Read this excellent run down of fat-washing on Serious Eats. I refer to it often, as my knowledge develops, and the more scientific elements the author discusses make more sense to me each time. The best thing to me though, is the discovery that the origins of fat-washing lie in an antiquated perfume extracting technique called enfleurage. There are two types of enfleurage: cold and hot. They’re used to infuse odourless and flavourless animal or vegetable fats with the scents of flowers like jasmine or tuberose that are too delicate for other infusions. In cold enfleurage that fat is spread out in a flat tray and the fresh petals are pressed into the fat. They are left to infuse, and once spent, are replaced with a fresh batch a few times. Once the fat is saturated with the scent, it is washed with neutral alcohol to extract those essential oils. This article on Punch mentions a peanut butter infused spirit where the creator used this second step of the cold enfleurage method to extract the flavour. Hot enfleurage is faster and good for scents like lavender and rose. The flowers are submerged in hot oil and like with cold, they are spent and replaced a few times, and then the oil is washed with alcohol. I asked a perfumer what kind of oil she used for infusion and she recommended safflower.
I’m hoping that I can use this technique to make my own perfumed fat-washed alcohol. So it might carry some of the silky texture, but mostly it will be far more to create a more aromatic spirit. Like maybe cognac pumped up with rose.
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 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.