Brazilian chiles in oil (very nice with Moqueca!)
Oils and fats are long molecules which are mainly non-polar and hence the opposite of water which is a polar molecule. Ethanol which has both a polar and a non-polar end falls in between oil and water. I’ve covered extractions using water and ethanol previously. That water and oil are opposites is easily observed by the fact that they don’t mix, and because of it’s lower density oil floats on top of water. This property allows us to easily separate water and oil.
Volatile molecules – the molecules that we detect by their smell – are mainly non-polar and therefore soluble in oil. This is one reason why foods with fat often have a different and often better flavor compared with their fat-free counterparts (fat of course also influences mouth feel etc.). Everytime you cook with oil it will actually help extract aroma (or smell flavorants) from the food ingredients and deliver these to your nose.
There are several oil extracts used in the kitchen, and the nice thing about them is that the oil extracts aromas and then protects them from the air. This is good as it prevents oxidation of the aroma molecules, but in some extreme cases bad because the anaerobic conditions may promote growth of botulinum spores – more on that in the last paragraph. When the flavored oil is added to a dish you get can immediately perceive the aroma. If the oil is tasted pure it serves as a carrier for the aroma giving a small explosion in the mouth (or nose to be more precise…). Some examples I can think of where the oil plays an important role in extracting and delivering aromas are: pesto, tapenade, mayonaise, aioli, curry paste (and all other spice pastes), chili oil and truffle oil to mention a few. Notice that in most of these the source of the aromas is still present in the oil.
One significant addition to the aroma molecules is capsaicin which gives chiles their pungency. Capsaicin is not particularily volatile so it never reaches your nose, but it certainly does burn your tongue! The funny thing is that the receptor being attacked by capsaicin is a protein which is also sensitive to temperature. So when talking about “hot” food it’s true in a double sense. There is an overlap in how our brain perceives food which has a high temperature and food which is spicy.
The fact that water and oil are non-miscible can be utilized in the kitchen. Oil can be used to extract non-polar compounds from a water phase, and oppositely water can be used to extract polar compounds from an oil phase. In the organic chemistry lab water and oil would be separated with a separatory funnel, but in the kitchen a normal plastic bag will work fine. Check out the pictures and description of how a plastic bag is used to clarify butter over at Cooking for Engineers.
Although most of the aroma molecules will be present in the oil, a tiny amount will remain in the water. It is possible to measure how molecules partition between oil and water, and instead of cooking oil one uses octanol. You can read more about the partition coefficient Koctanol/water over at Cumbrian food lab.
To start experimenting with this in the kitchen I suggest you start with some colored foods. Flavor compounds are normally colorless so it’s hard to see where they end up. One can put up a very general list of compunds responsible for the color of foods:
We can start with blueberries. For the experiment I used a blueberry syrup and mixed it vigorously with oil using an immersion blender. However, when the phases separated the oil was colorless and the waterphase was still blue. The reason for this is that anthocyanins which give blueberries their nice color are water soluble. No matter how much you blend the blueberries with oil the blue color will remain in the water phase.
I should have waited longer to allow the phases to separate properly, but notice the oil clinging to the glass wall in the right picture – it’s totally clear without any traces of blue/purple color.
For our next experiment we will use carrots or carrot juice. Add some oil and mix with an immersion blender to extract the carotene. What you observe now is that the oil phase turns orange/yellow. The reason for this is that the carotenes are oil soluble. If desired one can separate the two phases with a plastic bag as mentioned above.
Extraction of carotene from carrots. Pictures: 1) I finely grated carrots, 2) Blended them with water and filtered of the remains – the water phase was then layered with plain cooking oil 3) Water and oil were mixed with an immersion blender and the phases left to separate, 4) A plastic bag serves as a separatory funnel – cut a small hole to let out the liquid. The water phase turned grey, probably because I left it at room temperature to allow the phases to separate (1-2 days).
Now that the effect has been demonstrated with food colors it’s time to move on to tastes and aromas. The four basic tastes are all soluble in water, whereas the pungency found in chiles for instance is soluble in oil. Aromas or smell flavorants however are primarily soluble in oil. To test this one can take some clear meat stock, add oil and taste the water and the oil phases separately. The water phase will be salty, and also have a little meaty flavor (our nose detects the tiny amounts of oil which remain in the water water phase, even if no oil droplets can be seen – and of course there are also umami flavorants in the water phase). The oil phase will not be salt at all and have a strong meaty aroma.
Even though you seldom will go to the extremes of separating oil and water phases, it can be good to think about where your aromas goes when you cook. And so you won’t forget I rewrote the first few lines of the Shoop Shoop song:
/ D7 – C7 – / D7 – – – /
Can you tell me where the aroma goes
and how it enters into my nose?
/ Am7 D7 Am7 D7 / / G Em7 Am7 D7 / G C D – /
It’s through the oily phase – Oh yeah, into the nose
In the water phase? – Oh, no, that’s just the salts
If you wanna know where the aroma goes
It’s in the grease, that’s where it is
(aroma should be pronounced more like ‘roma when singing)
Somes words about safety: When infusing spices, herbs or garlic – think about the fact that you create anaerobic conditions. If pH is above 4.6, the oil is kept at room temperature, and Clostridium botulinum spores are present you might be bad off (botulinum toxin causes botulism). There are sites that cover this in greater detail. Perhaps the easiest way of preventing the growth of botulimum spores is by adjusting the pH with an acid such as phosphoric or citric acid (that would be the pH of any water phase present as they are not soluble in the oil).