While technology has vastly improved the texture of meat alternatives, advancements in flavor creation have raised them to competitive levels. The use of flavorants are what help deliver the meaty taste of plant-based meat substitutes, but the flavor components can only be truly successful if they are strictly vegetarian.
Vegetarian meat flavors can be produced by the Maillard reaction, the interaction of the amino acid components of protein with reducing sugar molecules when exposed to heat. In cooking, it’s what is usually meant by browning.
When food is cooked at temperatures below the point where the Maillard reaction can take place (285°F-300°F) for example, low-heat simmering, boiling or sous vide the desired browning, and with it a great deal of the “meaty” or “toasty” flavor, is lost.
For animal protein preparations, while it is possible to sear the meat or poultry before it receives a low-temperature cooking treatment, the flavors will become muddled during the long cooking process. One solution in these formulations is to use Maillard reaction flavors with the meat before it is cooked in the bag. The flavors can be tailored to the particular desired profile. The flavors can be infused in a marinade before cooking to ensure the flavor in found through the product before cooking.
The process translates readily to imparting meaty Maillard flavors to meat analogs. Such Maillard reaction flavors can then be further top-noted to infuse a particular culinary characteristic into a product. For example, a tallow-like note can be added to the reaction flavors to make the final profile seem more “rich.” This is helpful when formulating lean meat products as well. With such flavor interventions, the culinologist can create the perception and mouthfeel of fat, without negative nutritional consequences.
In one case of using Maillard flavors for a plant protein formulation, the product being developed called for a flavor profile that was not yet in the team’s library. This can be a common occurrence, especially when creating novel, customized flavors for a client.
In another formulation, the challenge was for a flavor representing the classical French sauce base, demi-glace. Demi-glace is one of the original “Grand Sauces” from which many other classic sauces are made, for example, Bordelaise and Chasseur. The first stage involved establishing a “gold standard” for the flavor chemists to build from. Then, the sauce was prepared in the traditional way using the traditional French methodology. Veal bones were roasted then further caramelized with pincéred (browned in fat or oil) tomato paste.
A traditional stock was prepared, then thickened with a brown roux. The complete traditional demi-glace sauce was then given to the analytical chemist on the team who performed several analyses on it to determine the aroma compounds that made up the volatile portion of the flavor. Such an analysis reveals the aromatic compounds present in the painstakingly prepared sauce. With these identifying factors in hand, the flavor chemist can put together a group of aromatic compounds that can recreate and make up the sauce.
Once the natural aromatic compounds are put together, the chef determines if the profile matches the gold standard. There are many tests that can be performed, but the first and most basic one is to apply the flavor the chemist has created into plain salted water. This provides a basic idea of whether flavor is going to work. It is compared to the original sauce (typically stored frozen in small portions).
Should the developed flavor not be correct, it is sent back to the chemist to determine the flavor adjustments necessary, based on the chef’s comments. The process is highly interactive and takes concentrated communication of every team member’s part. Communicating nuances of flavors in a formulation can involve whole new sets of descriptors. Besides common words such as “meaty,” “toasted,” “roasted,” etc. other, less familiar ones can be employed: “camphoraceous,” “alliaceous,” or “tinny.” It is a developed skill to be able to explain what has been tasted and put it into words.
The end use for the flavor is how it should be ultimately tested. In the case of the demi-glace flavor, it needs to be adaptable to everything from a sauce base or sauce on an RTE meal to an instant powdered gravy. This process is a bit more complex: The goal is to research how the flavor holds up under a wide range of processes and holding conditions. The most challenging are frying and canning, which subject the volatile compounds of a flavor to multiple extremes of heat and pressure.
Once the chef has determined the flavor matches the gold standard, the team, under the chef, works with the marketing and sales groups to determine lines and categories of products that benefit the most from the new flavor developed. It is then possible to make items that showcase this flavor in products similar to the ones the customer makes, with the chef responsible for determining the format and style of food.
In many assignments, the culinary team presents to the customer’s culinary group. Having that rapport with other chefs and food scientists is a must for a great working relationship, because at the end of the day, all speak the language of food and good taste.
Originally appeared in the February, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as On Flavor Creation.