Two ways of imparting flavor to food

"things ought to taste like what they are," the gastronome Curnonsky used to say. His aphorism has been adopted as a slogan by those who seek to promote authenticity in cooking, but does it really make sense? Isn't the role of the cook to transform foods with the purpose of recreating traditional dishes and inventing new ones?

If the true aim of cooking is to produce specific flavors, the question arises how to incorporate them in various dishes. There are two ways: by adding flavors or by organizing chemical reactions in such a way that flavors are formed in the foods themselves. One technique that has been widely used by the food processing industry involves both natural extracts and synthetic molecular solutions. The use of these so-called aromatic preparations in cooking is straightforward (one simply adds a few drops to the food), but devising them takes the same kind of technical artistry possessed by the "noses" of the perfume industry, laboratory chemists who concoct novel solutions of various odorant molecules in order to approximate or reconstitute familiar scents such as strawberry, ginger, and rosemary.

Cooks are understandably reluctant to allow themselves to be supplanted by such technicians, all the more because the use of natural ingredients (real thyme and real rosemary in a ratatouille, for example) often gives a richer, and certainly more varied aromatic result than artificial thyme or rosemary flavoring (which usually do not contain as many aromatic molecules as natural ingredients).

Must we therefore dismiss such aromatic engineering altogether? This would mean foregoing the opportunity to enlarge the palette of flavors. Why not reinforce the green note of olive oil with hexanal, or add 1-octen-3-ol to a meat dish in order to give it an aroma of mushroom or mossy undergrowth (although here one needs to be careful about proportions because in excessive concentrations the same molecule smells a bit moldy)? Why not use beta-ion-one to give desserts the surprising violet aroma that flowers have such a hard time releasing?

Cooks would be also able to create taste, rather than flavor, by using monosodium glutamate and other molecules that impart the taste called umami, which is naturally contributed by onions and tomatoes. They would be able to use licorice or glycyrrhizic acid, which communicate specific tastes that are neither salt, sugar, sour, nor bitter—nor umami.

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