The Chemistry of Flavour

Flavour is all about chemistry, as any good molecular chef will be able to tell you!

All of those flavours in food that you enjoy so much are due to volatile chemicals in the food itself. Those volatiles interact with your tastebuds, your tastebuds send messages to your brain, and your brain decides how the food tastes. Different molecules bind to different types of taste bud, giving you sour, sweet and so on. Nature has spent millions of years carefully honing how taste works so that you can tell fresh steak from rotten steak. When food goes bad, it releases different volatiles and these don’t taste nearly as good.

People though, being the ingenious things that they are, enjoy the sense of taste so much we’ve turned it into an art form. And a science too. Flavour chemistry a classic example of humans taking something nature has devised and making the most of it!

Flavourists are an interesting breed of chemist. They use chemical know-how combined with a little artfulness to try and make food taste good. There are quite a few flavourists out there too. Courtesy of those flavourists, molecular chefs have picked up a number of interesting tricks — primarily the technique of food pairing!

Food pairing is a simple concept. Some very different foods can contain very similar volatiles. Find two foods that have the same chemical in their flavour or their aroma and those foods will almost always taste good together! Some are actually so similar that you can simply substitute one for the other in a recipe.

This, for instance, is furaneol. To look at, it’s not unlike the ribose sugar molecules that make up DNA. Furaneol though, is the main chemical that gives strawberries their flavour. It has a pleasnt fruity aroma and is used in everything from soaps to sodas.

The interesting thing is though, that furaneol is also found in all manner of different fruit. In particular, furaneol is found in fresh pineapple, tomato and buckwheat. In other words, this means that all of these things should taste good together! Strawberry and pineapple smoothies, buckwheat pancakes with crushed pineapple, pineapple pizza… How you put them together is the fun part.

Though if you feel adventurous, you can go a step further and try substituting some of these things for each other! Two I’ve made in the past that worked really well were pineapple salsa (no tomato, just pineapple) and using strawberry purée to make pizza. Tomato and strawberry are totally interchangeable. Try it. It works surprisingly well!

Sometimes you can even reconstruct one flavour with a few others. For instance, take coriander, tarragon and cloves and you can combine them to make the flavour of basil.

Flavour pairing can sometimes throw you some unusual combinations though. The sort of unusual combinations that molecular gastronomers are reknowned for. Foods that shouldn’t go together, but do. In fact, not only do they go together, but it’s as if they were supposed to go together. Some examples are; oyster and passion fruit (methyl hexanoate), chocolate and meat (pyrazines), pineapple, blue cheese and white wine (also methyl hexanoate), and a Heston Blumenthal favourite — white chocolate and caviar (trimethylamine).

Also, I just discovered (courtesy of Khymos) — there’s a handy website all about food pairing. Well worth checking out!


About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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