There is no conception in man's mind
which hath not at first, totally or in parts,
been begotten upon by the organs of sense.
---Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sensory Evaluation of Chocolate / How to taste chocolate

While I'm a strong believer that ANY way is the right way to eat chocolate, there's ways that may be better than others when trying to evaluate high quality chocolate. Lets start out by looking at the factors that contribute to the flavor of chocolate, and then follow with how to actually taste it.

1. Source

Think of wine.  The majority of wine is produced by the same grape: vitis vinifera.  Yet, this same humble grape grown in Long Island brings a markedly different character from the same grape grown in Chardonnay. Much like the grape is the seed of vitis vinifera (there *are* other varieties), chocolate is exclusively the seed of the Theobroma cacao tree.  Factors such as soil acidity, sunlight, temperature, rainfall, elevation and wind all affect the flavor of the cacao bean.  Unlike the grape, however, chocolate is made from the seed itself, not the white flesh of the cacao fruit.  There is less room for variation, and due to major subsequent processing, source is a little less important than other steps.  Nonetheless, if you want to explore the importance of source, find a single chocolate maker (whom presumably processes all chocolates identically) and get a selection of samples from different sources.  Sao Tome in Africa might be a little more fruity, South American chocolate is acidic, and chocolate from Malaysia might have a hammy or bacon-like note (these are not rules, just generalizations).

2. Fermentation

Like coffee, chocolate must be fermented.  After harvesting the pods (pictures of chocolate pods!) , they are split and put on the ground, covered with banana leaves (or put in a box), and allowed to ferment for about 5 days.  During fermentation much of the color and flavor of chocolate develops.  What is going on?  The temperature rises.  The initial critters come from the environment (the machetes, the hands of the workers, the banana leaves, etc.).  Yeasts, bacteria and fungi come in successive waves, each feasting and excreting bits and pieces of the pulp and creating a micro environment suitable for the next wave of little critters (e.g. suitable pH and temperature).  Simple sugars and compounds are turned into much more complex flavors.  The pectin/glue that holds the pulp together is digested, possibly assisting in the leeching of bitter alkoloids from the seeds themselves (unfermented cocoa is inedible).  During this aerobic fermentation, tannins and polyphenols form brown pigments.  Other pigments are degraded, such as purple anthocyanidin pigments.  The cotyledon in the seed itself is bleached.  Enzymes such as endoproteases, aminopeptidases, carboxypeptidases, polyphenol oxidase and glycosidases form flavor compounds and precursors to flavor compounds.  At the end of 5 days, up to 1,000,000,000 microbes per gram of pulp is present, and the pulp is then uncovered and dried in the sun.  But the fun doesn't stop there.  Bacillus bacteria hang around, and molds come in and assist in the development of further flavor.  Most enzymes are inactivated, but the endoproteases and glycosidases are still present, thus altering the character of the beans after they are separated from the pulp, dried, and stored for further processing.

3. Roasting

Roasting is probably one of the greatest contributors to flavor.  Temperatures range from 115 to 140C and roasted flavors are created through "Maillard" pathways.  Mailliard browning is a type of non-enzymatic browning reaction that occurs in food (and people as we age!).  The reaction is between (reducing) sugars,  proteins (amines) and heat.  The delicious flavors of chocolate, coffee, browned steak and roasted chicken all come from the Maillard reaction.  About 3,500 volatile compounds are formed by this reaction and many have low sensory thresholds (i.e. can be tasted in small quantities).  In chocolate specifically, a class of compounds known as pyrazines is formed which become the dominant identifier for "chocolate aroma."

4. Final Processing

Roasted beans are milled to separate the shell from the kernel, which produces cocoa nibs.  The nibs are then ground (sometimes for days in artisan operations) to produce finer and finer texture.  The cocoa fat melts and this combinations of finely ground cocoa and fat is known as chocolate liquor.  Particle size is very important to the quality of the finished product.  Smaller particles create a smoother chocolate with a more intense flavor (due to the surface area of the cocoa).  Conching, or aerating the chocolate creates the final step in flavor, viscosity and color development by elimination of some volatile acids, breaking up crystals and removing moisture.

Tempering, the bane of home chocolatiers, is critical for texture of the final product.  Through measured heating and cooling of the chocolate, crystals are formed which make the difference between chocolate with "snap" (think really good dark chocolate) that is shiny, and chocolate that is dull and has a much softer (more undesirable) texture.  Milk and sugar are added to create differing levels of sweetness and additional flavor.

How to taste chocolate

Now that you know how chocolate is made, here is the best way to taste it.  It is based on the fact that the majority of flavor is made up of volatile compounds that must be perceived in the nasal cavity to detect.  Thus, we must somehow get these compounds from the solid chocolate mass to the headspace in our mouth.  Take a small piece of chocolate - about the size of 3 or 4 chocolate chips.  If it is a bar, snap it with your teeth and evaluate the snap.  Is is sharp and clean?  Dull?  Next, press the chocolate to the top of your mouth with your tongue and hold it there.  Breathe in through your mouth, and out through your nose.  Notice the flavor building as the chocolate melts.  You'll get a succession of different flavors.  Is is rich and dark, "brown" flavors?  Can you detect floral notes?  What about citrus fruit?  Cooked milk?  Bread?  See the Chocolate Tasting Wheel here or elsewhere to see what others think they find.  Notice the texture of the melted chocolate?  Is it smooth or grainy?

Finally, practice is the best way to do this.  Using this tasting technique, get some high and low quality chocolates.  Look at the ingredient labels and look for the most pure you can find.  Side by side, there is a BIG difference between the good and bad.  Think about all that goes into making that chocolate bar also!

Two videos to finish us up!


Case, Christine. The Microbiology of Chocolate.

Hansen, C. E., Olmo, M. D., & Burri, C. (1998). Enzyme activities in cocoa beans during fermentation. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 77(2), 273-281. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0010(199806)77:2<273::AID-JSFA40>3.0.CO;2-M.

Jinap, S., Dimick, P.S., & Hollender, R. (1995). Flavour evaluation of chocolate formulated from cocoa beans from different countries. Food Control, 6(2), 105-110.

Reineccius, Gary. (2006). Flavor Chemistry & Technology, 2nd edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hydrocolloids and Gums

I've talked about texture quite a bit in this blog, including the importance of texture as a sensory property, my talk on texture at the Culinary Institute of America and the use of trigeminal irritants to create novel texture perception (which, I assure you, parts 2-n will be posted soon!). One area that I haven't dabbled in too much is the use of gums and hydrocolloids to create texture. These are substances that are added to foods to emulsify and create interesting mouth feel and diversity in texture, raising interest in the item being consumed. The picture to the left is raw, unprocessed gum arabic, for example. It is used as a thickener in many food items.

Two fun properties of thickeners that are of interest to food scientists and culinarians are both shear thickening and shear thinning. Basically, a thickener that exhibits shear thickening behavior thickens under stress. The following video shows that under stress (the stress of the "hit" from these feet) that corn starch becomes a solid. Once the initial stress subsides though, a person can sink.

Ketchup, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a shear thinning fluid. This is the reason you beat the side of the (rigid) ketchup container with your hand to get it out - you apply stress, and the fluid thins and begins to flow.

Culinarians have been using starches and gums forever, readily available from suppliers such as TIC Gums (among others). However, recently the molecular gastronomy movement has invigorated the desire to assemble familiar foods in novel ways. Famous blogs such as Khymos and Ideas in Food have popped up with pages and pages of illustrations of applications of these substances to create amazing food. And just today, a fantastic (free) book was released by the people responsible for Khymos going over all of the different hydrocolloids used in food, their properties, and example recipes. It is a highly suggested reading and reference material, and is available here: Texture: a hydrocolloid recipe collection, edited by Martin Lersch.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Salad Survey

Hello all!

I'm working on a preliminary survey for my next research product.  I need to know a little information about peoples' preference for salad.  Please follow this link and answer a 1 question survey.  Feel free to pass it on to your friends / coworkers / facebook / wherever!

Online Salad Survey

Thank you for your help!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Brown Butter Ice Cream Recipe

Brown butter is one of those elusive things that I've become enchanted with in the past month or so after catching up on years of brown butter posts on Ideas in Food. What is the big deal?

Brown butter, is traditionally made by simply putting some butter in a saute pan and cooking it over medium heat until the milk solids separate out, settle to the bottom of the pan, and begin to turn brown. This happens to us all the time when we get distracted with a patty of butter in the frying pan waiting to make french toast, eggs or grilled cheese. Often this is called "beurre noisette," although Escoffier calls brown butter Beurre Noir. Beurre Noisette is hazelnut butter (to him).

Nomenclature aside, browned milk solids are a delicacy that is vastly under-appreciated. The flavor of pure brown butter solids is savory but brings up connotations in the mind of caramelized milk. It is at once a novel roasted note that is neither completely toasted nor caramelized, but somewhere in-between. Brown butter, poured over light fish or gnocchi accentuates delicate flavors without covering up. A marriage of bass and flutes. And it brings up memories of the already-mentioned grilled cheeses I used to eat all the time growing up (as long as the butter didn't get black!).

So a few weekends ago I set out to make brown butter ice cream. My issue was that many others alluded to it on the internet, and there was even one recipe, but I was not satisfied with anything I read so I'm offering my own. One of the primary differences between this recipe and others you might find is that I keep the fat content of the ice cream around a happy 12-14%, nothing like the 20%+ I calculated with one of the more popular online recipes. This is done by substituting heavy cream with skim milk and making up the difference with butter fat, rather than just adding butter fat. The other major difference is that I bump up the amount of solids in my butter in order to make a super concentrated syrup, which is then used in the ice cream, providing an extremely strong flavor. Not light and subtle at all. It will *definitely* hold up to any sauce or pairing you put with it.

Brown Butter Puree

Melt 1 pound butter in a sauce pan.  Add 200g non fat dry milk powder and cook on medium heat.  At first it will be thick and homogenous.  Keep stirring and cooking, scraping the pan thoroughly as you go.  Eventually it will start to brown and will separate out into a clear solid and butterfat portions.  It WILL happen eventually - you can turn the heat up if you get concerned. You want the solids to turn a dark brown without turning black.  The entire process will take 30 minutes or more, especially the first time.

Strain the butter in a fine mesh sieve.  Save 6 fl. oz. of the liquid portion, and all of the solids.  (Actually, save the rest of the liquid portion to use in your everyday cooking as clarified butter, but 6 oz. is what we need for the recipe).

Transfer all of the solids to a blender.  Add just enough water (or skim milk if you prefer) to blend to a thick puree.  Let this rip for 10+ minutes.  It will be sandy at first, but eventually you will achieve a smooth puree.  Reserve.

Brown Butter Ice Cream

 Skim Milk  20 fl. oz.
 Milk  4 fl. oz.
 Butter fat from Brown Butter  6 fl. oz.
 Sugar  7 oz. (weight)
 Corn Syrup (Light)  1 oz. (weight)
 Vanilla Bean  1 ea.
 Egg Yolks  10 oz. (weight)
 Brown Butter Liquid  to taste

1) Add half of the sugar to blender.  Add butter fat with blender on.  Add egg yolks and blend just until homogenous.  

2) Put Skim Milk, milk, corn syrup and the other half of the sugar into a pot.  Scrape in the vanilla bean and put the pod in.  Bring this to a simmer, slowly.

3) Turn on the blender and slowly strain the milk mixture into the butter fat mixture.  Mix until incorporated well.

4) Return mixture to the pot on low heat and bring to 160F, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.  While it is coming to temperature, add in Brown Butter Liquid to taste (you will probably use all of it).  Strain over an ice bath and cool in the refrigerator overnight.

5) The next day spin the ice cream.  Let cure for one day before serving (if you can wait!).  

Ideas in Food, Brown Butter Solids Recipe

Ideas in Food, Brown Butter Liquids Recipe

Michael Laiskonis, "Color is Flavor"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chemosensory Sorcery Part 1

On March 20th I was at the Research Chefs Association annual conference in Phoenix. The RCA is an organization of chefs and food scientists who work outside the typical one-unit restaurant world. The Chefs that belong to RCA work for such varied companies as McDonalds, Brinker (Chili's), Wegman's Grocery, and multiple flavor and ingredient manufacturers. All told about 400 or so people were there.

I was invited to give a presentation on Trigeminal Sensations, which I titled "Chemosensory Sorcery." Feel free to download an Adobe PDF of the presentation here." The breakout session was supposed to have about 80 people, and 140 or so showed up for the hour long presentation, followed by a solid 45 minute Q&A. There's an excellent writeup of the presentation in the trade newsletter Food Navigator.

The Trigeminal Irritants are compounds that provide interesting textural sensations in the mouth and across oral and nasal surfaces, including cooling, spicy, tingly, electric, heat and pungency (among many others). Typical foods include wasabi, mustard, chilies, black pepper, and spearmint.

I did get a chance to step away and eat at Pizzeria Bianco for a fantastic wood fired pizza. This was one of the first wood fired pizza's I've eaten that actually had a strong smoky note to the crust, which I loved. I also had a chance to spend some time with family, whom were out visiting other family.

Friday, March 26, 2010


No, not what I've been doing for the past few months.

Napping is the method that I've been investigating for the past 3 years. Last fall I was invited to a large food company to give a presentation on the Napping method to their sensory department. As part of the presentation my lab mate and I developed this video to demonstrate the method (and I just decided to figure out youtube).

This is from the subject's perspective. Subjects are asked to taste each sample and place it on the paper such that distance represents similarity. Objects placed close to each other are more similar, and objects placed further away are more dissimilar. Similarity criteria is not dictated, as part of the beauty of the method is that it draws out those attributes that drive the perception of the product space. After the test, the subject writes down some words that describe each individual stimulus.

Finally, using fancy statistics (not shown!) we combine everyone's responses together to create the kind of perceptual map that is pictured here.