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.

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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.

exponential flavour extraction from strong herbs and spices

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.

weight or volume

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.

pistachio syrup with xanthan

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.