February 15, 2013
Today, entering “chipotle” into a Google search yields 19.7 million results in a fraction of a second. The ingredient appears in more than 800 recipes on Food Network’s website. A MenuPages search for the ingredient generates more than 1,500 mentions of chipotle on the East Coast alone. Founded in 1993, the Chipotle Mexican Grill franchise grew from 16 locations in 1998 to more than 500 in 2005, then doubled that in 2011.
How did a small smoke-dried jalapeno reach such celebrity status in the kitchen?
Ten years ago, McCormick & Company, the largest spice company in the world, put chipotle on the map in its third annual flavor forecast, a roundup of spices and other ingredients that predicts a peak in popularity for that year. Chipotle, already well known and regularly used in central and southern Mexico, saw a 54 percent jump in menu mentions across America in the next seven years.
The company’s 2003 forecast also included lemon grass, sea salt and wasabi, present-day restaurant staples. Three years later, chai and paprika were the breakout stars. In 2011, the forecast featured flavors with origins outside of the states, highlighting curry and herbes de Provence.
McCormick’s team of nearly 100 chefs, sensory scientists, dietitians and marketing experts will talk 2014 flavors at a summit next month. But 2013 has just begun, and one of the ingredients in this year’s flavor combinations could become the next chipotle:
- Bitter dark chocolate, sweet basil and passion fruit. Pairing chocolate with fruit isn’t a new trend, but swapping traditional mint with basil is a new spin.
- Black rum, charred orange and allspice. Allspice is usually associated with baking, but pairing it with black rum could produce tropical cocktails.
- Cider, sage and molasses. This trio lends to rustic, comfort foods during chilly weather.
- Smoked tomato, rosemary, chili pepper and sweet onion. This quartet can be used to spice up homemade ketchup, sauces and jams.
- Faro, blackberry and clove. Faro, one of the oldest ancient grains, is similar to quinoa, which has begun showing up in the grocery aisle inside pastas and chips.
- Dukkah and broccoli. Dukkah is an Egyptian blend of cumin, coriander, sesame and nuts. It mostly appears in olive oil as a dipping sauce for table bread in American eateries, but McCormick chefs say uses can extend to toppings for soups, stews and salads.
- Hearty cuts of meat, plantains and cinnamon sticks. Plantains can stand in for potatoes in the classic meat-and-potatoes meal.
- Artichoke, paprika and hazelnut. These three aren’t new on the market, but combining them in one palate makes for a more exotic dish.
- Anise and cajeta. McCormick chefs believe the latter will catch on quickly. It’s a thick Mexican syrup similar to dulce de leche, which many Americans are already familiar with.
- Japanese katsu and oregano. Katsu’s tanginess resembles barbecue and steak sauces.
Zeroing in on trends is the easy part, says McCormick chef Mark Garcia. It’s the recipes that are tricky. They combine the ten flavor combinations with complementary ingredients and taste-test the recipes multiple times.
“One of the worst things we could do is just come up with a recipe where the ingredients don’t make sense but we thought they sounded cool together,” Garcia says. “We clearly have to bring some techniques as well as some artistry to the process so that we create combinations that are both relevant but also make sense from a culinary standpoint.”
Garcia’s prediction for the frontrunner this year for America’s next top flavor is dukkah, explaining that it’s “one of those ingredients where literally the term ‘all-purpose’ comes to mind.” The blend, along with the other flavors, may diffuse into the food industry, cropping up in grocery aisles and the pages of restaurant menus. But will the average citizen’s taste buds accept the new flavor?
Ami Whelan, a senior scientist at McCormick, thinks so. Her job is to evaluate, measure and interpret people’s responses to food based on their senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing.
“The senses help us make decisions about the foods we eat. For instance, the appearance of a strawberry helps us make a decision on whether the fruit is ripe,” Whelan writes in an email. “The aroma of fresh baked bread or cinnamon rolls direct us to the store where we expect to taste a fresh, tasty product.”
A sensory analysis of flavor combinations reveals the likelihood of consumer acceptance, but Whelan says she usually has an inkling about the outcome.
“The chefs and culinarians on the team have an extensive intrinsic knowledge of the basic sensory properties of foods and flavors and innately know, even prior to tasting, what might work well together and what likely does not,” she says. “All of us on the team are foodies by nature, meaning that food and flavor is not just our job, but also our hobby and favorite past-time.”
January 15, 2013
Several food critics recently predicted barrel-aged hot sauce would be this year’s breakout condiment. The process originated nearly 145 years ago, when pepper seeds from Mexico and Central America took root in Avery Island, a salt dome in Louisiana. There, Edmund McIlhenny watched the red peppers grow, starting out green in infancy, then turning yellow, orange and finally deep red and ready for picking. He mashed them and mixed in salt from the island’s underground mines. Then, he dumped the mixture into white oak barrels, where it aged for three years, slowly fermenting.
Tabasco red pepper sauce was born.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it is colorless and only tastes and smells like the grain and the alcohol. It gets its color and richness in flavor from aging in charred oak barrels. Hot sauce, like Tabasco, works much the same way—it soaks in flavor and grows deeper in color in the barrel.
In 2009, a former chef at Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver purchased an eight-gallon charred whiskey oak barrel to add some smoky flavor to the restaurant’s house-made sauces. Last year, Vesta’s executive chef, Brandon Foster, purchased two more barrels, and they sit in the restaurant’s basement, allowing the chiles to age and absorb wood tannins and hints of whiskey.
The first iteration, dubbed Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, became a Louisiana-style sauce made with red Fresno chilies and habaneros, onion, garlic, salt and vinegar. After the chilies are pickled for two weeks in cans, the barrel is rinsed with a bottle of whiskey, and the mixture ages for a minimum of four weeks. Around week six or eight
, the whiskey flavor really seeps in, says Foster, and the resulting flavor is smoky with an acidic punch and some background heat.
Vinegar and salt pull moisture from the barrels into the hot sauce, bringing flavor with them, Foster says.
“The barrel has sauce aged in it, it’s had whiskey aged in it,” Foster says. “It’s going to have excess moisture in it and I think that’s the salt and the vinegar, the macerated chilies, that are really just reacting with that wood and pulling out as much flavor as possible.”
The first barrel, which cost $130, produced eight batches of hot sauce before Foster noticed signs of wear and tear and feared leaking or mold. His two new barrels have gone through ten to 12 batches of hot sauce, and recently welcomed a new concoction—this time, using tequila.
The new recipe, created by one of Vesta’s kitchen managers, calls for Serrano peppers, roasted jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar mashed together and poured into a tequila-rinsed barrel. The green, Latin America-style sauce, which will be hotter and sweeter than Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, will debut at the restaurant in a few weeks.
What sort of volume goes through one eight-gallon barrel during its lifetime? A lot: 250 to 300 pounds of chilies, 60 to 70 pounds of onions, 20 to 25 pounds of garlic and generous helpings of salt and vinegar. Foster uses chiles from California for the current batch, as Colorado’s winter weather isn’t easy on pepper crops.
Once the sauces have matured, the mixture is pureed, but it’s not smooth by any means, Foster says. He drains the barrel by setting it on a counter above a bucket and shaking it back and forth, then tosses the mash into a high-powered Vitamix blender, after which it’s pureed further through a cap strainer. Some pulp remains to add viscosity to the sauce, which is seasoned, bottled and served at Vesta’s sister restaurant Steuben’s, alongside 20 to 30 other hot sauces. And since the barrels are replenished regularly, some of the flavor customers taste has been building for two years.
For Ronnie New, executive chef at Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco, barrel aging hot sauce is a new venture. He’s been making his own hot sauce, similar to Sriracha, for a year and a half, adding it to the restaurant’s wings and fried chicken. Magnolia has no shortage of barrels—its bar buys bourbon and whiskey by the barrel for its house cocktails—so tossing hot sauce into one of them seemed like a logical move.
By June, he’ll fill a 53-gallon Evan Williams bourbon whiskey white oak barrel with 200 pounds of locally sourced chilies, age the mash for six months, and bottle it by 2014. As the vinegar in the mash starts to denature the chilies, New says some natural sugar will be released, causing the mixture to ferment. When natural proteins are exposed to salt and changes in pH, their coils unwind, and they tend to bond together to create solid clumps, losing some of their capacity to hold water.
“Hot sauces tend to develop more and more flavor the longer they sit,” says New, who will monitor the flavor as the mash ages. “Every single environment is different, so there’s not an exact formula. The end product might be slightly different each time we do it.”
On the opposite coast, Sam Barbieri, owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Brooklyn, recently emptied a 31-gallon barrel whiskey full of hot sauce and added it to his restaurant’s wings and buffalo-style calamari.
“If you’re aging whiskey in a barrel and dump it out, there’s still about eight to ten percent retention in the wood from the whiskey,” Barbieri says. “I put the sauce in there, and all those beautiful vanilla and oak tones will come into my hot sauce.”
The sauce, made from chocolate habaneros, Bishop’s Crown peppers and Serranos, ages for two years. The end result is extremely hot, so Barbieri adds pureed carrot or apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor and arrive at his desired pH level, roughly 3.5, a number he says those in the canning industry aim for to create a stable product. Then, he heats the sauce at 192 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes before bottling it.
Unlike Foster, Barbieri doesn’t reuse his barrels. Instead, he throws its staves into his barbecue pit to infuse pepper flavor into roasted hogs, adding hickory and apple. He’s in talks with local distilleries about acquiring his next barrel.
“As soon as you age your whiskey, I will come pick up your barrel,” he says.
January 10, 2013
In 2007, the Naga Bhut Joloki or “Ghost chile” was named the hottest pepper on earth. Then in 2010 the Naga Viper stole the title. And in 2012 the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend moved into the lead. And for good reason.
The Scorpion ranks at round 2 million heat units on the Scoville scale. (For comparison, tabasco sauce has 2,500–5,000 Scoville heat units or SHU.) What exactly does that mean? When the scale was invented in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in search of a heat-producing ointment, it was based on human taste buds. The idea was to dilute an alcohol-based extract made with the given pepper until it no longer tasted hot to a group of taste testers. The degree of dilution translates to the SHU. In other words, according to the Scoville scale, you would need as many as 5,000 cups of water to dilute 1 cup of tobacco sauce enough to no longer taste the heat.
And while the Scoville scale is still widely used, says Dr. Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and author or several books on chile peppers, it no longer relies on the fallible human taste bud.
“It’s easy to get what’s called taster’s fatigue,” says Bosland. “Pretty soon your receptors are worn out or overused, and you can’t taste anymore. So over the years, we’ve devised a system where we used what’s called high performance liquid chromatography.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that scientists are now able to determine how many parts per million of heat-causing alkaloids are present in a given chile pepper. The same scientists have also figured out that if they multiply that number by 16, they’ll arrive at the pepper’s Scoville rating (or “close enough for the industry,” says Bosland).
And, let’s face it, who would want to be the one to taste test a pepper named after a viper or a scorpion? Or maybe the better question is what sane person would? The BBC recently reported on the first man to finish an entire portion of a curry made with ghost chiles, called “The Widower,” and he suffered actual hallucinations due to the heat. Bosland told the AP in 2007 he thought the ghost chile had been given it’s name “because the chili is so hot, you give up the ghost when you eat it.” How’s that for inviting?
Indeed, the capsaicin, the spicy chemical compound found in chiles demands the diner’s attention much like actual heat heat does. And it turns out there’s science behind that similarity. “The same receptor that says ‘hot coffee’ to your brain is telling you ‘hot chile peppers,’” says Bosland.
And what about the rumor that very hot peppers have the potential to damage our taste buds? Not true. Bosland says we should think of chile heat like we do the taste of salt; easy to overdo in the moment, but not damaging to your mouth over the long term. Even the hottest habanero (100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale), which can stay on your palate for hours — if not days – won’t wear out your tender buds.
Bosland and his colleagues have broken the heat profile of chile peppers into five distinctly different characteristics. 1) how hot it is, 2) how fast the heat comes on, 3) whether it linger or dissipates quickly, 4) where you sense the heat – on the tip of tongue, at the back of throat, etc., and 5) whether the heat registers as “flat” or “sharp.”
This last characteristic is fascinating for what it says about cultural chile pepper preferences (say that five times fast). Apparently those raised in Asian cultures — where chile heat has been considered one of the six core tastes for thousands of years — prefer sharp heat that feels like pinpricks but dissipates quickly. Most Americans, on the other hand, like a flat, sustained heat that feels almost like it’s been painted on with a brush.
The Chile Pepper Institute, which is affiliated with New Mexico State University, sells a nifty chile tasting wheel, which describes the heat and flavor profiles of many different chiles and offers advise on how to cook them.
Eating chiles is a little like tasting wine, says Bosland. “When you first drink wine, all you notice is the alcohol. Then you can tell red from white, and soon you can taste the difference between the varietals. Eventually you can tell what region the wine comes from. That’s how it is with chile peppers too. At first all you taste is heat, but soon you’re be able to tell which heat sensations you like best.”
June 15, 2012
One of the greatest treats of summertime is sweet, tender lobster slathered in hot, dripping butter. But fork over the bibs and claw-crackers. Here are ten less traditional but no less taste-bud-enticing recipes for a round-the-clock lobster line-up.
Breakfast: Incorporating lobster into your morning meal brings a whole new meaning to taking advantage of the fresh catch of the day; lobstermen set out well before sunrise to bring home the spoils of their traps by dawn. Try one of these dishes for a fresh spin on breakfast.
Wild Mushroom and Lobster Pancakes: This recipe, created by Nantucket-turned-Connecticut restaurateurs Everett and Linda Reid, pairs lobster meat with garlic, shallots and wild mushrooms in a brown-sugar-based pancake. Top off the fluffy pancakes with salmon roe or caviar sprinkled over a cream garnish.
Cheesy Scallion and Lobster Quiche: Simple and versatile, this recipe may be made with non-fat ingredients for a more heart-healthy hearty breakfast. Swiss cheese and paprika lend additional layers of flavor to the dish. A pre-made nine-inch pie crust will cut your prep time down significantly, leaving most of the work up to your oven.
Baked Lobster and Egg: Serve up this hero in a half shell to make a statement while entertaining guests. The recipe calls for halving lobsters and baking veggies and eggs right alongside the lobster meat. The finished dish creates a bold-looking plate.
Lunch: Match lobster with fresh produce to pull off one of these quick and easy midday meals.
Avocado and Lobster Quesadilla: Creamy goat cheese complements sweet lobster and avocado in this twist on Southwestern cuisine. Turn up the heat by introducing diced jalapeno to all the melted, flaky goodness.
Mango and Lobster Salad: The super easy and super succulent recipe calls for mango and lobster chunks to be tossed in a sweet honey, basil and lemon cream sauce.
Dinner: Retire the worn-out surf and turf routine and opt for one of these dishes which styles lobster into traditional American, Italian or Asian cuisine.
Lemon Aioli Lobster Burger: Tuna and salmon burger lovers, rejoice. Lobster and crab combine to create one seriously scrumptious seafood sandwich. Serve on a traditional burger bun or herbed focaccia bread.
Ricotta Salata and Lobster Pizza: Chef Lydia Shire of Boston’s Scampo restaurant created this recipe, which uses a special salted variety of ricotta cheese. Opt for white, wheat or half-and-half dough. While Shire creates this masterpiece in a wood-fired oven, a conventional oven set to 400 degrees Fahrenheit will do the trick just fine.
Lobster Curry: Bring some color to your cheeks with this hot and tingly supper. Serve lobster and curry over wild rice for a more substantial serving. Spice curry to taste.
Dessert: Land-lubbers beware, sweet lobster meat can find its way into every course of the day. Don’t try this with chicken.
Lobster Cheesecake: Pretzel-crumb crust and hints of zesty lemon and dill balance out the flavor profile of this decadent dessert.
May 17, 2012
Yesterday, I posted the first part of an interview with author Mark Kurlansky, who, in addition to writing about Clarence Birdseye, the father of our modern frozen food industry, penned a sweeping biography of salt. For many of us, it’s a mundane compound that we casually use to brighten up the flavors in our cooking, but salt has a rich and tumultuous history and considerable cultural importance the world over. Here is part two of our conversation:
Why write about salt?
I always wanted to write a book about a common food that becomes a commercial commodity and therefore becomes economically important and therefore becomes politically important and culturally important. That whole process is very interesting to me. And salt seemed to me the best example of that, partly because it’s universal. Only hunter-gatherer societies aren’t concerned with salt. So almost every society and culture has a story of salt, either the producing or selling of it or how to get it.
How do you go about researching and writing about something that predates written history?
There’s a lot about the early history of salt that isn’t known, including who first used it and when or how it was discovered that it preserved food. We were sort of handed, in history, this world where everyone knew about salt. And it’s not clear exactly how that developed. The one thing that is clear is that it’s when a society goes from hunter-gatherer to agriculture that it becomes interested in salt. In agriculture, livestock, just like human beings, need salt, so you have to provide salt for livestock and also sometimes to maintain the pH of the soil. Also, a major source of salt is red meat, which hunter-gatherers eat almost exclusively, so they have no need for salt. But once your diet becomes cereals and vegetables, you’re not getting the sodium chloride you need so you need additional salt.
Is there a defining moment in history that signifies salt’s importance in human culture?
How to choose? The importance that it played in the French Revolution is one example. The salt tax is one of the great grievances that led to the French Revolution, and one of the first things that the revolutionary Assemblée Nationale did was repeal the salt tax. Showing the same thing is the Ghandi salt march, where he used salt to bring together the masses for a movement—also protesting a salt tax. I think that the great lesson of salt history is that salt lost its value. This thing that people were willing to fight and die over and form economies with became much less valuable and much less important than it had been over a fairly short period of time.
Why fight over salt?
You have to remember that before the industrial revolution, a very large part of international trade was food products, and the only way a food product could be salable internationally was if it was preserved in salt. There was no refrigeration or freezing. It became central to international trade.
What turned salt from a commodity worth fighting over to a commonplace, inexpensive condiment on our grocery store shelves?
Two things. One of them was that the relationship—in geological terms—between salt domes and oil deposits was discovered and then there was this frantic search for salt domes to find oil deposits in the great oil boom in the early 20th century. It was discovered that the earth was full of salt much more than anyone realized—just huge swaths of salt beds running over all the continents. And almost at the same time was Clarence Birdseye—salt was no longer the leading way of preserving food.
You also touch on how salt is integrated into religion and mythology. Why was salt important to our spiritual lives?
Things that become important to economies become ritualized and become deified. Because I’m Jewish I always thought it was interesting that in Judaism, salt seals a bargain, particularly the covenant with God. Some people when they bless bread, they dip it in salt. Same thing exists in Islam. But I spent a lot of time in Haiti and I always found it interesting—maybe useful to know—that salt cures a zombie. Good to know if you’re ever in danger of zombification.
Update: For those of you looking to explore salt beyond the run of the mill iodized variety, you might try one of the following:
Bolivian Rose: Salt from Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni flats unfortunately isn’t readily available—Mimi Sheraton had to order her supply from La Paz, and unless you can handle the shipping charges, this is going to be cost-prohibitive for most home chefs. Still looking for a taste of this region? Try salt from the Andes Mountains as an alternative.
Fleur de Sel: Harvested from the waters of the Atlantic in the summer, this French salt isn’t meant to cook with, but rather, to finish dishes with its delicate, salty flavor. David Lebovitz recommends Fleur de Sel de Geurande, which is hand-harvested and termed by some as “the caviar of salt.”
Red Alea Salt: Who says that salt always has to be white? This crimson Hawaiian salt is harvested from tidal pools and owes its color to the high iron content of the volcanic clay content of those pools. Mild in flavor, it can be used in soups or stews.
Salt Made from Human Tears: The site claims that its line of salts are derived from tears harvested from humans during various emotional states: laughing, crying while chopping onions, sneezing. Don’t believe everything you read online, but at the very least, if you’re hunting for a novelty gift for the gourmand in your life, these might fit the bill.