The difference between a great meal and a ho-hum experience is more than a good recipe. The selection of ingredients, preparation methods and technique come into play. When a dish is superbly balanced, it becomes rich, full-bodied and maybe even craveable. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami tastes can combine to create an explosion of flavor sensation.
A chef often chooses ingredients based on their naturally occurring flavor enhancers, such as the glutamates found in many vegeta-bles, meat proteins, cheese and soy sauce. On the bench, food developers may choose commercial products.
Glutamates are the carboxylate anions and salts of glutamic acid, the most-common amino acid. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Nothing else can compare to MSG for the delivery of umami taste, says Joe Formanek, Ph.D., associate director, business development, application innovation, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients, LLC, Chicago. If youre looking at overall character enhancement, MSG is the best bang for the buck. Its produced through a natural fermentation process. It simply has a lot of effect for a very low cost. MSG is umami in its purest form.
Glutamates and nucleotides in a formulation can also deliver an umami character to the product. Formanek recommends using nucleotides (the 5 ribonucleotides insonate and guanylate, in combination, are often called I&G) in conjunction with glutamates. MSG and I&G work synergistically and provide greater enhancement than when used alone.
While 5 ribonucleotides are often used in combination with MSG, they may be used to enhance naturally occurring glutamates. The nice thing about ribotides is they can all be used in the product to enhance the characteristics of the glutamates already found in that product, says Formanek. Many products already have glutamate, so even without adding extra glutamates, the addition of a small level of the nucleotides can enhance the characteristics that are naturally occurring in that product. We can help customers with different ap-plications to understand what levels of the nucleotides may be used with the level of glutamates in the product to deliver the desired en-hancement.
Food scientists can also use ingredients like yeast extract and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins that contain naturally occurring nucleo-tides for enhancement, suggests Joanne Ferrara, senior director, R&D, Gilroy Foods and Flavors, Gilroy, CA. With the need to reduce sodium in many existing supermarket products, product developers are investigating low-sodium solutions to combat this issue, she says. Potassium chloride (KCl) is used as an alternative, but also contributes bitterness if used at too high a level and by itself. A com-bination of KCl with salt, amino acids and some nucleotides can help mask the bitterness. Umami can highlight sweetness and lessen bitterness.
Although bitterness is acceptable in certain products, such as coffee, notes Mindy Edwards, senior flavor chemist, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI, in most cases, bitterness is objectionable and needs to be covered. It is always beneficial to know where the bitterness is coming from and how bitter it is. To mask bitterness, a bitter masking agent may be used.
For savory systems where MSG or I&G cannot be used, Edwards suggests using an umami enhancer. If a high amount of salt is required in the finished product, salt will interfere with any flavorin which case, a salt masking agent can be used. Because in certain products an intense sourness is required for preservation, one must know what type of acid is present and how much is in it. If the product is too sour, a sour masking agent may be needed.
Developers should be aware of the kokumi characteristic of some foods. Like umami, it is a Japanese concept, but it relates more to richness and depth vs. initial enhancement. A great example is the comparison of the flavor of a chicken consommé at the beginning of the stewing process to that at the end. The full-bodied mouthfeel and complexity of character that develops are examples of kokumi characteristics, says Formanek. Once kokumi-rich ingredients are added to the formulation, that product becomes much richer and complex, delivering a longer-lasting, more-enjoyable experience.
One kokumi enhancer is based on yeast-extract technology, but its much more than that, Formanek explains. Its a proprietary blend of very special yeast extracts. Those different characters from the different yeast extracts that are used allow this kokumi effect to come through. Special types of peptides are necessary to deliver kokumi, not the larger-chain proteins and not the amino acids. The amino acids, particularly glutamic acid or monosodium glutamate, give more umami or initial taste enhancement, but these peptides, composed of two or three amino acids in certain sequences, are what deliver that desirable kokumi-derived complexity. This enhancer contacts yeast extract along with some maltodextrin and salt for standardization. It works best with rich, heavier flavors like beef or pork, but can be effective in fermented food products, such as cheese, or products that incorporate wine flavors.
Another kokumi-delivering ingredient is a blend of a fermented wheat protein and yeast extract with maltodextrin added for standardization. The fermented wheat protein is a natural enzymatic fermentation, which allows a certain level of protein breakdown in order to generate those peptides that were talking about, says Formanek. Applications based on chicken, vegetables or cheeses benefit most from this product.
Sometimes a product designer needs to pull some wizardry out of the tech toolkit. These can include flavor systems, including savory flavor concentrates, protein flavor bases and broth concentrates in various flavorsfrom meat, cheese and vegetables to seafood, herb and pepper seasoning concentrates. Our products are able to create a flavor synergy and boost the overall profile, says Lori Miller, R.D., L.D., director, market development and sales, Eatem Foods Company, Hudson, OH. We have one product that, when added to a simple white sauce, works with the milk to create a richer dairy note. It intensifies the cooked roux notes leading to a more-distinctive mouthfeel and maximizes the depth of flavor of all the ingredient components. Furthermore, they are used in flavor-layering applications, such as glazing sauces or sprays applied during production for topping off the flavor, to marinades and topical rubs and even injec-tions to build flavor at the muscular level. Because of the variety of concentrate strengths and the type of application, the use level varies from 0.3% to 3.0%.
Heat can add the edge that will separate your products from the competition, says Jason Gronlund, executive chef, director culinary services/ingredient services, McIlhenny Company/TABASCO® brand products, Apopka, FL. We have three products in an intermediate-moisture format: pepper pulp, processors blend and pepper paste, all from the traditional red sauce, plus a dry powder and dry pepper seed made from the traditional red sauce.
Starting usage level for each depends on the base. Systems with higher fat content require higher levels. Wet product usage ranges 1% to 3%. The intermediate moisture and dry products are added at 0.5% to 2.0%.
When working with spicy ingredients, Gronlund cautions, heat is supposed to be in balance with all other flavors in the product. If big and bold is your goal, then that means all flavors in that product should be big and bold, and the same goes for mild and subtle. Make sure that you taste the product in its final state. Many times I have tasted products that are great alone, but once put into the build, the other components will drop the flavor substantially. The best thing to remember is that the consumer can always bolster the heat, but in no way take it away. We want to make sure that consumer is either recycled to the foodservice operation or retail shelf for second purchases.
Working with flavor systems to maximize the outcome can be quite complex. Numerous factors can impact overall flavor delivery. The presence and levels of protein, fat, sugar and artificial sweeteners, salt, and acid will affect flavor, notes Cindy Cosmos, senior flavorist, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, IL. Many of these items bind with the flavor physically or in perception, which will enhance the flavor impact and longevity, she says.
Functional ingredients, such as starch, flour, carrageenan and phosphate, can impact flavor delivery. The ingredients can impact flavor delivery in an organoleptic sense, particularly taste, notes Ferrara. When working to maximize flavor, its important to understand the synergy of ingredients in a product.
Because many ingredients interfere with flavor delivery, flavors are usually application-specific. High-fat-containing products often require more-concentrated flavors to overcome the effect that fat causes in minimizing flavor strength, says Richard Dandrea, senior flavorist, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. High-protein-containing products also act in reducing flavor delivery. In addition, high acid and even high sweetness levels contribute to final flavor delivery.
Edwards cautions that certain metals can react with the flavor. This can accelerate oxidation and can interfere with the olfactory characteristics. Naturally occurring phenols, like those present in chocolate or green tea, may slow browning Maillard reactions in baked flavors, she says. Some naturally occurring tannins, like in wine, may unfavorably react with ingredients.
High heat tends to evaporate or change the light volatiles in many flavors. Plus, according to Cosmos: citrus flavors are especially vulnerable to oxidation. Water-soluble flavors will evaporate quickly. Oil-soluble flavors tend to have more tenacity, but if any form of oil is used as a diluent it can become rancid quickly by harsh processing.
In systems where easy dispersion is important, like in dough, an oil-soluble flavor would work best to control the release of the flavor, since it will incorporate better with the butter and other fats, says Edwards. While any liquid could easily be incorporated in the dough, a water-soluble flavor can quickly evaporate during baking. When a food product is heated, the water in the product evaporates, which can then cause steam distillation of the flavors. In other words, the more water-soluble and the lower the molecular weight the flavor components are, the more flavor loss you will encounter. However, the more volatile or water-soluble the flavor, the more aroma (flash off) you will have.
If the processing steps are known while the flavor is being developed, the flavorist can choose the best solvent system. The solvent is especially important when heat is applied to the product, because they should not flash off too quickly. This may also be a situation of a twofold system with liquid and dry flavors to provide the optimum profile due to the stress effect on the flavor, Cosmos says.
The flavorist may also recommend a higher dosage to overcompensate for flavor loss, or the flavor might be applied at a different point in the product-development process than originally planned. When initially added to the product, it may appear to be overflavored, but that will compensate for the loss due to the effect of high heat/short time, or lower heat over a specific time in baking, says Cosmos.
Dandrea says that well-balanced flavor will typically contain both volatile and non-volatile components that create the flavor perception from initial impact to aftertaste. Oftentimes, the solvent or diluents used to carry the flavor can help to minimize any vaporization of the volatile flavor components during processing, he says. The introduction of heat during processing can accelerate reactions be-tween active flavor molecules and/or between product actives. The flavor developer must be aware of interactions to help minimize these off effects. Oftentimes, aldehydes, which are key in vanilla, citrus and many fruit flavors, are very reactive and can form detrimental flavor breakdown products. Subtle fruit flavors, including pear, are most likely to be affected from the harsher conditions of certain processing.
Flavors can be impacted by hot filling or aseptic packaging, as well as chemical preservative systems. The longer the cooking time involved in thermal destruction of spoilage organisms, the more damage to the flavor occurs, says Scott Rayburn, beverage applications manager, Cargill Flavor Systems, Cincinnati. This is particularly intense in cases involving citrus oils. Chemical preservatives cause their own issues with off flavors; also, they need a low-pH environment to work correctly.
Every flavor has a certain pH range in which it works. For instance, root beer only works in a higher pH range with significant car-bonation, says Rayburn. Usually it is 16% sweeter than typical cola types. Another example is butterscotch flavor; it does not taste good in an acid solution. However, salt works as an excellent flavor enhancer within butterscotch products.
Flavors are typically encapsulated to help prevent activity between other ingredients that can produce off flavors or loss of flavor. The encapsulation process involves, in simplistic form, the creation of a barrier, typically a starch or gum, between the core flavor components and the final system or finished applicationand, ultimately, aids in extending the shelf life of the flavor. Most encapsu-lated flavors are application-specific and are typically water-soluble, which prevents their use in high-moisture foods or beverages, says Dandrea.
Edwards recommends using encapsulated flavors when a product will be subject to high temperature or held for a long period of time. For an oven-baked application, an encapsulated flavor would be the best flavor system. While there may be some flavor loss, encapsu-lated flavors are, for the most part, highly resistant to the heating process. This is also the best option for products expected to have a long shelf life.
Encapsulation can also control flavor release over time. In chewing gum, every time a crystal is masticated, flavor is released, says Cosmos. The solubility is also very important in that when the flavor becomes truly incorporated into the product, it will release again during the chew. Patent-pending encapsulation technology captures the flavors key components and enhances flavor stability so they can withstand high shear, grinding, blending and freeze/thaw processes because it holds volatile flavor components at the molecular level.
Spray-dried flavors would be a good choice for off-the-shelf dry packaged food, particularly to maintain a shelf life, says Edwards. In the instance of canned soup, either a liquid or dry flavor would work fine. However, if there are cost restraints, a liquid flavor would be more cost effective.
Cola-type flavors in finished beverages best exemplify flavor optimization. According to Dandrea: When the core oil-soluble ingredients such as citrus and spice oils are encapsulated in an emulsion, the fat-soluble ingredients that help to provide additional mouthfeel will create a full-flavor sensation. If the same cola oil blend is washed or stripped of most of these fat-soluble materials, the end flavor system is primarily left with only the aromatic compounds. The end result leaves a very different flavor perception experience.
In any system, the flavor must be delivered and applied in sensible quantities. If, for instance, a highly concentrated flavor is used, there is greater risk of improper dosage and distribution in the end product, says Dandrea. This reinforces the need for flavors that are properly concentrated and suited for the finished product. Ultimately, the flavorist and food product developer can work together to maximize flavor delivery to create great tasting and appealing products.
Whatever the technique used to get there, I think the goal that weve got is to create products that will have the maximum enjoyment by the intended consumer, says Reid Wilkerson, president, McClancy Seasoning Co., Fort Mill, SC. Or in the words of one of my good friends, If the cash register is ringing you did it right.
Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected] .
A Chefs Perspective
In the kitchen or on the bench, the key to maximizing flavor is to look at its foundation first. Use your building blocks of flavor, says Robin Stotter, director of culinary, research & development, P.F. Changs China Bistro, Scottsdale, AZ. In most dishes, you want to round out and balance those fla-vors. Look at the desired end results, whether sweet, savory or a combination of the two.
Using an example of simple stir-fried vegetables, Stotter recommends picking vegetables by flavor and color. You want color, because you want to appeal to the eye. Maybe you have some bitter greens with some sweeter greens that, when you subject to high heat, youre going to bring out some caramelization of the natural sugars. When selecting a sauce to finish this dish, he suggests a combi-nation of ingredients with sweet, bitter and sour flavors, such as wine, soy and citrus. In this case, the soy will provide salt. You would finish with a little sesame oil for some aromatics and then you can garnish with fresh herbs like cilantro or Thai basil, he says. Then add a little bit of white pepper for some heat. Spicy is really something that you want to touch on. It helps open up the palate and allow flavors to get in.
This stir-fried dish describes the thought process that goes into a dish that seems as simple as vegetables, says Stotter. Theres a big difference between a great vegetable dish and a good one.
Chinese cooking provides a foundation for understanding flavoring concepts because it is simple, but complex in its simplicity, Stotter continues. Wok-seared chicken is a more-intricate example. It be-gins with marinated chicken that is then cooked in vegetable stock, a method known as stock velveting.
Stotter usually starts out with chile, ginger and garlic, because those are the foundations of aromat-ics that then can give a fundamental basis to a more-complex sauce. Then Ill bao syang those things. Bao syang is a term like sauté; it means to open up flavor.
The ultimate goal is create multiple layers of flavor. Im not going after one sweet, Im going after two or three different sweets. Im going after two or three different bitters. Im going after two or three different sours, says Stotter. This might be achieved with a sauce that balances citrus, wine, vinegar and soy. In some sauces, he might add a hoisen sauce. Chinese cuisine also often incorporates ketchup.
With the sauce on the side and the chicken cooking in the stock, Stotter will add vegetables, such as peppers, onion and asparagus, to the aromatics hes bao syang. Then hell add 4 to 5 oz. of sauce. When the sauce hits this hot pan thats already filled with the vegetable and this ginger, chile and garlic, youve got all these intense flavors going on.
To balance and finish the sauce, it may be necessary to add a small amount of sugar to caramelize. Now Ill take the stock-velveted chicken, lo mein noodles that have been blanched in vegetable stock, and Ill toss everything together in the sauce in the wok. Then Ill add a little bit of sesame oil at the end. The completed dish is plated and garnished with toasted sesame seeds and some scallions. Now Ive got four layers of flavor built in to this dish, and I didnt add any salt.
Balance is not just for Chinese foodthe same techniques work across the board. Take seasonings, for instance. The ideal way to use a seasoning blend, advises Reid Wilkerson, president, McClancy Seasoning Co., Fort Mill, SC, is for someone to eat it and go, I really like this but nothing really is distinctive or sticks out or is out of balance. The key to that is careful analysis of your intended flavor profile. The ideal thing someone once told me is Id like to know whats in this. Its really good but I cant tell what it is. If youve gotten that out of people on a flavor panelthen youve really done a good job.