March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
March 26, 2013
These days, the classic wedge salad—wherein the chef smothers a chunk of crisp Iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese dressing, and crumbles bacon all over the top—is seen as a cornerstone of American “comfort food.”
The dish is also often credited with single-handedly causing an “Iceberg comeback.” All of this raises the question: Did this crisp salad green, the “polyester of lettuce,” really go so far away that it needed to come back? And if so, can one menu item really make a difference?
But first a note—for those who aren’t old enough to remember—about just how ubiquitous Iceberg lettuce once was. Introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s, Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country travel (the name Iceberg comes from the piles of ice they would pack the light green lettuce heads in before the advent of the refrigerated train car). Therefore, throughout the middle of the century, unless you grew your own or dined in a high-end establishment, iceberg essentially was lettuce.
Most of the nation’s lettuce is grown in California, and in 1974, leafy green “non-crisphead” varieties of lettuce still made up only around five percent of the total acres grown in California. Then things changed. For one, consumers became more aware of the nutritional value of greens that are, well, greener. (Made of a high percentage of water, iceberg has only around 1/20th the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.)
America’s everyday lettuce for half a century was losing market share. By 1995, other lettuce varieties made up to around 30 percent of the lettuce American’s ate, and it has been rising steadily since, according to the California Leafy Greens Research Programs (a salad industry group). That’s precisely why, by 2007, the Salinas, California-based Tanimura and Antle—the nation’s largest lettuce supplier—decided it needed to start promoting Iceberg. And rather than compete with varieties that have more flavor or nutrition, Tanimura and Antle went straight for nostalgia, and opted to draw a connection to steaks, fathers, and sports. A press release from the time reads:
Mother’s Day has strawberries, Thanksgiving has celery, but historically no holiday has been associated with Iceberg lettuce,” says Antle. “What better product to claim ownership of Father’s Day than the cornerstone salad of steakhouse menus?
Wal-Mart, Albertsons, and several other big retailers hung signs and banners promoting the campaign, and sales got a boost. The company also planted wedge salad recipes around the food media world, in hopes that they would inspire chefs to return to this American Classic.
It’s hard to say whether the Father’s Day angle made a difference, but the larger effort to reconnect to Iceberg to simpler times with fewer complicated health choices appears to have worked. Sort of.
On the one hand, chefs like the fact that Iceberg is a completely neutral way to add crunch and filler to an otherwise flavorful medley of ingredients. So it appears that this classic salad will be sticking around on menus for a while. (Last fall the San Francisco Chronicle ran a list of nearly a dozen upscale restaurants serving some variation on the wedge salad, including everything from croutons, to apple, walnuts, and avocado. One Napa restaurant even serves it with the Iceberg frozen for extra crispness.)
On the production level, however, Iceberg may never return to it’s reigning position. It’s a little cheaper to grow and has long been easy to ship and store (the name Iceberg is said to come from the way the round lettuces were shipped by train in big piles of ice), but it has a hard time standing up to romaine, butter, and all the other specialty greens that have become popular in recent years.
This also appears to be true outside the U.S. In 2011, for example, UK-based Telegraph declared: “The era of Iceberg lettuce is over,” as “bagged leaf varieties such as [arugula] and watercress are up by 37 per cent compared to last year.” Of course, it may never be hard to find Iceberg lettuce in fast food tacos and Sizzler salad bars. But the decline of Iceberg might also signal some good news for Americans’ diets.
“Iceburg sales have gone down, but romaine has gone up,” says Mary Zischke from the California Leafy Greens Research Programs. “Tastes have changed. And the darker, leafy greens have a better story to tell from a nutrition standpoint.”
Compared to 20 years ago, Zischke added, “there are a lot more choices. Especially in some parts of the country, like the Midwest.” Overall, she’s glad to report that: “The product mix has changed, but our [greens] industry has also gotten bigger.”
March 20, 2013
The most-visited tourist attraction in the state of Hawaii is the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (also known as the Pearl Harbor bombing site). The second most visited attraction is about 20 miles north: the Dole pineapple plantation. In peak season between March and July, this tropical fruit evokes the 50th state in the Union for many. It’s a strange notion considering that, of the 300 billion pineapples farmed worldwide, only 400 million come from Hawaii. That’s only .13 percent. And while it’s true that Hawaii was once the big kahuna in global pineapple production, it’s an American industry that had a meteoric rise and fall over the course of the 20th century.
While its exact origins have yet to be determined, botanists agree that the pineapple originated in the Americas, most likely in the region where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet [PDF]. As to how the plant arrived, and was domesticated, in Hawaii is apocryphal. Some sources point to Spanish sailor Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who arrived in the Islands in the early 1790s. In addition to serving as an interpreter for King Kamehameha I, Marin had a reputation for being an ace horticulturalist credited with introducing citrus and mangoes to the island nation. He does, however, provide us with the first written record of this fruit in the New World, the simple January 1813 diary entry: “This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.”
But to enjoy pineapple meant you had to buy local. In the age before refrigerated transportation, ripened fruit spoiled easily during shipment to the mainland, resulting in high losses of product. Even if pineapple were shipped green, the premature harvesting severely impacted the flavor. The 19th-century development of canning technology provided the much-needed, failsafe delivery mechanism for the fruit; however, high tariffs placed on the good exported to the mainland from Hawaii caused the first canning companies to fold. The Hawaiian pineapple industry wouldn’t take a turn for the better until the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 after the Spanish American War and the arrival of 22-year-old Massachusetts native James Dole the following year.
Despite knowing nothing about canning, Dole opened the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901, which the local press begged as being “a foolhardy venture.” And in its early years, it did indeed operate at a loss. However, Dole invested in developing new technologies—notably hiring a local draughtsman to develop machinery that could peel and process 100 pineapples a minute. He was also savvy to the power of advertising. Banding together with other local growers, Dole mounted an aggressive nationwide advertising campaign to make consumers aware of his product.
Dole was certainly not the first to introduce pineapple to the mainland American market. Rather, his business savvy and the economic conditions of the times allowed him to champion the fruit. Pineapple was cultivated in Florida, but recurring frosts destroyed the crops and what survived was of sub-par quality. Baltimore had a canning industry, but its fresh fruits were imported from the Bahamas, which heightened production costs due to importation taxes. With the combination of ideal growing conditions, the consolidation of cultivation and production and advertising that asserted the superiority of Hawaiian pineapple over all competitors, Hawaii was poised to dominate the canned pineapple trade. And it did. By the 1920s, it developed into a culinary fad, most notably in the form of upside down cake. (Author Sylvia Lovegreen collects a number of recipes from this era, from classic to questionable, in her book Fashionable Food.)
By 1923, Dole was the largest pineapple packer in the world. The agricultural sector took note and pineapple industries sprung up on other islands. Between 1930 and 1940, Hawaii dominated the canned pineapple industry and at its mid-century peak, eight companies were in operation and employed about 3,000 people. After World War II, the canned pineapple industry spread to other parts of the world, namely Thailand and the Philippines. Not only did these countries provide an ideal environment for growing, but labor costs were significantly lower. (Where U.S. labor accounted for about half of the cost of production, ranging between $2.64 and $3.69 per hour, compared to the 8 to 24 cents per hour paid to Filipino workers.)
The Hawaiian industry began to collapse in the 1960s. In response, the industry tried to focus on growing and shipping fresh fruit with faster, refrigerated means of transportation now readily available. Additionally, the development of the pesticide DBCP in the 1950s was invaluable to the industry as a means of protecting the pineapple tree’s root systems from attacks by ground worms (the EPA would ban the chemical in the late 1970s).But those innovations weren’t enough. Dole’s Honolulu cannery closed in 1991 and competitor Del Monte moved production out of islands in 2008.
The state’s pineapple industry currently exists primarily to satisfy local demands, much as it did before the arrival of James Dole. It is, however, worth noting the one element we lose with pineapple produced on a global industrial scale: flavor, or rather, variations thereof. Chances are, the fresh pineapple you find in your supermarket is the MD-2 cultivar, a hybrid developed because it’s sweet, low in acid and not susceptible to browning when refrigerated—a common problem in the Smooth Cayenne, which had been Hawaii’s industry standard variety cultivated since the 1880s. But there’s a host of other varieties that come in different shapes, sizes, colors and flavor profiles.
Dissatisfied with the taste of fresh, industrially-produced pineapple, the husband and wife team of Craig and Lisa Bowden developed their own variety that evoked the flavors of fruit they enjoyed in their youth. Together, they founded Hawaiian Crown, an independently-owned company in Honolulu. Though just a 20-person operation, Hawaiian Crown has not only carved out a niche for itself in the local farmer’s markets, but is finding distribution in grocery stores. Although the fruits of Hawaiian Crown’s labors are currently available only on the islands, here’s hoping that a new wave of pineapple innovation can re-invogorate an American industry.
Taylor, Ronald. “Hawaii Study Links DBCP to Reproductive Problems.” LA Times, 28 November 1980, pg. B31.
February 22, 2013
In 1994, Julie Languille lived at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake, which struck the Los Angeles neighborhood with a magnitude of 6.7. She and her family were without power for two weeks, and the long lines at nearby grocery stores soon began to shrink as food ran out.
“It just became really important to me as part of my feeling of security and good planning for my family to have meals on hand,” Languille says.
The Puget Sound resident, who also runs a dinner planning website, has been canning meals since, and her recipes, ranging from oatmeal and macaroni and cheese to braised chicken and pulled pork, are featured in a cookbook published next month. Two years ago, Languille installed a full-scale food storage unit in her home, filling it with almost 100 jars of basic ingredients like meats and veggies to complex ready-made recipes for baby back ribs and chicken noodle soup. Besides canning and sealing tools, an assortment of jars and enough room in the kitchen, the only other ingredients necessary are water and some heat.
In her cookbook, Languille writes that her bags, jars, and boxes of shelf-stable meals are “insurance against hardship or hunger.” Aside from earthquakes and hurricanes, ready-made meals significantly cut prep time for dinner on a busy weeknight. No washing, cutting, chopping and measuring—that was done weeks or months ago. Jars contain 100 percent of the ingredients necessary (other than water) for any given recipe, which nixes an extra trip to the grocery store for a forgotten item.
When stored in a cool, dry and dark place, dry meals can last for decades. Almost every fruit or vegetable can be dehydrated, a 24-hour process at high temperatures, and freeze-dried meats, which Languille says she buys online, have a long shelf life. But does the flavor of the ingredients hold up?
Languille says the answer is yes. When water is added, powdered eggs transform into fluffy beaten eggs and sour cream powder into dollops of the real stuff. Dehydrated apples, peaches and plums turn into gooey cobbler filling in the oven. Ground beef, once browned in a skillet and pressure-canned in a sterile jar for 75 minutes, becomes hearty chili when deposited into a pot of boiling water.
“The meals that I have on hand are tastier than the commercially prepared dried foods,” says Languille, who doesn’t use any artificial flavoring, coloring or preservatives in her recipes, save for a few packets of oxygen absorbers, which keep food from changing color or growing mold.
Languille replenishes her inventory four times a year, churning out nearly 40 canned jars in one weekend after a Costco-sized shopping trip. Whole meals are stored in quart-size jars and can produce soups and stews for parties of six to eight. Hamburger meat and chicken go in pint-size jars, which hold about a pound of meat and can serve four people
Languille uses a vacuum sealer to suck the air out of pouches filled with food. A dehydrator sucks out moisture from meats and vegetables, reducing their water content so they won’t spoil. A pressure canner preserves low-acid foods like meats, beans and vegetables.
Canning works in two ways. Pressure canning is used to preserve low-acid foods like meats, beans and vegetables. For example, a jar containing a piece of chicken is placed inside a pressure canner, which increases the pressure of the contents, causing steam to push out all of the air trapped inside. Then, the chicken remains stable at room temperature for long periods of time.
Water bath canning is used to preserve high-acid foods like fruits and tomatoes. Food is stored in sterilized jars, topped with warmed lids, and then boiled. This method works well for making jams and fruit butters and preserving spaghetti sauce and salsas
Canned and dry ingredients are packaged together in many of Languille’s recipes. Meat and sauce are cooked and canned together, then tossed into a jar with a sealed bag of pasta sauce and placed in a cupboard. Chicken canned with vegetables can be packaged with noodles to make chicken noodle soup or paired with flour and pie crust ingredients to produce a chicken pot pie.
Read on for the recipe for chicken noodle soup, which Languille says is her favorite, and others, featured in her forthcoming cookbook “Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes.”
Chicken Noodle Soup
Makes 8 servings
For soup mix: In each of 8 quart-size canning jars or retort pouches, add, seal, and then pressure-can for 75 minutes:
• 1 cup chopped lightly browned chicken
• ¾ cup chopped onion
• ¾ cup peeled and chopped carrots
• ¾ cup chopped celery
• 2 tablespoons chicken soup stock
• 1 slice dehydrated lemon
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• Water, to cover and leave 1 inch of headspace in a 1-quart jar, or 2 inches in a retort pouch
For noodle packet: In each of 8 vacuum bags, add and then seal:
• 2 cups egg noodles
In each of 8 Mylar bags, tote bags, or vacuum bags, store:
• 1-quart jar or retort pouch chicken soup mix
• 1 packet noodles
Combine the chicken soup mix and 12 cups of water in a large pot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and add the noodles. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are tender. Remove the bay leaf and lemon slice, and serve.
Omelet in a Bag
Makes 16 (2 to 3-serving) meals
In each of 16 zip-top quart-size freezer bags, package:
• ¼ cup powdered eggs
• 1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 teaspoon dried chives or thyme
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 pinch pepper
Heat a medium pot of water over medium heat to just simmering. Add ¹⁄₃ cup of water to the bag and squish the bag to combine (or put in a bowl and stir with a fork). Place the bag of omelet mixture into the water and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until solid and just cooked through. Divide the omelet into portions and serve.
Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes 6 batches (about 3 dozen cookies each)
For cookie mix: In each of 6 vacuum bags, Mylar bags, or jars, add and then seal:
• ½ cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon powdered eggs
• 1¼ cups flour
• ¾ teaspoons baking soda
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
For peanut butter: In each of 6 vacuum bags or disposable 4-ounce containers, add and then seal:
• ½ cup (4 ounces) peanut butter
For shortening: In each of 6 vacuum bags, add and then seal:
• ½ cup shortening
In a Mylar bag, tote bag, or vacuum bag, store:
• 1 jar or pouch cookie mix
• 1 packet peanut butter
• 1 packet shortening
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine the shortening, cookie mix, and 2 tablespoons of water until a stiff dough forms. Roll into small balls about the size of walnuts and flatten with a fork in a crisscross pattern. Place on a baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.
February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”