Article: Balancing Taste -- November 2009
The first question this author asked upon becoming a product developer was how to make a product taste better? Taste is derived from a combination of molecules, some of which are more powerful than others and will often overshadow them. “Cravability” is also a common interest of product developers and chefs, since consumers react positively to products that have cravable characteristics. One must pay close attention to the fat, salt, sugar and acidity in a cravable product. With so many different varieties of such ingredients in the market, an avant garde chef or product developer has to be much more aware of all options, when choosing his/her ingredients.
Complex Fats and Salts
There are many types of fats and products that contain fat, including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Fat-containing products that can be ingredients in a formula or recipe include avocados, nuts, meats, cheeses, milk products, grains, legumes, soybeans, corn and seeds. The various types of oils (e.g., canola, soy, corn, peanut, pork fat and chicken fat) all have their own specific attributes. These oils can be used in formulations for such things as spice blends, sauces, gravies, confectionery, chips, snacks, marinades, glazes and dipping sauces, to name a few. Some of these oils have flavor attributes that may need to be masked or covered up, or may add to the overall intended flavor. They also provide functional properties in the manufacturing or cooking processes.
Salt is, and will always be, a significant ingredient in product development and flavor optimization. Salt comes in many different forms and ingredients. There are as many types of salts as a product developer could ever need. The different shapes of the salt crystals are created by their production processes. Salt shape influences the rate at which the crystals dissolve, and thus, its perception in the final product.
Many products have naturally occurring salts. These include soy sauce, cheese, processed tomato sauces, marinated meats and some spice blends. It is also important to gauge the amount of salt in a formulation, in order to maintain its balance. For example, when formulating a tomato sauce, the salt content is critical to the sauce’s balance. When the salt level is too low, bitter notes will pop through, and the sweetness-perception will not be in balance. Similarly, a cheese sauce can get very expensive, when trying to optimize the cheese flavor by adding more cheese. Increasing the salt content by a small percentage (less than 1%), on the other hand, would help accentuate the cheese flavor and make it more pronounced. Salt affects flavor and cost dramatically in the development process and suppresses bitterness, while enhancing sweetness.
According to Joe Formanek, technical director with a flavor enhancer supplier, at the other end of the spectrum, efforts also are being made to reduce sodium content without intruding on flavor. MSG, or MSG/I+G blends, are both great materials for sodium-reduced formulations—one third of the sodium of salt, yet they can be used at a quarter of the level of salt to enhance character. One can also use other fermentation-derived materials to boost richness and depth of flavor, when sodium is lacking. Kokumi is a term that describes this type of added complexity. Customized blends of salts, acids, etc., can fool the tongue into thinking there is more sodium present in a product than there actually is. One theory is that these products essentially increase the other tastes to a certain level (sweet, sour, bitter and umami), where the apparent sodium perception is slightly enhanced.
Sweet and Tart Tips
Sweetness, provided in the form of mono- and disaccharides, are some of the world’s most abundant simple carbohydrates. Various types of sugars are commonly obtained from sugar cane, corn, palm sugar, beets, agave nectar and other fruits. Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose and galactose; disaccharides, which form when monosaccharides combine, include the table sugar sucrose (formed from glucose and fructose). Other disaccharides include maltose, dextrose and lactose.
Sugar creates a desirable taste on the tip of the tongue. Infant foods need to have a good balance of naturally occurring sugars; fruits and vegetables have sugars and need to be balanced to gain the acceptance of infants. Infants register the sugar or sweetness of a product as soon as it hits their taste buds. Often, they will refuse any product that is too bitter. If the correct amount of sugar is in a formulation, one can mask the bitter notes found naturally in products. Not only does sugar affect the taste and need to be in balance with other ingredients in a product, it also has functional properties that are highlighted, when the sugar is exposed to heat. This is seen in the process of caramelizing sugars, for example, where the flavor and color of the sugar is modified.
There are a variety of pH or acid mediums to use in product development. The various types of acid (e.g., malic, citric, ascorbic and lactic) are also found in a wide selection of ingredients, from fruit juices and vinegars to chocolates. It is important to understand the taste implications of each ingredient in a formula. A chef will use citric juices (lime, orange, lemon, pineapple); vinegars (malt, apple cider, rice wine, red wine, balsamic, champagne, distilled, ponzu); or wines (varietals) to balance taste in sauces, marinades, vinaigrettes, glazes and baking desserts. As always, the key is to balance the taste, while enhancing the intended flavor. A perfect balance of acid in a formula can stimulate the saliva glands and kick-start the digestive process. When a product makes the mouth water, it is a more palatable product. A great example of creating a cravable flavor by balancing taste with acid is navy bean and ham soup. A small percentage of apple cider vinegar will make the mouth water and drive consumers back for more, thus making it cravable. This small amount of vinegar does not change the intended flavor, but enhances the eating experience and taste.
The Good and Bad of Bitter
Bitter components are also very critical to keep in mind in product development. There are bitter notes in coffee, chocolate, berries, vegetables, burnt sugars, meats, cheeses and nuts; of course, there are others, too. Bitterness is a desirable component in development and creates a full-bodied taste. The balance of bitterness is significant, not only when developing savory products, but when developing sweet products, also. The most common masking agent for coffee is cream or sugar. Blending them rounds out the bitter notes and has helped create a large coffee platform with all the great varieties of coffee concoctions on the market today. Thus, the balance of salt, sugar, acid and bitter components is vital to any development process, and chefs must be able to adjust the balance of these components with the available ingredients.
The most commonly used ingredient in rounding out the taste of a sauce is none other than the most popular miracle ingredient, butter! A savory sauce, for example, can have a jagged taste without mounding with butter to finish, mont au beurre. This is possible in a French kitchen without much effort. Commercializing this traditional sauce is challenging, but still achievable. In product development, when one cannot employ the traditional mont au beurre, use sweeteners and cream flavors, instead, to round out the taste.
In summary, balancing taste is an art and science. The art can be practiced and experimented with throughout a chef’s lifetime. The knowledge a chef acquires is transferable to commercializing products’ taste and is an integral part of any development process. Often, the chef will create a “gold standard” recipe to use as the pentacle for a new product. The science behind the development process is also critical to the success of a balanced taste in product development. When the chef and the scientist work together, a harmonious outcome can be achieved, with a balanced and cravable taste that drives the consumer back for more. After all, at the end of the day, “it is all about flavor.” pf
Chef Charlie Baggs operates an international product development company from Lincoln Park, Chicago. You can contact him at www.charliebaggsinc.com for more information.