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.
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.
I’ve basically been asking as many people as possible this question for the past few months, and am slowly gaining some progress. Distillers, chefs, and experienced colleagues have given me answers that have pushed me slowly in the right direction as I continue the search. I have a solution, and it seems to be a more than adequate fix for the problem, but it’s my curiosity that is driving this question now. I want to know why.
This was first pointed out to me while I was cooking a rhubarb syrup that contains juniper berries. I had tripled my recipe, because I needed to make a huge batch that week. The sous chef was alongside me prepping for the evening service, and he noted that the syrup smelled different to usual. (We make this syrup weekly, so he’d become used to it on the stove for a few hours every Wednesday.) The aromatics of the juniper were much heavier than normal so as we chatted about it he suggested an idea that was wholly new to me: There was no need to multiply the amount of juniper in the recipe in proportion to the other ingredients, because it would continue to extract flavour at an exponential rate in a bigger recipe.
This was pretty confusing to me. I’m a pretty logical person, so this was a kind of frustrating wild card. How could I change the flavour when everything is the same, just bigger. But it’s not the same. Today, I finally considered that there is actually one variable. The recipe is being cooked for longer. The larger volume of water and rhubarb takes longer to heat, and longer for the rhubarb to break down, so the spice element is being infused for longer.
Special thanks to r/AskCulinary, where a user suggested to me that large volumes take longer to cool, so would continue infusing for longer. At first, I thought it wasn’t relevant because I strain the syrup as soon as possible while still hot, but actually it was just what I needed to take the tiny leap of considering the reverse of this.
And also to Mitch Keane, who distills for The West Winds Gin, for allowing me to pick his brains about the balancing act of capturing those strong spice flavours.
There are other ways that you could accidentally over infuse a recipe, which I’m still wrapping my head around, but I’m so pleased to have figured this one out.
A lot of the experimenting or reading I do is based in finding out why we do things a certain way so I can set myself hard and fast rules for new ingredients or methods. Something that has haunted me for the 8 years that I’ve been making 1:1 sugar syrup, is how to measure the equal parts. Way, way back when I was a baby bartender I was taught a pretty basic method, measuring by eye into 700mL bottles. I figured out pretty quickly that something was going wrong. I’d fill the bottle up halfway (to the 350mL mark) with the caster sugar and then add 350mL water. Once the two were totally combined the bottle was no longer full. I was losing volume because of the tiny air spaces between the tiny pebbles of sugar, like how you can still add water to a full bucket of sand. I estimated that on average I was losing 10% of the volume every time. 1g of caster sugar is equal to 1.05ml. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re making litres at a time it blows out the numbers. So I was making something like a 9:10 syrup, which really, for many drinks, is probably close enough and not too hard to balance. I want 1:1 to actually mean 1:1 though, so you gotta measure by weight, not by volume, with sugar and water.
I then started working at a place that made a honey water for service, and this kind of stumped me again. Honey is a bitch to measure by volume coz it just sticks to everything, but its super dense particles are so much closer together and there’s no room for trapped air. Honey weighs quite a lot more than it measures in millilitres. 1kg of honey is approximately 735mL. I make a 2:1 honey water by volume because I don’t want to sacrifice too much flavour or the rich consistency, just for the sake of pour-ability.
I really want to batch my pistachio syrup in with my more stable ingredients without the oil separating out. The bottle looks so gross as it settles, and then if the batch is left too long the fats start to solidify around the neck. The syrup does the same on its own, and the clear syrup left after the milky solids have risen looks beautiful and tastes amazing, but I don’t want to lose up to half of my volume skimming the top off to get to that. I can accept that my syrup will probably be milky and opaque.
If I could be bothered straining the seemingly never ending tiny particles of nut then I might have something a little prettier, but I also don’t want to spend hours on the clarification of one syrup, and it’s kind of important to me that I keep that oily texture to some extent. When you’re eating or drinking something you can tell if it’s creamy, but potentially that’s a different thing to actually tasting the fats that make it creamy. Researchers at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, have suggested that fat could be the sixth flavour that we can perceive, alongside salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. (foodnavigator)(flavourjournal).
I can batch commercially produced orgeat without separation being a problem, so the solution has got to be in the emulsifier. I’m still figuring out the practical applications of xanthan gum but I know I have a one major potential problem to avoid… If I add too much xanthan then the syrup will be incredibly thick, maybe even jelly-like, which will alter the texture of the drink it’s used in. I’m really happy with the flavour profile already, so I don’t want to drop my sugar content to make room for more viscosity. Looking ahead, what if I can stabilize the syrup, but then it won’t bond in the batch. Well, then I guess it’s not really stable, and it’ll be back to the start.
So for now, I have set aside 200mL of my already prepared pistachio syrup mixed with 0.1g of xanthan, (I know I should have weighed that pistachio syrup. I always do this to myself, mixing my units of measurement), so I’m using between 0.05% and 0.1% of total ingredients. The swelling of the xanthan had already added 30mL to my total volume when I left it to refrigerate though. I’ve left it for 24 hrs to allow time for it to separate if it’s going to.
I’ve always been moved by the memory associations that people have with certain smells and flavours. Rinquinquin reminds me of nasturtiums in my mother’s garden. Yamazaki is cruising through blistering hot summer air past a crispy dry field. Every time I pick up something in a spirit or a drink, processing that information seems to dig up a memory at random. Marmalade is pretty much always the cumquat jam that my best friend’s mum made when I was eight years old, but sometimes it’s the dirty chopping board in the kitchen of the share house I lived in when I was 20 (one of the boys in that house ate a lot of toast).
Actually, it’s not that surprising. The part of our brain that processes smell is closely connected to both the amygdala and the hippocampus where our emotions and memories are processed.
So liquid nitrogen is a pretty fun toy for me. The fog produced from mixing it with liquid can be voluminous and dramatic, and more importantly, you can scent that cloud. I’ve been trying to recreate the smell of bushfire in summer, because I feel like that’s something that a lot of Australians are familiar with. I’ve been spending some time in aromatherapy and soap shops and trying to create some of my own herb and spice infusions. There’s a sweet note from that eucalyptus sap boiling that I couldn’t quite get from honey, but a fenugreek tincture seems to capture that earthiness without overpowering the others scents. Also strawberry seems to work really well, maybe just because it’s a such a summer smell.
I was a little nervous at first about mixing ingredients with nitrogen at random, because I was worried that I might somehow extract a toxic chemical with the fog and accidentally create a poisonous gas, but further research settled that. The fog isn’t nitrogen or smoke. It’s just water molecules suspended in the air, in the same way as when you can make misty little clouds with your breath on a cold night. However, the fog from liquid nitrogen displaces oxygen so if you go super overboard there’s the potential that you could asphyxiate peeps, which would obviously suck if you were just trying to make them feel like they really were in a rain forest.
recipe trial #1
Inspired by Dave Arnold’s Butter Syrup (cookingissues) and the potential for the use of xanthan gum in nut syrups like orgeat and common emulsions such has hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, I took a stab at bonding oil and water. Aided by a little google searching I came up with a trial run method using some clarified unsalted butter left over from a butter bourbon fatwash and a 1:1 (by weight) sugar syrup.
Most information I could find recommended that you only use 0.1% xanthan gum to the total amount of ingredients, as the more you add, the more viscous your final product will be. Xanthan swells very quickly in water so it can be a slow process blending it through evenly. Alternate methods I came across suggest either mixing the xanthan into the liquid oil as it would disperse evenly without swelling, or mixing it through your dry sugar before adding water.
To keep things simple and fast for the first trial run, I kept to basic equal parts recipe of melted butter and 1:1 sugar syrup, and chose to mix the xanthan into the melted butter before mixing with the syrup. I also warmed the sugar syrup to 50˚C before I whisked it into the butter/xanthan mixture, so that I could monitor the behaviour of the resulting emulsion as the temperature dropped. Once the temperature dropped below 26˚C the butter and sugar syrup began to separate, so I strained the sugar syrup off.
Both the butter and sugar syrup were far more viscous than they had been originally. The sugar syrup retained a fair amount of butter flavour, and I had accidentally achieved particle suspension (something that xanthan gum can be used for in making sauces and drinks that contain small particles of herbs etc)…. so I think I need to fine strain the sugar syrup again after chilling to remove those small pieces of butter left behind. It almost has the texture and behaviour of egg white.
The final goal of the emulsion recipe is an oil syrup in a “hot buttered” style drink, so I trialled the butter syrup, replacing a liqueur in a blazer recipe my workmate was messing around with and heated the combined ingredients quickly without letting the mixture ignite. We left the drink for up to 20 minutes without it separating dramatically. It definitely had an oily sheen and left traces of oil on the glass, but it retained the flavour and viscosity to the last sip.
So this recipe is half failure/half success. It’s not the result I was looking for, but the result tasted good and was an interesting and fairly stable ingredient in a warm to room temperature cocktail. I would definitely like to try this with an oil or fat that is liquid at room temperature, and it would be worth using sugar and water instead of the 1:1 syrup. The mixture was nowhere near sweet enough before it separated.