Taste and flavour normally get more attention when food is discussed, but the texture of food is equally important and our tongue is very sensitive, not only to taste and temperature, but also to the texture of food. The texture of food determines it’s mouthfeel and it is related to many physical properties of the food. Wikipedia lists the following aspects of mouthfeel (click to see the full description of each aspect) which can be useful when analyzing food:
I will barely scratch the surface of how texture can be controlled by highlighting a couple of topics and point you to further resources. Hopefully it will spark your interest and give some new ideas for you to play with in the kitchen. Those interested in a comprehensive review of food texture are referred to the CRC handbooks on food texture (volume 1: semi-solid foods, volume 2: solid foods).
What determines the texture of food?
Put very simple, it’s the relative amounts of air, liquid and solids that determines the texture of food. This is complicated by the fact that liquids have different viscosities. Furthermore the air, liquid and solid ratio is not necessarily constant. A liquid can solidify or evaporate, solids can melt or dissolve, and air bubbles can escape during cooking or storage. An elegant but quite abstract way of describing the complicated mixtures of air, liquids and solids found in food, is to use the CDS formalism (CDS = complex disperse systems), introduced by Hervé This.
How can texture be controlled and changed?
Texture can be controlled by temperature, pH, air/liquid/solid ratio, osmosis, hydrocolloids and emulsifiers – to mention a few. Here’s some examples:
Heating induces a change in the structure of proteins referred to as coagulation or denaturation. Typical examples are the boiling of eggs and the cooking of meat. When proteins denature they contract and become firmer. There are severalhelpfultables relating the doneness of different meats to temperature.
At around 70 °C (160 °F) collagen, the connective tissue in meat, turns into gelatin. As a result the meat becomes more tender, which is desireable in stews and other slow cooked meats.
Heat causes air/gas to expand and water to evaporate to give a foamy/airy texture. For example, experiments have shown that it is mainly the evaporation of water that causes a soufflé to rise.
Heat will cause certain hydrocolloids to solidify (for exaple methyl cellulose) whereas it will cause others to melt (such as gelatin).
Briningmeatcan greatly improve it’s texture and juicyness. This is done by immersing the meat in a 3-6% salt solution from anyhere between a few hours to two days before cooking.
Frozen water in the form of tiny ice crystals are important for the smooth texture of sorbets and ice cream. Ice cream that has been partly melted and frozen again will grow larger ice crystals that impart a coarser texture to the ice cream.
Acidic solutions (low pH) can cause proteins to denature. This allows fish to be cooked without the use of any heat. An example is the use of lime juice in ceviche.
Emulsifiers, thickeners and gelling agents have almost become synonymous with molecular gastronomy for many. They can greatly alter the texture of foods and typically only a very small amount is required. Where gelatin was the only gelling agent videly available to cooks in Europe and America only a decade ago, this has changed with the advent of many internet suppliers of speciality ingredients.
Cooking under vacuum can create new and exciting textures. First of all it’s a way of removing excess water without having to raise the temperature all the way up to 100 °C. When the water is removed, this will create pockets of air in the food, and when the pressure is released, the liquid surrounding the food that is prepared will rush in and fill these pockets. There is a commercially available vacuum cooker, but a DIY version can be made from a pressure cooker and a vacuum pump.
Green leaf vegetables such as lettuce loose water upon storage. As the pressure inside the cells drops, the leaf becomes softer. By immersing the leaves in cold water for 15-30 min, thanks to osmosis, water will enter into the cells again. As the pressure increases, the leaves become crisper.
Air bubbles can greatly modify textures, and foams really are ubiquitious (which becomes obvious if you read the book “Universal foam – from cappuccino to the cosmos”). Ferran Adria’s espumas have become very popular, as has his recent invention, the Espesso. Air bubbles are also very important for the texture of ice cream, in fact ice cream is nearly 50% air (just consider the fact that ice cream is sold by volume, not by weight!).
A very recent addition to the modern kitchen pantry is the enzyme transglutaminase. The enzyme acts like a meat glue and Chadzilla has nice blog post on his transglutaminase experiments.
There are also enzymatic counterparts of transglutaminase available: proteolytic enzymes also known as proteases. You can find them in pineapple (bromelain/bromelin), papaya (papain), figs (ficin) and kiwi (actinidin) – and they are capable of degrading proteins and muscle tissue. Despite this, they have only found limited use in marinades, as their action can be difficult to control (as Nicholas Kurti experienced, look for the “But the crackling is superb” link).
When mixing flour and water, glutenin and gliadin react to form gluten which gives bread it’s elasticity and plasticity. Addition of 1-2% salt to bread tightens the gluten network and increases the volume of the finished loaf. Similarly, addition of 1% oil to the dough (after the first kneading) can further increase the volume. Larger amounts of fat added before kneading will interfere with the formation of long gluten strands, hence the name shortening.
The no-knead bread that recently hoovered around in the blogosphere challenges the conventional wisdom that bread needs kneading to get a good texture.
Once bread is baked, the staling process starts. Staling does not necessarily involve loss of water from the bread and is caused by crystallisation (or retrogradation) of starch. In this process water molecules are trapped. The process proceeds fastest at 14 °C, but is halted below -5 °C. This is the reason why bread should be stored at room temperature. The staling process can be slowed down by addition of an emulsifier such as lecithin which is abundant in egg yolk.