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How the Basic Tastes Cancel Out-and a special personal request

Taste Buds and the Tongue

I have a confession to make.

Over the past year, I have not been putting 100% into this blog. I’ve been working on a book, equal parts science and DIY-hack-foolery. In the course of that year, I spoke to dozens of people who helped me understand some of the most fundamental basics about how we perceive food. The book is called Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science. I think the book is totally awesome, but I don’t want you to buy it! (Scroll all the way down to see why)

In the meantime…

Why cocktails? Because to really understand food and taste perception, I wanted to go back to the basics. And what’s more basic than a simple mixture of liquids? Continue Reading →

Nordic Food Lab’s Ben Reade on microbiology, eating insects, and the pursuit of deliciousness

One of the best parts about blogging is connecting with people who share your interests. I have a day job, as do all the other editors at Science Fare. In the past, I would have been just another lonely food geek, dreaming up dishes in my home kitchen. Today, the internet gives me the opportunity to connect with people working at the cutting edge of gastronomy and science.

A few weeks ago, I sat down via skype with Ben Reade, the newly-minted Head of Culinary Research and Development at the Nordic Food Lab to get the inside scoop on microbiology, eating insects, and the lab’s pursuit of deliciousness.

photo courtesy Nordic Food Lab

Continue Reading →

How cacao theobroma becomes chocolate: fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding

A few months ago, Naveen gave a talk on chocolate science at the MIT Museum and to one of the Harvard undergraduate houses. I was recently invited to give a talk on chocolate and science for National Science Week in Melbourne Australia, so I revisited Naveen’s post.

I found his slides incredibly useful, so I started adapting them into a series of blog posts. Here’s the first one.

Chocolate begins as a fruit

If a hundred monkeys typing at random for a million years really can create the complete works of Shakespeare, then I can begin to see how human kind could have stumbled on the creation of chocolate.

Chocolate begins as the plant Theobroma cacao, a tree indigenous to South and Central America that is now cultivated in many countries along the equator. The cocoa “beans” used to make chocolate are actually the seeds of its fruit. In their raw state, cacao seeds contain large amounts of fat, in the form of cocoa butter, as well as water.

Continue Reading →

The weird science of ice and how to make “Premium Ice” at home

beautiful, clear ice

Update 2/27/13: Like this post? Check out the 250-page, 65-recipe book that came from this research.

I was inspired to post it here by a reader named Andrew, who sent us an e-mail recently asking how to make fancy crystal-clear ice cubes at home. He’d tried everything from using distilled water to sonication, but never got the perfect cubes he envisioned.

Andrew’s not the only one – a whole bunch of folks have tried to make clear ice cubes at home that can match up to the “premium” ones available through companies like Kold-Draft, which are often used in high-end bars and restaurants. I’ve tried all the methods over the course of the last year and figured out what really works. No esoteric equipment required. Continue Reading →

Hacking Flavor Combinations to find the Perfect Lemonade Ratio

lemonade

flickr user lara604

We do a lot of experiments with food on this blog. Which is why I actually find it kind of shocking that none of us has written about making lemonade before. Journals like Food Quality and Preference and Perception & Psychophysics, or Physiology and Behavior are rife with scientists spending time making lemonade.

Well – sort of. Continue Reading →

Challenging Beliefs about Flavor

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters - Reviewed.

The preeminent expert in the field lays the foundation for a new brain-based understanding of how we experience food.

When Modernist Cuisine, the Art and Science of Cooking finally came out in early 2011, food geeks around the world rushed to buy it (assuming they had saved up the requisite small fortune). But that enthusiasm soon turned to dismay, even fear, for many of them. It seemed that Modernist Cuisine had succeeded in pondering, unequivocally answering, and even gorgeously photographing every imaginable food and science question in existence. The curious masses had no more need for experiments, hacking consumer goods, or scouring obscure food forums. They needed simply to turn to page 2^25, and lo, their questions would be answered. Was there nothing else in the food world worth exploring?

Enter “neurogastronomy.”

Author Dr. Gordon Shepherd, a neurobiologist by trade, answers few questions in this book. Rather, he elucidates the framework for a whole new set of food questions for his fellow geeks to explore. His language often slips into difficult-to-decipher academic terms and references to specific experiments with only vaguely promising results. But in its own way, Dr. Shepherd’s style can be surprisingly refreshing. Neurogastronomy is not Malcolm Gladwell’s clever and witty if somewhat exaggerated simplification of other people’s work. Both Shepherd’s name and legacy appear on the majority of the research he cites; his expertise is unquestionable. His takeaways are not always easy to find or understand quickly, but they are important enough to merit an extra moment or two of consideration.

Continue Reading →

Why Some People Hate Drinking (and what you can do about it)

 

girl frowning at beer

flickr user a4gpa

Update, 2/27/13: Like this post? Check out the 250-page, 65-recipe book full of stuff like this.

this post was prepared with the assistance of Giles Cowan, a UK-based bartender who blogs about all things cocktailian (with healthy nods to science) over at DrinkFactory. go check out drinkfactory for some sweet cross-post action. now without further ado…

I take great pride in asking people what they like to drink and finding something in my home bar that will make them happy. I enjoy alcohol as a lubricant for social experiences and am convinced that in moderation, it has at least some moderate benefits to health. The vast majority of friends I’ve tested have enjoyed the drinks I’ve made them. People who swear they can’t stand hard liquor or only drink vodka have refilled on swizzles made from anejo tequila.

Except for Tom.

Tom (his real name isn’t Tom) cannot stand the taste of alcohol. At all. And I know it’s not his fault. He’s always a good sport, tasting every single drink I’ve made for him. Each time, he smiles, as if confident this time, this drink, he’ll find something he’ll genuinely enjoy and know exactly what to order at bars forever. For me, it’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. I carefully study his face, looking for a sign, the slightest hint of a smile that indicates he’s pleased, satisfied, or at least indifferent. But, every time, this venture ends the same. Tom’s face tightens with disgust, his eyes squint, his tongue hangs limp from his defeated mouth.

Tom drinks Bud Lime and Coronas. I drink Tom’s cocktail leftovers. Once in a while, I’ll mix up something exceptionally light and he’ll happily accept a glass, knowing he’ll never be able to bring himself to ask for an amaretto sour or a dark and stormy (hold the stormy) in a bar. Poor Tom.

I decided to start doing some research. I had to understand why Tom didn’t enjoy the same drinks I found so delicious.

Does Alcohol Actually Taste Good? (or are we all just addicts?)

a flowchart summary of the research that’s going to be discussed. this will all make sense if you make it to the bottom of this post. warning: it’s kind of long.

Humans have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. The earliest evidence we have dates back to the production of alcohol in China around 8000 B.C. And for as long as we’ve made it, we’ve treasured it. Pottery fragments left by Neolithic settlements living in modern-day Georgia around 6000 B.C. reveal images of celebration associated with alcoholic beverages.

Of course, early fermented wines and beers were relatively low alcohol. Some societies may have used alcohol production more as a means of preservation than for alcohol’s inhibition-reducing effects. In fact, we didn’t know how to distill alcohol to stronger strengths until 1200 A.D.

For more on the history of booze, see Drink: a Cultural History

A few thousand years is far too little time to evolve any sort of biological preference for alcohol, but we humans are very good at passing along our taste aversions and preferences through cultural and other unconscious cues. So what if the only reason I think alcohol tastes good is because people enjoy getting drunk and somehow that drug reliance has translated into a taste preference for ethanol? Would cocktails taste better if they were all virgin?

Some of the most telling research I found on the taste of alcohol came from the Department of Otolaryngology (the study of the ear, nose, and throat) at Warsaw Medical University in Poland. In 2000, Dr. Anna Scinska and five of her colleagues performed an experiment that, so far as I can tell, is the most definitive exploration of how people experience the flavor of alcohol available.

Dr. Scinska recruited 20 volunteers to taste small squirts of various concentrations of ethanol, sugar sucrose syrup, citric acid, saline, and quinine, a bittering agent. Perception of ethanol’s taste was in question. The other solutions were meant to represent the tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter – the four basic tastes the tongue can experience (MSG is a fifth, but is less explored). The results were intriguing. Every single test subject said that ethanol is bitter, even when it was present only as a 0.3% solution. The second most common taste descriptor, however, was that ethanol tasted sweet.

In the second part of Dr. Scinska’s experiment, the test subjects were invited back to compare ethanol to tastes, but this time they were asked to rate the taste similarity of ethanol to a combination of both quinine and sucrose. The results confirmed what had been observed during the first test. When subjects tasted a 10% ethanol solution, they found it tasted most similar to a 3% sucrose solution with just a little quinine (0.005%) mixed in.

From this research, it seemed clear that people find alcohol both bitter and sweet. Everyone appears to find alcohol bitter, but apparently not extremely bitter, regardless of concentration. People also thought alcohol was sweet, but once again, only slightly, regardless of concentration.

These revelations were fortifying for me. The research showed that alcohol delivers a complex mix of bitter and sweet. Even at cocktail concentrations, the flavors were described as “pleasant”. In fact, as I did more reading on the subject, I found that other animals (rats, elephants, birds included) seem to seek out naturally occurring alcohol for its sweet taste.

So why did Tom still hate cocktails? Going off the Scinska research, I thought maybe it might have something to do with the way he perceives bitterness. More research was needed.

It’s Not Tom’s Fault

In 2004, Sarah Lanier, a graduate of the dietetics program at the University of Connecticut, recruited 49 undergraduate students from the UConn population for an experiment. Lanier was working with Dr. Valerie B. Duffy, a professor at UConn who earlier that year had published a paper linking ethanol (the stuff that makes alcohol alcoholic) to a compound called 6-n-propylthiouracil, commonly known as PROP.

Here’s how Lanier’s experiment played out. Each of the 49 recruits sampled four different drinks: pilsner beer, blended scotch whiskey, instant espresso, and unsweetened grapefruit juice. They rated how bitter or sweet each drink tasted on two scales – intensity and whether they liked the taste. And that was it. The session must have been pretty easy for the college kids. They got free booze, a little coffee, and a few dollars for an hour of work.

But Lanier found some interesting results with this simple experiment. She collected two more important pieces of data about the students: (1) how much alcohol they consumed and (2) whether they were sensitive to PROP bitterness. People who are sensitive to PROP are known as “supertasters” because they find certain foods unbearably bitter. Most people are middle tasters, while some are “nontasters” – people who barely experience PROP bitterness at all. Lanier discovered that nontasters not only found bitter foods to taste less bitter, they also experienced sweet foods as sweeter. On the other end of the spectrum, supertasters found all bitter drinks to taste more bitter.

When Lanier linked people’s perception of sweet and bitter to their consumption of alcohol, she discovered something really unexpected. People who thought scotch tasted sweeter and less bitter drank more alcohol on average. In addition, this effect appeared regardless of whether people said they actually liked scotch or not. How the students experienced beer, however, did not seem to have any predictive value on total alcohol consumption. Instead, Lanier found simply that more men tended to say they “liked beer” and those that showed this preference tended to drink more.

The UConn experiment seems to show two things. First, some people experience hard alcohol as extremely bitter and they drink less alcohol of any type as a result, even if they say they like the taste of hard alcohol. Second, although people experience beer very differently as well, they seem much more able to overcome their taste aversion, probably as a result of social pressure.

Aha! Now I understood why Tom could stomach some light beers, but struggled with sweet cocktails. He had probably overcome the bitterness of beer through social pressure and acquired tolerance to aversion, but the whole point of a craft cocktail is to use different strong liquors in harmony. You want to taste the alcohol. But that taste was torture for Tom.

But What About the Burning Taste of Alcohol?

There was one more thing I had to look into before closing the book on the “why do some people hate the taste of alcohol” case. Many of the participants in Dr. Scinska’s 2000 study ascribed a sour taste to ethanol, but upon interview, described more of a “burning sensation”. The characteristic burn of alcohol is well-documented, but, I wondered, what impact did it have on taste perception?

I posed the question to the question and answer site Quora and after a few months got a well-researched, thorough response from a medical student named Jae Won Joh:

The answer is not simple, unfortunately, and it’s actually a bit difficult to pinpoint. Let’s go through some of the research I’ve been able to dig up. Skip the bulletpoints and just go for the intermittent summaries if you’re impatient.

  • In 1965, Hellekant discovered that cat gustatory fibers respond to ethanol by increasing their firing pattern[1]. These fibers were also responsive to water, acetic acid, quinine, and salt. In cat non-gustatory fibers, ethanol caused a direct increase in firing up to a certain concentration before causing paralysis[2]. This was one of the first studies looking into how ethanol affected taste nerves.
  • In 1999, Sako and Yamamoto showed in rats that you could induce aversion to alcohols, suggesting a possible burning/unpleasant sensation[3].
  • In 2002, Danilova and Hellekant duplicated Hellekant’s 1965 work in rhesus monkeys, showing that ethanol induces increases in firing in about half of lingual non-gustatory receptors. The taste fibers which respond to ethanol are also sensitive light touch and cooling. This suggested some sort of neuronal manipulation by ethanol, possibly with mechanoreceptors.
  • In 2002, Trevisani published a brilliant paper showing that ethanol actually potentiates TRPV-1, a heat-gated ion channel that is responsible for the burning sensation elicited by capsaicin. Ethanol potentiated the response of TRPV-1 to capsaicin, protons, and heat; lowering the threshold for heat activation from 42°C to 34°C. This provides a likely mechanistic explanation for the ethanol-induced sensory responses that occur at body temperature.

Layman’s summary up till 2002: we thought ethanol was just messing with nerves, but apparently there’s this special receptor that it wreaks hell on, and it just so happens to be the receptor for capsaicin, which causes the burning associated with spicy food. Innnnnteresting. Veeeeery interesting...

  • In 2004, it was found that ethanol actually activates a neural pathway reactive to sucrose[5]. That’s right: ethanol is, at least to a rat brain, not all that far off from sugar. Which, in an evolutionary sense, is not all too surprising, given that they’re both energy sources.
  • In 2004 and 2005, Lyall showed in a nice series of papers that TRPV-1 is in taste receptors[5], proving that they were definitely in the right location for stimulation. This is basically further confirmation of Trevisani’s work, I think.
  • In 2005, Simon and Araujo published a nice review of the data thus far[7]. Just thought I’d recognize their paper, it’s good.
  • In 2009, Blednov and Harris demonstrated that if you knocked out the TRPV-1 receptor in mice, they would show significantly greater consumption of ethanol than their normal counterparts. However, you could still induce aversion in both groups, and withdrawal symptoms weren’t different between the two[8].

Layman’s summary up till 2009: we know now about alcohol and capsaicin, but it’s apparent that alcohol has other taste pathways as well, possibly involving sweetness. It may even involve something else as well, given that you can still get a mouse to hate alcohol even if it doesn’t have the capsaicin receptor.”

Basically, what Joh summarized was that ethanol seems to trigger a pathway that is also responsible for the burning sensation you get from eating spicy foods and, importantly, that ethanol reduces the temperature at which the pain gets triggered.

I knew from previous research that there is only one way to build up a tolerance to spicy food: eat more spicy food. Perhaps sensitivity to alcohol works in a similar fashion?

How to Deal with Different Types of Drinkers

Everyone knows that flavor preferences vary greatly between people, but I had no idea ethanol could deliver such a complex range of pleasurable and unpleasurable flavors to different tasters. How one experiences alcohol depends on their genetics, social/cultural influences, and tolerance built up over time. Rather than go into all the takeaways, I’ve organized some advice for dealing with different types of drinkers.

and another flowchart, summarizing the types of drinkers, above. click the image for full-sized version.

For the beginning drinker

You have to be careful with the beginning drinkers because you have no idea whether they are a supertaster or not. Beginning drinkers are also the most prone to developing preferences for or aversions toward alcohol, so you want to make sure they don’t drink too much or have a negative experience – it could deal irreparable damage.

Test the waters – mix something they’re familiar with, like lemonade, and add half the alcohol you might add to a full drink. See if they appreciate how the alcohol adds complexity to the drink, or if they immediately pull away, cringing. Then you might have some idea what type of drinker they are and proceed from there.

For the Supertasting Social Drinker

For those individuals who are sensitive to PROP, the only way to make sure they enjoy their drink is to keep the abv relatively low. Highballs, swizzles, shrubs, and the like are classy and can be just as strong as an up drink, but are more diluted. Steps should also be taken to reduce the perceived bitterness of the drink. Avoid bitters and quinine if possible. Instead, emphasize sour and sweet flavors. Consider adding some salt, as salt can reduce the perception of bitterness (see here for an example). Experiment with complex flavors that are not alcohol-based, such as herbs and infused syrups.

For the Connoisseur

For a guest who’s a fan of fine scotches or whiskys, you’re probably safe to assume either they’re not a supertaster or they have acquired a powerful enough preference for alcohol that the bitterness doesn’t bother them anymore. Mixing drinks for people like this can be especially difficult because it can be hard to gauge how much tolerance they’ve developed in their TPRV-1 receptors. If ethanol works anything like capsaicin, what one person sees as a spicy, pleasant sip might appear to another as bland and pale. If at all possible, it might help to have the guest taste a simple blended scotch and describe it. If they find it bland and are looking for a complex drink, it may help to add bitters, quinine, or aperitifs to up the complexity.

For Nontasters

I somewhat suspect I am a nontaster. I love spicy, bitter cocktails and eat kale on a weekly basis (supertasters find many bitter vegetables overwhelming). It’s not a bad life, though sometimes I wonder whether I’ve missed out on taste experiences others with more sensitive taste receptors enjoy. This may be one reason I enjoy smoky cocktails (have you seen our DIY cold smoker?), carbonation, and cocktails with capsaicin mixed or infused in. Nontasters are easy to please, but tough to impress. I’ve found that simply using higher proof spirits doesn’t cut it; the harmony of other ingredients is thrown off. Challenge nontasters with new flavors. I remember once taking a shot of angostura bitters with John Gertsen of Drink. It was one of the strangest things I could imagine doing, but it was delicious. A shot of fernet, anyone?

 

What type of drinker are you?

Stocking the Scientific Pantry: Ingredients, Suppliers, and Ideas for Experimenting at Home

I tote this crate of "spices" with me everywhere I go

Click to go straight to the “agar through xanthan” list of scientific cooking ingredients

Sodium Alginate. Sorbitol. Potassium Bitartrate. These are all scary, dangerous chemicals. Some would say you shouldn’t eat anything you can’t pronounce, because if you don’t know what it is, it’s probably bad for you. I say learn to pronounce more words – it’s good for you.

Sure, there are some things I wouldn’t pour down my throat for any sum of money (draino and roofing nails come to mind), but I also understand that many food additives are perfectly safe. Regardless of how I feel, the fact of the matter is that pretty much all food today is processed in some way.

I’ve long thought that the only way to understand what you eat is to learn to cook. So if you want to understand the science that goes into modern food, you have to be prepared to brush up on your chemistry and experiment with a couple hydrocolloids!

Molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine is often considered the domain of fancy restaurants or pretentious chefs. But anyone who does this type of cooking would say that they are just applying technology and ingredients that have long been a fixture in crappy processed foods. Why not use them for good?

In this awesome Serious Eat’s column on Modernist Cuisine, Max Falkowitz asks readers whether they’ve tried Modernist Cuisine and gives a well thought-out summary of the movement – both what it is and what it is not. Max says,  “At its core, [modernist cuisine is] about using scientific methods and techniques to improve and enrich the way we cook.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why I’ve been putting together this list of ingredients I’ve read about or played around with that are useful for injecting science into the kitchen. It’s got everything from agar to xanthan, but I know there are many more items I’m sure to have left out. I expect the list to grow, as using some of these things becomes more commonplace.

Resources

The majority of the research from the list came from blogs, books, and forums greater than my own; most notably via Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues (also subscribe to his amazing radio show), Martin Lersch at Khymos, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats’ Food Lab, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks, and the amazing minds at eGullet Forums. Naveen was a constant guide through the morass of chemistry stuff that went over my head.

We hope that you look at the list and are inspired to try some of the recipes and techniques we’ve linked, check out some of these other great resources on science and cooking, and tell us what you think!

There are way more links and resources, just check out our blogroll on the right hand sidebar.

Suppliers

Martin Lersch keeps the best directory of suppliers over at his blog, Khymos. I can personally vouch for My Spice Sage and Willpowder, which I’ve had positive experiences with. Modernist Pantry is a relative newcomer to the scene, but offers smaller amounts of popular ingredients for less money and I’m planning to try them out.

Xanthan gum is commonly available in health food stores and in many supermarkets. As are cornstarch, baking soda, and cream of tartar. You can buy ascorbic acid (vitamin C) pretty much everywhere, but vitamin C in pill form can often contain binders and other ingredients that will affect the way it functions in cooking.

Many hydrocolloids can be purchased in Asian or Latin markets. Slaked lime is commonly known as “Cal” in Latin markets. MSG can also be purchased in ethnic markets, though it is usually mixed with other ingredients.

Coda

I thought Max’s comment on his own post was way too good not to share. It mirrors my thoughts perfectly, but he has a gooder control of the English language than I ever could did:

(emphasis mine)

It seems that the dialogue about modernist cuisine hasn’t been cast in a way that’s fair or accurate—to either “side.” The way I see it, people have pitted modernist cuisine against classic cooking. Hydrocolloids against roux, flight of fancy against common sense, artificial against natural. But after talking to chefs like Kenji and Tony, doing some reading, and actually tasting modernist creations, I don’t think that’s right.

Every article, book, and person in support of modernist cuisine I’ve encountered begins with the premise that you need to start with great ingredients and not screw them up. The method is to use a toolbox of ingredients, techniques, and tools to make the most of them. Yes, these do involve some strange new ingredients, but it’s important to note that they aren’t the same thing as preservatives. None of these are weird chemicals with unclear effects on the body. They’re just new applications of naturally-derived materials. Xanthan gum, for example, comes from a tree. Tapioca maltodextrin comes from a root. None of my example recipes involve any preservatives or strategies to turn subpar ingredients into something else. They’re all about simple ingredients prepared in a different way. But one that isn’t at war with classical cooking.

And let’s not delude ourselves about the world we live in. Our food is industrially processed, whether we like it or not. I don’t just mean ingredients like cornstarch and bottles of salad dressing. I mean our grains, our vegetables, our meat, and our dairy. And without some degree of industrial processing we wouldn’t be able to deliver those foods to those around the country who want them, nor would we be able to meet the demands of an ever-growing population. Industrial food processing increases yield and consistency; it’s saved us from a Malthusian nightmare of the population outstripping our ability to feed it.

This doesn’t mean industrial processing is blameless. Obviously it’s really screwed up, and I don’t want to eat eerily preserved food any more than you. But at the same time I don’t think it’s fair that all technological approaches to food are grouped together as evil, threatening, or pretentious.

I don’t need strawberries in winter, but I do appreciate that I can get a peach from Georgia delivered up to New York in the height of summer. I’m grateful that some commercial ice creams have stabilizers in them: otherwise there’s absolutely no way they could get delivered to me without becoming an icy, crystalline mess (along the delivery the temperature wildly fluctuates, and all the melting and re-freezing wreaks havoc on unstabilized ice cream).

This is the world we live in, and like any other technology, modernist cuisine can be used for good or ill. It won’t replace home cooking any more than the microwave did. It just allows us to do more good things to great ingredients. Preservative-free.

Do you agree or disagree?

Salty Sweet

In Costa Rica I lived on an orange grove, so I ate some pretty delicious oranges every day. One evening my host sister announced that the orange we were eating was too sour—would I like some salt on it?

You mean sugar? Yes, I was correcting the Spanish of a native speaker.

No, she said, salt.

She put salt on my orange and I was blown away with how sweet it became. It was incredible. The initial taste on my tongue was hard to define, but I would not have identified it as salt. But this was followed a delicious sweetness, as though a secret had been unlocked and the true complexity of the orange’s flavors were suddenly accessible. What was going on?

In reading cookbooks, blog posts, and even the primary science literature, it seems like no one truly understands the mechanics behind this. Salt not only has a flavor of its own, but also draws out the flavor of other foods, and can reduce the bitter taste of some foods, including dark chocolate*. According to the Tierney Lab blog on the New York Times, salt may possibly interrupt the bitter receptors on the tongue or interfere with how the brain receives the taste information**. However it works, in some cases, adding salt can make a food taste sweeter than adding sugar could, and this is commonly done with watermelons as well as oranges. Really? Sounds like a worthy challenge for ScienceFare.

I designed a simple experiment to test how salt and sugar can sweeten fruit. Then I asked three friends to do blind tastings to see whether they could distinguish fruit that was sweetened by sugar, salt, nothing, or both***. I chose oranges, watermelon and grapefruit for the test: oranges and watermelon because they are commonly enhanced with salt, and grapefruit, which is often bitter.

The unusual suspects

Continue Reading →

Smoky Chocolate-Glazed Beef Jerky

Download this post as a kindle ebook.

When I told Naveen about my thoughts on beef jerky, he immediately understood what I was going for.  Although Naveen doesn’t actually eat meat, he completely understood my ideas  the combination of layers of flavors, delivered in distinct phases over time. He’s also a chocolate fanatic. So of course he recommended I do a chocolate-flavored jerky.  I still had a stash in my fridge of the teriyaki jerky I’d done earlier, so I promptly a grabbed a chunk of it, tossed it in my mouth along with some semi-sweet chocolate, and chewed the whole thing up together. Awesome. I was afraid the flavors of the jerky would overpower the chocolate, but if anything, I wanted more jerky, less chocolate.

Looking around the internet, I found references to chocolate bars containing beef jerky, which look fantastic, but that’s not what I was going for. It’s pretty straightforward to just add jerky to chocolate. I wanted jerky that tasted like chocolate through and through.  Here’s the flavor profile I imagined:

The Glaze: Sweet and chocolatey, but not thick enough to get all over your hands.

The Chew: Salty, smoky, a traditional jerky flavor, not candied beef.

The finish: More smoke, with a lingering spice.

The flavors of the chew and the finish were easy enough to manufacture. I went with soy sauce because my teriyaki jerky paired well with chocolate. I kept garlic and onion powder in the recipe to keep the “beefiness” of the beef intact. I hoped that smokiness would support the bitterness of cocoa powder, so I dumped in some liquid smoke and molasses.  I knew from prior experience that chocolate doesn’t readily penetrate into meat, but I wanted to duplicate its flavor in the meat itself.  So I added coffee, the closest thing I could think of that I knew was water soluble and works in a brine.  I rounded things out with a spoonful of sugar to make sure things didn’t get too bitter, and finished off the palette with 2 teaspoons of cayenne – double what most recipes recommend, because I knew would be washing the jerky off in order to separate the flavor of the glaze from that of the meat. Some other great alternatives could have included smoked chiles, paprika, and ginger, and oregano (for spice)

For the glaze, I wanted a thin coating of sweet chocolate that would cover every surface, but not end up a candy shell. Simply dusting the meat with cocoa powder wouldn’t work because cocoas powder by itself is extremely bitter and reminds most people of coffee rather than chocolate. I ended up cooking my cocoa powder with some sugar and water. Then I added vanilla and salt because most people associate vanilla with chocolate and salt helps to intensify flavors.

Smoky Chocolate-Glazed Jerky

The Beef

1 Lb lean beef, cut along the grain into 1/8-1/4″-thick slices

For the Brine

4 oz. Soy Sauce
1 tbsp Dark Brown Sugar
1 tbsp Garlic Powder
1 tbsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
2 tsp Liquid Smoke
2 oz Dark Corn Syrup or Molasses
1 tbsp Coffee

For the Chocolate Glaze

4 oz Tap water
1/8 cup sugar (30g by weight)
1/8 cup cocoa powder (30g by weight)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt

Glaze Directions:

Combine all ingredients. Heat until well combined. Let cool to room temperature.

beef enjoying a bath in chocolate

 

 

Jerky Directions:

Freeze meat for 30 minutes. Remove and slice thin, along the grain. Coat with brine ingredients in air-tight plastic bag. Store in refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove from brine and rinse to remove coffee particles. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. Dip each piece of meat in chocolate glaze. Arrange on cooling rack over baking sheet. Dehydrate in low oven for 6-8 hours.