Prepared Foods talks flavor boosting with Chris Koetke, corporate executive chef at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. He formerly served as the executive director of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, in Chicago, and vice president of culinary arts for Laureate International Universities, where he was responsible for strategic leadership of culinary arts programs throughout the Laureate network. Koetke is a well-known expert on culinary matters, especially given his global travels experimenting with ingredients and flavors worldwide. Prior to joining Ajinomoto, Koetke was chief executive officer for Complete Culinary LLC, a Chicago culinary consulting firm.

Prepared Foods: What’s something you’ve learned about boosting flavor during the past year or so? For context, how would you also describe your past approach and what influenced you to think differently?

Chef Chris Koetke: I can sum that up in two words—umami and kokumi.  I have taught about umami for many years, but my experiential understanding of our fifth taste has really blossomed in the last year.  

Maybe because of the pandemic, I had more time to reflect on the food I prepared.   Whatever the reason, I started to constantly consider umami levels in the way that us chefs have been trained to instinctively think about salt. Umami took on a greater significance for me and led to more interesting, multi-dimensional and balanced food. Umami-rich ingredients are top of mind.  I taste it in foods like asparagus where I previously did not sense the presence of umami.  Umami provides the base note on which the other flavors become more harmonious and more interesting.

In fact, my favorite way to easily add umami to food is through using monosodium glutamate (MSG). Know there’s a lot of misperceptions about MSG in the US, but it’s completely safe and the purest form of umami. Today, MSG is right next to the salt and pepper on my table. 

While I knew quite a bit about umami before this last year, kokumi has been a real learning curve for me.  Its ability to heighten flavor elements, synthesize flavors, create a highly satisfying mouthfeel, and add to flavor persistence is simply amazing to me.  I have experimented considerably with it in 2020 and have seen first-hand what it can do from savory to sweet applications.  I credit the food scientists at Ajinomoto for tutoring me on the science of kokumi. It will continue to be a subject of continued focus in 2021 as I have so much more to learn about what kokumi can do.

PF: Let’s talk about the toolbox of ingredients to boost flavor? What are the options? 

Koetke: When it comes to boosting flavor, I first think about the overall balance in a dish.  Balance is paramount to the success of any recipe or formulation.  When flavor boosting, there is always the potential to disturb the balance of the dish.  In terms of how to boost flavor, there are so many tools out there.  The ones that I instinctively reach for include:

• Acidic ingredients. After spending a lot of time in Mexico over the last number of years, I am particularly drawn to potential of lime juice in a broad range of recipes.

• Umami. This includes MSG (pure umami) and umami rich ingredients (umami plus other flavors).

• Heat. I tend to reach for chilies with interesting flavor profiles like isote from Turkey and merguén from Chile.

• Kokumi. This relates to all the reasons listed above.  I am so impressed at how a very small amount of kokumi yeast extract can make such an impact.

• Honey for sweetness. Quality honey can add unique flavor profiles as a background note.

• High quality mustard. It makes just about everything taste better even in small amounts. 

• Shio-koji. This contributes not only a unique, umami-forward flavor profile but tenderizes raw protein in a way that selectively works on only certain peptide bonds.  The results are very interesting!  
PF: Thanks for all those suggestions! Is there one or two that’s particularly trending up at the moment? 

Koetke: Good question!  Of the ones I just listed, I think that acidic ingredients overall are making their mark drawing from sources like hibiscus, sumac, tamarind, date vinegar, and a wide variety of fermented vegetables.

Umami continues to be a focus, although I do not think its wide-spread potential has yet been reached.  Heat continues to be popular despite being a trend for a number of years.  While more chile options have become available, there are always more chilies to explore both from a heat and flavor standpoint.  

Kokumi, although not a new product and one Ajinomoto discovered decades ago, is poised to be the new kid on the block. I foresee that we are just at the beginning of leveraging the power of kokumi.  Similarly, shio-koji is not yet a trend, but as I am seeing in on high-end menus, I think it is coming.  

PF: Corporate chefs, food formulators and marketers are concerned about clean label. How might these concerns impact flavor boosting ingredient selections? 

Koetke: Clean label has certainly dominated product development.  At the same time, I personally question some of it especially when the science does not support it. Chemical-sounding names should not necessarily signal danger, and I think that we as an industry need to re-think what “clean” really means from a truthful standpoint. MSG is a perfect example.  It has been maligned for many years because of a simple letter to the editor in 1968 that set the wheels in motion.  At the same time, all the scientific evidence confirms that it is safe.  In fact, the glutamate is the amino acid that our bodies interpret as umami.

Now back to your question.  Clean label has created an industry devoted to re-examining and developing ingredients that function similarly to other more widely used and traditional ingredients.  This does give product developers options, which is always a positive as it expands our tool bag and can lead to some pretty neat results.  At the same time, it also makes for formulation challenges as these newer and “cleaner” products can perform differently and have some unexpected outcomes—including on the overall flavor balance. 

PF: We’re in a period where bitter flavors, in particular, are popular. Are there particular product categories (versus others) where you most see the need for flavor boosting? 

Koetke: This is a really good question.  Bitter is certainly a focus, although bitter has limited possibilities as it is not intrinsically liked but rather a learned taste preference.  The result is a wide range of consumer appreciation.  I would also add that we are also in a period of introducing new or bringing back “forgotten” ingredients and combining them in intriguing combinations.  Where I see so much development here is in the beverage category.

As I go through different product categories in my head, I don’t necessarily see one particular category that is deficient. Rather, I would suggest that there are individual products that take advantage of the trend for more intense flavor profiles, and other products that are lacking in “punch” or individuality. So many of these products could be so much better with minor changes that would up the flavor profiles and create a more memorable experience.

For instance, lower sodium products continue to be a challenge. It’s difficult to deliver on the desired nutrition profile without compromising on taste but this is something Ajinomoto is working on on a global scale particularly through their umami and kokumi innovations.