Jamie Vincent Bordonaro
My search for the latest trending series to binge watch on Netflix led me to “Song Exploder,” a program documenting the intricate processes involved with the creation of particular songs. One interview showcased famous rapper Ty Dolla Sign and his hit song, LA. Upon describing the complexity of a particular rhythmic arrangement surrounding the first verse, he stressed the importance of the “texture” of the sound and the significant role of contrast in a music track. Hearing an application of the term texture so eloquently applied to a medium other than food and cooking instantly reinforced and reemphasized the pivotal position held by the concept in relation to a completed dish. The rapper’s sentiment truly struck a “chord” with me as I delve deep into the subject of texture.
Before diving headfirst into a technical discussion of the multitude of methods used to create a variety of textures both unique and commonplace, let’s review the tenet which underscores the essentiality of texture in food in the first place. Technically, I could sum up this entire discussion with one word, contrast (but then what would I do with the rest of my day?). The most crucial role of and reasoning behind the significance of textural interplay and manipulation in a plate of food is the creation of contrast. Choosing crunchy and crispy as the predominant characteristics for a discussion of textural contrast provides a focused and thorough analysis. For the sake of specification, I consider the two terms distinct textural phenomena—crispy referring to a more direct “snap” with little resistance (think potato chip) and crunchy denoting a bolder more aggressive composition (i.e... granola/cereal). In light of this distinction, I choose to group the textures as their common structures place the purpose they serve in alignment. A delicious bowl of macaroni and cheese provides a rich and creamy comfort staple. The slight bit of chew from elbow macaroni, luscious viscosity of the rich cheese sauce, and intoxicating aroma of cheddar combine to create a truly decadent and soul-satisfying treat. Add breadcrumbs, tossed in a touch of melted butter, and some freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese to the top of the dish, toast in the oven or under a broiler and the resultant crunch inarguably elevates the eating experience. Consider a piece of perfectly executed fried chicken. The chicken leg alone offers a moist, flavorful—assuming it’s been marinated and seasoned in some way—bite with an expected level of chew as characterized by cooked protein. However, the delightful level of satisfaction and intrigue achieved through the battering and/or dredging of a well- seasoned deep-fried bird is extraordinary. We love fried chicken for its flavor and the seductive interplay of a crispy crust and tender, juicy interior. The same rules apply to staple foods of the haute cuisine variety. The texture of a finessed and delicate foie gras mousse, garnished with Fleur de Sel or Maldon salt along with a piquant sweet and/or sour fruit-based accoutrement, can be described as smooth as silk akin to soft butter. What better an application for “meat butter” than smeared atop toasted or grilled bread—the crunchy companion without which foie gras (or bone marrow for that matter) would not dare travel.
While a focus on contrast provides us with a breadth of examples that highlight the importance of texture, the textural characteristic of chewiness is oftentimes actually self- defining and independent in its acquisition of quality and flavor. Great Italian chefs strive to cook their pasta “al dente” or “to the tooth”, leaving an essential level of resistance to the noodle being utilized. Aside from the scientific perspective discussing starch content and the resultant sauce interplay, the requirement for the eater to engage in the act of chewing activates a deeper level of consciousness and attentiveness to the flavor characteristics of both the sauce and the pasta. Another instance of chewiness playing a significant role in the enhancement of the eating experience is beef jerky. In addition to concentrating the salinity and meat flavor, the process of dehydration yields a piece of meat that must be vigorously chewed to be digested and enjoyed. The exaggerated chewing disperses the concentrated flavors of the meat onto the palate for an extended period of time. This principle (along with the harmful chemicals involved, of course) also helps to define the enticement factor of chewing tobacco.
Now that we reminisced over the role of texture in various culinary applications, let’s think about different ways to achieve certain textures from a technical perspective. One of the most commonly used and straightforward methods to create a crispy texture is through frying. Deep fat frying uses a large amount of oil (typically canola or other neutral flavored oils with high smoke points) heated to a temperature, ranging from about 275 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. A simple potato chip provides a pleasant crispy garnish for a potato and leek soup. Pan frying uses less oil—oftentimes leaving the protein or vegetable only partially submerged—and can be applied to our classic example of fried chicken or breaded chicken cutlets. Dehydration slowly allows for the removal of moisture to encourage a concentration of flavor, preservation of the food, and textural transformation. Apple chips provide the sweet and sour satisfaction of the fruit with the fascinatingly satisfying crunch of a snack food. Freezing a mixture of lime juice, sugar, and salt can yield a delicious granitas or shaved ice. On the other end of the textural spectrum, a vegetable puree serves a multitude of purposes. Roast eggplant in the oven with garlic and olive oil, spices of your choosing, at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 35 minutes (until fork tender). Blend the eggplant with a touch of lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to taste. This delicious puree offers a fragrant pairing to a grilled lamb loin with Mediterranean spices. The smooth eggplant puree can serve as a sauce for the dish or lend its viscosity towards the encompassing of a meat sauce or herbal vinaigrette. And as a French-technique trained chef, I would be remiss to exclude the classic Pommes Puree from the discussion. The transformation of a simple potato into a rich and butter- laden spread has served to grace plates of the finest and humblest circumstances for centuries. The most elevated example of the dish belongs to the late Joel Robuchon, whose namesake restaurants feature the Pommes Robuchon as a distinct course.
In defense of molecular gastronomy
As much of a nostalgic Francophile as I may declare to be, the exaltation of classical techniques and methods must not be understood as any indication of conflict or opposition towards modern cooking. In fact, I utilized many methods from the “molecular gastronomy” playbook in the publication of my cookbook, Pursuit of Passion. I learned many of these techniques from a Chef and mentor of mine who had a great respect and admiration for Nathan Myhrvold’s, Modernist Cuisine cookbooks. When it comes to texture in cooking, molecular gastronomy unlocks a plethora of methods and techniques that contribute new avenues for its achievement. A fluid gel involves taking a base liquid, such as orange juice, incorporating a seaweed-based thickener called Agar Agar, allowing the mixture to solidify, and then blending the mixture with fresh liquid. The resultant concoction carries on the desired flavor of the base liquid, but has obtained a smooth and stable character, making it more versatile for utilization. If you want to add an orange note to a duck sauce without juice—which would impact viscosity—and without zest—which may add a distracting aesthetic or textural note—a fluid gel could satisfy and enhance the visual, textural, and flavorful elements of the dish. In addition to its complementary qualities, a fluid gel will coat the palate upon its consumption, which will naturally disperse the flavor of the gel along the tongue of the diner instantaneously. Another whimsical display from the gallery of molecular gastronomy is the use of liquid nitrogen. In order to avoid a pretentious and inaccurate dissection of the scientific principles that define liquid nitrogen, I will just relate its main functions with regard to texture manipulation in layman’s terms. The substance freezes liquids, purees, even solids on impact. Serving a beet foam with a beet salad dish may be fun, but apply liquid nitrogen to the foam, and the resulting crunch and aerated bite brings on a whole new experience to the plate. The tool is especially practical in the creation of multidimensional and highly intellectual dessert plates. Undoubtedly, the utilization of modern techniques is an incredibly effective means in the achievement of successful textural interplay in cuisine.
Texture explains why we find ourselves attracted to the rhythmic dissonance in our favorite songs, just as obviously as in our favorite foods. Creating texture in a dish can take us through a practical galaxy or solar system of avenues. We may consider everything from classical techniques like frying and sautéing to molecular gastronomy’s gels and spherification. A dish may underscore the premier principle of contrast, such as fried chicken, or could stand alone as does an “al dente” plate of pasta cacio e pepe. Beyond squabbles over a fundamental distinction between crispy and crunchy, I hope this passage encourages everyone to engage harmoniously in the contrasts and complements that texture brings to the table.