Zing is the ThingZing is the Thing
July 1, 1997
By: Susheela Uhl
Today, it seems everybody's seeking to spice up their lives, with America's appetite for spicier ingredients growing at rapid pace. From soup to nuts, spices appear with greater frequency in all our processed foods. But how can food designers best create these zestier products? Are fresh or dried spices best, or does a spice extract qualify as a perfect match?
Hot and getting hotter
Today's hottest trend is our taste for hotter spices, according to the American Spice Trade Association's Spice Statistics 1995 report. While black pepper remains the "King of Spices," hotter chile peppers comprise the fastest-growing segment - up 125% in volume of sales since the late 1970s. Overall, black pepper, white pepper, chile peppers and mustard now occupy 41% of U.S. spice usage, having increased 71% in volume during the same time period.
America's appetite for spicier ingredients is not limited to spices that add heat to food: Thai, Indian, vegetarian, Malaysian, Caribbean and Oaxacan foods with stronger flavor profiles will inspire greater demand for spices. Moreover, demand for variety and visual appeal in foods, healthful ingredients, and reduced-salt or low-fat foods all will contribute to increasing use of spices in the United States.
Variety: the spice of life
Not only has demand for spices increased volume-wise, but consumers seek ever greater variety in those substances containing bite. This goes hand-in-hand with the increasing ethnic diversity and a desire for authentic ingredients and fusion cuisines. Some spices possess mass appeal, such as garlic or ginger. However, each ethnic group or region features variations in spiciness, sweetness and textures, resulting in the greater variety of spices desired.
To develop successful products, food technologists must understand spices in all their varieties. Spices are often available in various forms, significantly affecting flavor, texture and mouthfeel, as well as functionality, in a food system. Flavor and color perception of spices varies depending on country of origin. The flavor and color of spices - such as coriander, bay or cinnamon - depend upon origin and variety, as well as whether a spice is presented in fresh, ground or liquid form. Different cuisines use their "typical" locally available cinnamon to bring out authentic flavor profiles. Mexican cuisine uses the more pungent canella, whereas the Chinese use the milder cassia.
In the past, food technologists used substitutions to typify a specific, but unavailable, spice. Today, consumers demand authenticity and variety. "Newer" spices, such as ajowan seeds, ginger flower, turmeric leaf or sumac, will emerge as the trend for authenticity and variety continues. And U.S. consumers might yet discover the unique roots, leaves, flowers, stalks and spice-preparation techniques traditionally used in Latin American, Asian and Caribbean cuisines.
As every food technologist knows, spices comprise the building blocks of a flavorful cuisine. Spices include a plant's seed (nutmeg), leaf (cilantro), berry (allspice), bark (cinnamon), stem (chives), stalk (lemongrass), root (ginger), flower (saffron), fruit (star anise) and flower bud (clove). They're available fresh, dry, pureed, as paste and as natural extractives, and each form possesses advantages and disadvantages with which a food developer must be familiar.
Fresh spices provide foods with texture, visual appeal, color and fresh aroma. This is especially true of whole or cracked seeds and herbs, which are often used as garnishes. Many herbs and spices - such as lemongrass, watercress, basil or chile peppers - are blended fresh and used in making sauces or condiments with water, oil, wine or vinegar. The pureed or paste forms possess intense flavors and need to be mixed well before application in sauces, soups or gravies. Oil-based forms can become rancid in a shorter period of time.
Consumers demand "fresh" spices, but their visual appeal, texture and flavor become lost in processed foods. Therefore, dry spices and spice extractives are, by necessity, the products a food technologist uses to formulate foods or beverages. The food technologist's goal is developing products which will possess the "fresh" quality consumers desire, but whose spice-sensory attributes can withstand processing, freezing and storage conditions.
Dry spices come finely or coarsely ground, whole or cracked, and as various-sized particulates. Depending on its form, a spice will deliver different flavor perceptions in the finished product. Therefore, the specific application will dictate whether a dry spice is used ground, granulated, cracked or whole. Whole spices, such as sesame seeds or bay leaf, provide aroma but, most importantly, offer textural and visual effect. While uneven distribution of whole spices might prove problematic, this effect is sometimes desired to achieve a certain "bite" in a whole spice, such as whole sesame seeds on a breadstick. This way, whole spices can become the major flavor characterizing a product. Dehydrated garlic and onion - which come powdered, granulated, ground, minced, chopped or sliced, and in various-sized particles - are used to characterize flavor and provide texture in garlic bread, onion bagels and chips.
Toasting or roasting whole spices promotes improved flavor, by removing raw, bitter notes and intensifying certain desirable flavors. Ground spices sometimes need to be rehydrated or processed to develop their flavor. Mustard, for example, becomes spicy only when water is added to trigger an enzyme reaction, while added acidulants, such as vinegar, preserve its pungency.
Many dry spices contain a higher flavor concentration than fresh spices, so they are more economical to use in processed foods. A 1 lb. portion of dehydrated garlic is equivalent in flavor to 5 lbs. of raw prepared garlic. Dry herbs do not require the preparation of cutting, chopping or grinding as fresh herbs do. Some spices at low levels enhance flavors, but at higher levels become either bitter or create the characterizing flavor in the product.
Natural characteristics of dry spices are determined by environment, climate, soil conditions, time of harvesting and post-harvest handling. The time period between harvesting and storage -- and between when the spice is ground and added to a food -- is crucial for getting maximum benefit from most spices. Ground spices provide a more rapid release of flavor than whole spices.
Spice flavor can be readily oxidized, and losses occur during milling and storage. Some flavors in ground spices tend to volatilize, causing aroma losses. Anise, black pepper or allspice lose their aroma quickly as soon as they are ground. In addition, the way the spice is treated or processed before being ground - and the conditions of storage before delivery to the food processor - create flavor and color differences. Lower-temperature milling can produce better color, flavor and aroma retention.
Spices in dry form originate from many regions, so each spice category contains variations in color, flavor and texture. Dry ginger from India has a subtle lemon-like flavor; ginger from southern China is slightly bitter in flavor. Jamaica and Sierra Leone also boast pungent varieties. Similarly, black pepper, which comes from a dried berry known as a peppercorn, varies in flavor intensity, depending on its source. Malabar and Lampong peppercorns possess a high level of nonvolatile piperine that gives them their characteristic bite. They're highly aromatic, while the Malaysian and Brazilian have milder flavors.
Dry spices have disadvantages: They sometimes possess poor flavor strength, might discolor the product, and can create undesirable particulates. Irregular variations in flavor and color also might occur, sometimes creating "hot" spots in food products. Anticaking agents help ensure better flowability of dry spices. Applications with high moisture content - such as salad dressings where particulates are desired for visual and textural effects - afford a significant risk for microbial growth unless the dry spices are sterilized.
Spice extractives are natural liquids (which include essential oils, oleoresins and aquaresins) and spray-dried powders. Developed from ground spices, they're standardized for color, aroma and, with some spices, for their antioxidant activity. When using these extractives in prepared foods, flavor development achieves more consistency than when using dry spices.
Essential oils, such as oil of basil or oil of black pepper, are volatile oils produced by grinding, chopping or crushing the spice, which is then distilled or cold-expressed. Spices usually contain 0.5% to 3.0% volatile oils. The nonvolatiles are removed. Soluble in oil, essential oils provide a more potent aromatic effect than ground spice. They contain most, but not all, of the flavor components (hydrophilic components, fixed oils or antioxidants), so they do not have the complete flavor profile of ground spices or oleoresins, but are used where a strong aromatic effect is desired. Essential oils lose their aroma with age.
Oleoresins are produced by grinding spices and then extracting by solvent. They possess the full flavor, aroma and pungency of fresh or dry spices and herbs, because they contain high-boiling-point volatiles and nonvolatile constituents native to spices. Because they contain gums and resins, they're thick, viscous and difficult-to-handle.
Aquaresins are oleoresins dispersible in water and oil. They're convenient to use because they easily disperse into water-based foods, such as soups, sauces or dressings. More uniform and less variable in flavor than their ground spice counterparts, aquaresins typically see use in salad dressings, processed meats, dry mixes and spice blends.
Lemongrass and green onion extractives are recent alternatives to their fresh or dehydrated counterparts and are available in oleoresin (oil dispersible) and aquaresin (water and oil dispersible) forms, according to Bill Goodrich, regional sales manager, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. "The lemongrass has a warm, fresh and green citral-like flavor, unlike lemon," Goodrich says. "Its usage level is generally 0.01% to 0.05% by weight in final product, but varies depending on the type of application."
Spice extractives are labeled as natural flavors, natural flavorings or as spice extracts. By using natural extractives, food technologists can control product quality and consistency from development through production; finished-product quality, uniformity during mixing, and consistency are maintained from batch to batch production. Food developers typically use them because of their consistency in flavor and aroma, instant flavor release, uniformity of color, and stability to high-heat applications.
Proper usage levels in finished product are required to obtain the correct flavor profile and to prevent bitterness. A more uniform dispersion is achieved with the liquid soluble extractives than with dry spices. This creates an acceptable appearance in finished products, unlike dried spices, which sometimes leave pockets of flavor and color because of uneven mixing when used in large quantities. However, in an aqueous system, oleoresins and essential oils need to be effectively dispersed on a soluble carrier before being added to the rest of the product. Otherwise, they won't mix well. Exceeding optimum use of the liquid extractives in a dry mix also will create caking of finished product during storage.
To make extractives more convenient to use in dry applications, and to avoid handling problems, extractives are dispersed on a carrier to create a dry soluble extractive. This is a dispersion of up to 5% or more of spice oleoresin on a free-flowing carrier such as salt, dextrose, sugar, maltodextrin or gum. This agglomeration or encapsulation renders the extractive wettable and dispersible in water or oil and also decreases dusting in production. The quantity of extractives that can be dispersed on the carrier varies with the type of carrier and the oleoresin. It is important to evenly disperse and blend the oleoresin on to the carrier to get even dispersion and consistent flavor delivery.
Compared to fresh or dry spices, extractives are cost-effective, since they're used at very low concentrations to provide similar, or more acceptable, flavor perceptions. One part oleoresin or aquaresin equals 20 to 40 parts of a ground spice. Color, texture and flavor of dry and fresh spices also are destroyed through heat and freezing, while extractives possess some heat and freezer stability.
Typically, chile pepper extractives come in mild, medium or hot varieties. Decolorized extractives are added to products requiring heat but no color, such as white sauces. With the influence of ethnic cuisines, using chile pepper for its flavor, as well as its pungency, has become the trend. Asians and Mexicans traditionally have used these peppers for flavoring dishes, creating unique flavors through different preparation techniques. Chile peppers vary in color, flavor and texture profiles depending on whether they are fresh, dry, smoked or grilled. The popularity of these ethnic cuisines has pushed the flavor characteristics of chile peppers toward the forefront of profiles sought by consumers as well as food processors.
"To create authentic Hispanic foods, natural chile extractives provide the flavors of dried chile peppers, chipotle, ancho, cascabel and guajillo," says Marianne Gillette, marketing manager for McCormick Flavors, Hunt Valley, MD. "They are available as liquid extracts; encapsulated powders; and encapsulated granules. The (encapsulated granule) extractives are entrapped in a matrix, which protects it from oxidation, and provides an extended shelf life."
These encapsulated oleoresins are spray-dried to retain the fresh notes of spices better than the oleoresins. Containing no particulates and completely natural, they offer a consumer-friendly ingredient label.
"The Solu-Flows are water-soluble, single- and double-folded liquid flavors, created by blending standardized oleoresins and essential oils to replace 1:1 or 1:2 replacement for ground spice," Gillette says. "A food technologist or culinarian can create numerous flavor profiles by combining these extractives. For example, she may desire the unique aroma of the Lampong black pepper, but not the heat. Blending these black pepper extractives provides her the desired creativity in formulation."
Different ethnic groups process spices to suit specific applications and create unique flavors. Spices are roasted dry, roasted in oil, simmered or boiled in water to create a multitude of different flavors. With the increasing influence of Indian, Southeast Asian and Mexican foods, preparation techniques will prove an important trend for ground or whole spices.
Several flavors can be derived from the same spice by using it ground, whole or dry-roasted or popping it whole in hot oil. Most spices, such as cumin, coriander or cardamon, provide greater aroma and flavor when freshly ground than when purchased preground. For even more intense and desirable flavors, spices are roasted before being ground. "Popped" mustard seeds; "fried" curry leaves; and "toasted" fenugreek with ginger, garlic and dry cayenne pepper are balanced to create unique "dal curries" in southern India - "dal" being either lentils, beans or peas. Toasting whole spices creates unique flavors and colors. Smoking, "tumising" or "bagharing" of jalapeño, coriander seeds or fenugreek seeds creates intense flavors or removes undesirable or bitter notes. "Tumising" means frying a spice blend in oil; "bagharing" refers to dry-roasting.
Interaction and balance of spices with each other, and with the other ingredients in the system, forms an important basis for flavor development of a food product.
How do spice suppliers best achieve the quality and consistency food product designers seek? One important step is to question how the supplier processes the spice or spice ingredient. When a spice supplier provides ground fenugreek, is it roasted before grinding to create a more intense flavor? What about ground coriander? Is it dry-roasted before grinding so its sweeter notes are released?
Apply within (or on top)
Spices provide savory, sweet, pungent, bitter or sour notes to foods and beverages. A vast spectrum of tastes and aromas can be created by combining spices, herbs and flavorings. Spice blends containing unique combinations of spices form a finished product's principal basis of flavor. It's the same whether designers are creating regional ethnic or fusion cuisine, or merely adding ethnic zest to traditional American foods.
Asian Indians use various spices to create uniquely balanced curry blends, while Chinese use them to contrast sweet, sour or pungent notes with vivid textures. Thais and Caribbeans create great visual appeal with spices.
Aromatic vindaloos, sour colombos, peppery sambals or spicy tagines owe their unique flavors to spices they contain. Curry blends vary from India to Thailand to Japan to the Caribbean to England to Africa because of regional, cultural and generational preferences. No one curry blend is identical. Most curry blends share some basic spices - such as turmeric, cumin, coriander and dried red chile pepper -but to provide distinct flavors, several other spices may be added, including lemongrass, cilantro, habaneros, allspice or star anise.
The order in which spices are added - first, last, in succession, simultaneously -creates taste differences. For example, in preparing a "kari," chefs avoid bitterness by waiting till the end of cooking to add fenugreek or "garam masala."
As consumers continue seeking healthful foods with ease of preparation, unique seasonings - introduced through marinades, rubs, glazes and sprinkle-on seasonings - are becoming the hottest new trends. Seasonings and spice blends can be used to create products that are pre-prepared or easy to prepare at home.
Dried spices are used with acids, salt, sugar, starch and oil to develop the perfect blend for use as dry rubs, topical seasonings, glazes, tumbling marinades or injection marinades. Rubs contain particulates of spices for external coating, offering visual appeal. For example, blackened chicken or fish can acquire unique crunchy coatings when seasoned with rubs. Charred flavors often develop when high tomato solids or high dextrose-equivalent maltodextrins are used, so encapsulated spices constitute the preferred method of preserving flavor. Rubs come in dry or paste forms, and can be added to meats after applying tumbling or injection marinades, such as in rotisserie chicken.
Dry or liquid glazes also are external applications containing starch, and may or may not include spice particulates. Some glazes penetrate the product to provide flavor, and at the same time, stay on-surface to create some visual and textural appeal. Marinades typically contain coarsely or finely ground spices (with or without particulates); oil; vinegar or other acid sources; salt and sugar. In a tumbling marinade, vacuum is applied so the product absorbs marinade. Injection marinade is an internal soluble spice extractive with no particulates or insoluble spices. Flavor is delivered by injecting spice solution into meat or a whole bird, resulting in uniform flavor and color. To avoid colored streaks on products, colorless spice solutions need to be used, such as decolorised capsicum or black pepper.
Certain spices provide color as well as flavor. These include saffron, paprika, turmeric and annatto. Color differences and intensity are determined by where the spice originates, its processing method and storage conditions. Saffron, the single most expensive spice, imparts a beautiful yellow color to paellas and pilafs. Possessing a deep, rich, red color, it's sold as threads or ground. Extracts of paprika, annatto and turmeric (with emulsifiers) provide hues from bright yellow through red-orange for processed foods. These extracts are available in oil-soluble, water-soluble and water-dispersible forms. Trace metals, oxidized fats and oils, intense light, and exposure to oxygen promote fading or color loss in these extractives.
Turmeric - from the ginger family and often called "Indian saffron" - sees uses as a natural food-coloring in salad dressings, prepared mustard, sausages, pickles and ethnic foods. Turmeric oleoresin, whose coloring principle is due to curcumin, varies from bright yellow, orange to dirty brown. Though unstable to light and alkaline conditions, it's heat-stable and stable at pH 2.5 to 6.5.
Exhibiting a yellow to golden-yellow shade, annatto extract is used in cheddar cheeses, bakery products and, sometimes, in combination with paprika and turmeric oleoresins. Its coloring compounds, norbixin and bixin, are stable at pH 5 to 14. Paprika oleoresin shows reddish-orange shades for use in snack products, spice blends, crackers and salad dressings.
In the days before refrigeration, in addition to providing aroma and flavor, spices were used to preserve meat, bread or vegetables. This practice is still carried out in villages and towns in India and Thailand. Some spices and herbs provide antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Today, with the desire for "natural" products, companies have used clove, rosemary and sage as natural preservatives. This natural-preservative trend will continue research into other spices' preservative values.
For example, Kalsec's Herbolox seasoning, an oleoresin of rosemary or sage, is effective in inhibiting flavor and color degradation, according to Goodrich. "The naturally occurring phenolic compounds in them are effective against oxidative rancidity of fats and color deterioration in the carotenoid pigments," he says. "They are from liquid spice and herb extracts with standardized antioxidant activity."
Used in seasoning blends, salad dressing mixes, sausage and instant potatoes, these natural preservatives are available as oil-soluble, water-dispersible or dry-soluble forms. Used in sprays, dips or surface coatings in comminuted poultry, seafood or meats before frozen, these preservatives inhibit "warmed-over" flavors that develop after cooking and reheating. For snack foods, they're added in the frying oil or atomized on the surface of snacks, or put into dough. Extremely heat-stable and able to withstand extrusion, spray-drying or baking, they also are added in glazes and injection marinades for meats.
Hippocratic hot stuff
In addition to tasty foods, the recent emphasis on healthful eating has created increased use of spices to create low-fat or low-salt foods. Though spices offer little, if any, nutritional value, they've been used in ethnic cooking, not only for reasons of availability and convenience, but also for boosting energy, aiding in digestion and other medicinal reasons. Since its aroma stimulates gastric secretions - thereby creating an appetite - spicy foods achieved popularity with many indigenous populations.
Various ethnic groups have utilized spices to cure and prevent ailments. Asians use an abundance of spices, not only as flavorings, but also for healing purposes. Indians use ginger to aid digestion and improve blood circulation, while ginseng enjoys substantial use by Koreans and Chinese as an energy source. Some people believe it helps the body to adapt to stress and enhance mental and physical stamina. Garlic has been found to break down blood clots that might cause heart attacks and strokes. Chile peppers provide a great source of vitamin A and C, and their value as circulatory and digestive stimulants is currently being researched.
The substance capsaicin, found in chile pepper, causes human bodies to produce endorphins, which block feelings of pain. Topical arthritic medications utilize capsaicin. Hot Thai peppers also have been determined by scientists to prevent blood clots. Medicinal herb sales grow each year, with herbal extracts, ginger and garlic increasingly used in juice beverages and teas.
Europe, Japan and other Asian countries far exceed the United States in researching spices for health use. It is only recently that U.S. researchers began examining spices such as garlic, ginger, ginseng root or turmeric for medicinal value. This is because as North Americans age, they are turning to natural herbal or spice products for remedies.
The fresher the whole or ground spice, the maximum its flavor. Spice flavor and color stability depend on length of time in storage, storage conditions, source, form and age since harvesting. Excessive heat volatilizes and dissipates the essential oils in ground spices, and high humidity will tend to cake them. Exposure to light, humidity variations, air or certain metals can discolor spices such as paprika or the green herbs. Dry ground chile peppers turn from a natural green or red color to an olive or dirty, reddish-brown color when exposed to light. Flavor and aroma losses, as well as insect and rodent infestation, occur when spices are not stored in air-tight containers.
Spices or spice extractives should be stored in tightly closed containers in cool, dark, dry conditions, with temperatures generally around 50° to 70°F, at 50% relative humidity. The shelf life when stored under these conditions is about one year. Refrigeration slows microbial growth in ground or whole spices. Ground spices for minimally processed foods, such as salad dressings or condiments, should be cleaned and sterilized. The extraction process for spice extractives renders them essentially sterile.
High moisture levels in ground or whole spice indicate mold and microbial growth. Filth levels include foreign materials, such as insect fragments, small stones, metal fragments and glass pieces. Microbiological requirements for "clean" spices include total bacterial count, yeast, mold, coliforms and food pathogens (such as E.coli and salmonella).
To maximize flavor and color, and to prevent caking, it's necessary to know the spice supplier's storage requirements and capabilities. Spices come from many global regions with varying degrees of quality control. Cleanliness, insect and rodent infestation, and microbial quality constitute important criteria for spice processor and food manufacturer alike. Spice specifications provide an important communication tool between food manufacturer and supplier to ensure the correct spice is delivered within economic limits. When spice specifications are developed and maintained, product consistency is maintained over time.
Food technologists also need to develop their own spice specifications in addition to the supplier's. They must first work with a fresh sample of the spice, and need to include specifications in four areas. First, the food technologist must know the variety of spice desired. For example, when using ground coriander in a formulation, a food technologist needs to know which various types of corianders are available - Indian, Moroccon/Mediterranean or Mexican. Second, the form of the spice must be specified, whether whole, ground or cracked. Third, its physical and chemical characteristics should be stated, such as: color, granulation, roasted or unroasted, moisture level, volatile oil, pungency, and color values. Finally, the spice's storage conditions and shelf life should be emphasized, within practical limits.
Regional ethnic, fusion and spicy cuisines will continue growing. Consumers also will be using spices for health purposes and to create the desired "mood effect," to reduce stress or to boost energy.
Since increasing demand exists for authentic spices, and not merely substitutes, the challenge is to study the great differences in fresh and dry spices. This will enable food technologists to create extractives with authentic profiles. Ginger flavor will not be used for galangal flavor nor lemon for lemongrass flavor. When essential oils are used, it is up to the food technologist to combine other pertinent flavor profiles with these essential oils to create an authentic effect.
Use of fresh spices will continue increasing because of their availability, but can their textures and colors be retained in products? A flavorist needs to develop extractives that can accurately duplicate dry-spice authenticity. How does a food technologist or culinarian create a natural product with great aroma and a long-lasting shelf life?
Some of the challenges facing the flavorist, as well as the food technologist, are, first, trying to simulate the fresh herbal and the freshly ground or toasted spice flavor notes for use in processed foods or seasonings. Is it possible for the flavorist to develop a toasted oleoresin cumin or dry-roasted encapsulated fenugreek so food technologists can be creative in their formulations? Second, food product designers need to further explore chile peppers for their desirable taste and aroma, not merely for their heat, as is the current tendency. Third, herbs provide mouthfeel and textures. Is it possible for flavorists to develop extractives, and use other ingredients that can duplicate these sensations? Finally, food technologists must consider ways to maximize the full flavor profile of spices or their extractives through processing, freezing or storage conditions.
Typical spices used in popular cuisines include:
Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons, a Mamaroneck, NY-based food consulting firm. She develops products; identifies trends and concepts; and provides presentations on spices and ingredients.
© 1997 by Weeks Publishing Company
3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
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