the lecithin that naturally occurs in things like egg yolk.
-The liquid I’m trying to foam will need to be very strong, because I’m going to be diluting it so much with air.
-I should be trying to add by weight at a volume of 0.3%-1% of the total liquid, depending on what I’m trying to foam. A recipe for a citrus foam that I’ve found uses something close to 0.6% of total volume, but I was planning on my foam being made from a starting liquid that was a little denser, so I’m not sure how that will impact it yet.
-I need to mix the foam in a low flat container with something like a stick blender, to allow as much air interaction and incorporation as possible.

More on this later.

sound is important to your perception of flavour

Things taste different in planes to on the ground so when a chef curates an inflight menu, or a sommelier writes a wine list for an airline, they have to consider this as they select ingredients and flavour profiles. The altitude, background noise and dried nasal passages alters the way you interact with flavours. Salt perception is reduced, for example, but umami is enhanced. Apparently tomatoes taste amazing because of this, and in hindsight I think of all the very sad looking slices of “fresh” tomato that I have pushed aside on inflight meals. What if I was missing out on something amazing.

Studies have found that sound contributes immensely to our perception of flavour, with my favourite being the 2007 University of Leeds study (called “Bacon: the slice of life” omg) which was conducted to quantify just how important the crispiness of bacon is to the perfect BLT. This kinda thing is pretty common in commercial food science which I imagine often results in “new & improved” products on the regular. This Flavour Journal article references a Magnum icecream improvement that went wrong when they accidentally altered the way the chocolate coating cracks as you bite into it.

And then there’s ambient noise, like music. Studies have proven that music played at higher decibels influences people to perform activities faster, drinking in particular (ScienceDaily), which is a pretty neat trick that a lot of fast moving venues employ, but something that potentially inhibits your perception of the food and drink you’re consuming there. (Maybe that’s why some restaurants choose not to play any music at all?) There’s also evidence that that background music could be altering your palate too. Low pitched tones focus our palate on bitter flavours and high tones bring out sweeter flavours. You can test it out on yourself here: high pitch, low pitch. Apparently something like coffee or dark chocolate is a great thing to try it out with as it has distinctive sweet and bitter notes.

absence of flavour

I like to write ideas down to research later, so I often find snippets written down on the backs of receipts used as bookmarks or stuffed at the bottom of a bag I last used a few weeks ago. Then I get to decode my scrawl and try and figure out where the curiosity was focused.

This one was pretty interesting,
if you ate something that tastes like absolutely nothing would it enhance or dull an accompanying drink?

Turns out, there’s not much that tastes like nothing. Maybe just water that’s free from the chemicals our nose or tongue can detect, straight from a pure source. There is a neutral baseline, but it’s kinda gross so it killed this idea pretty fast. It’s our saliva. That’s why pure water tastes neutral. Our saliva is 98% water. The other 2% is made up of substances such as electrolytes, minerals like sodium and potassium, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and enzymes.

On a side note, a pretty neat trick for nosing spirits and wine is to smell your own skin to set a neutral baseline, (obviously this wouldn’t work if you use very fragrant soaps or perfumes.) This is helpful when you get overwhelmed with trying to pin down that one elusive note as well.

I think that potentially you could make a food very neutral flavoured, perhaps with gelatin, but if it were to enhance the drink then it would need to have some interesting textures going on, and that would be pretty hard to achieve while still retaining as little flavour as possible. Also, you’re trying to replicate the flavour of saliva, and I just don’t think you can sell that.

artificial flavours: sometimes manhattan smells like maple syrup

Reproducing a flavour out of entirely different ingredients is such a cool trick. Isolating the things that make us taste something, and then being able to copy them so well that we can convince our own tongues? Magic.

I got so into this idea when I came across the modern myth about artificial banana flavour. So this story goes, the reason banana syrups, lollies, and flavoured milks don’t taste that close to real banana is because when the flavouring was first being synthesized, (mid-1800s), it was based on the Gros Michel, which was then pretty much wiped out by a fungal disease in the 1950s. What we see the most of now, the Cavendish, survived, but it’s flavour profile is apparently much milder. Actually, it seems that maybe real bananas weren’t readily available at the time banana essence is first seen referenced, so maybe people were eating artificial banana flavours and when real bananas came along they favoured the Gros Michel because its profile was similar to what they were already used to. Seriously, I love this story more, because it means that chemists tricked people into deciding what a thing should taste like before they’d ever even seen it. (Nadia Berenstein wrote a thing about it if you want to read more about bananas. I highly recommend her blog as a resource in general. She writes a lot on the topic of synthetic and artificial flavours.)

Vanilla essence is a cool one. Vanillin is used, which is a compound that has the exact same structure as the main component of real vanilla, which is why they are really hard to distinguish. The chemical that occurs in barrel aged whisk(e)y to produce the taste of vanilla? It’s the same as the one that makes real vanilla bean taste lIke, well, vanilla. I’m simplifying a little here, but you get the idea.
I read once somewhere that strawberry is really hard to reproduce because its flavour profile is really complex, and can’t be defined by just one or two chemicals.

I’m working with the head chef at the moment to create a drink and food pairing. I told him that I would like to use fenugreek, so he has suggested that an element of the dish will use Château-Chalon. Château-Chalon is an appellation controlled wine from Jura that can only be made from Savagnin in the vin jaune style. It’s known for its nutty flavours, and as it ages can develop curry flavours because of the presence of sotolon. Sotolon is also know as fenugreek lactone. The molecule sotolon was first isolated in 1975 from fenugreek. It is the major aroma and flavour component of fenugreek seed and can also be found in lovage. It’s also present in molasses, aged rum, aged sake and white wine, flor sherry, roast tobacco, and even a type of mushroom. It is also thought to be responsible for the mysterious maple syrup smell that has wafted over Manhattan every so often since 2005. Yup, imitation maple syrup is made with sotolon. We’re going to use the same chemical, present in different ingredients naturally, to create a complimentary theme.