Crunchy and creamy, warm and cool, spicy and soothing — textural contrasts boost craveability
The menu reads: “Chipotle-honey-glazed grilled-salmon tostada with black-bean/mango salsa and avocado vinaigrette.” Like a good novelist, chef Patrick Boll hooks diners with familiar key words, chipotle and grilled salmon.
The drama builds as patrons at the Spotted Donkey Cantina II in Scottsdale, Ariz., bite into a crisp tostada cradling soft salmon. Then they encounter the chunky texture of the savory-sweet bean-mango salsa staged against the rich avocado and Mexican crema dressing. The denouement? The crunchy, acidic kick from cabbage slaw marinated in red-wine vinegar and lime.
“I always look for the ‘texture thing’ in a dish — it’s what excites and delights your mouth and draws people to your food,” says Boll.
Chefs signpost their culinary intentions via the menu, yet the sensory descriptors on the page often don’t add up to the textural surprise of the featured dish. Texture is a deep and wide subject with nuggets of psychology and science folded in.
From the shape of the salt crystals to the dice of daikon and the depth of the crust, chefs obsess on texture. The impact of texture on flavor manifests in varied strategies and techniques. The bottom line with texture is its influence on craveability.
TEXTURE IN ACTION
Applebee’s slow-simmered beef sandwich is “texture city” on a plate, says Shannon Johnson, executive director of culinary innovation and development. The beef shares space with crispy, “crazy-thin” onion rings and coleslaw — all layered in a bun which carries grains of cracked wheat on top.
Johnson ponders over the smallest details on the menu’s “symphony of textures.” He sprinkles Bourbon Street potatoes with conical-shaped salt, which, he contends, adds an alluring crunch and holds its shape better than other salts.
Before menuing a new dish, chef Didier Elena considers the story he wants to share on the plate at Adour in the St. Regis hotel in New York City. One way he highlights the theme of the fresh flavor from seasonal vegetables is to maintain their natural shape.
“I prefer to cook small vegetables whole instead of pureeing them. When you puree a vegetable, you add cream or other ingredients and take away the pure taste,” says Elena.
At chains such as the five-unit Bristol Bar & Grille in Louisville, Ky., chef Richard Doering contends that a variety of textures in a dish heightens the flavor of individual ingredients to create a “an explosion of flavor and texture.”
Doering’s philosophy manifests in carefully designed add-ons to shrimp and grits. He stirs green-apple pieces into the shrimp sauté and adds chunks of country ham to the sorghum-bourbon demi-glace. “The demi has a slick mouthfeel that is offset by the crispness and tart flavor of the apples. The crunch of the shrimp and the chewiness of the ham against the creamy, cheesy grits rounds out the dish,” he says.
The contrast of textural elements is top of mind to Boll with Donkey Dusted Agave Chicken Wings. He deep-fries the whole wing, thus satisfying two distinct demographics of wing-lovers. Some diners, says Boll, gravitate to the crispy wing tips, while others are attracted to the juicier, meatier drumettes.
PERCEPTION OF TEXTURE
The difference in diners’ reaction to texture led menu consultant Gregg Rapp to develop a “happiness package” framework for chefs and restaurateurs. During a meal, Rapp says, the guest’s happiness factor is impacted by the food — the ingredients, preparation methods, flavors — and the broader experience of dining.
Texture emerges as a major influence on food memories. As an example, Rapp harkens back to his youth in Dayton, Ohio, where his favorite pizzeria served only thin-crust pies. His love of thin-crusted pizza continues today.
Given the many variables that influence craveability, it’s understandable that pleasing all palates all the time is difficult. A restaurant serving only thick-crust pizza topped with only exotic mushrooms may struggle in a small town but could work in Manhattan, says Rapp.
“Think carefully about the complex culinary demographics of your guests. People are not always receptive to textures foreign to their experience.”
Adding to the psychological elements, Rapp notes that texture is subject to fashion trends. “Today it’s all about healthy crunch. Add ‘crunch’ to menu descriptions, be it breakfast yogurts or salads with crunch wontons, and sales may bloom.”
Rapp also emphasizes that diners’ attraction to umami-rich foods is related to perception of texture.
Glutamate was identified as the key carrier of umami savory flavor in 1908. Foods rich in glutamates, such as tomato, Chinese cabbage, walnuts, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, meat and oily fish, were recognized early on as umami stars.
Research now points to a sensation component of umami. In ground-breaking research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009, G.K. Beauchamp described this factor as a feeling of “fullness.”
New studies highlight the importance of cooking processes on umami’s savory and sensory appeal. Techniques such as aging, drying, roasting, fermenting, toasting and ripening enable glutamate to separate from the proteins in the food, resulting in more prominent umami characteristics.
Applebee’s Johnson heightens the umami sensation by grilling burgers on the flat top, thus maximizing the meat’s surface contact with the heat. As protein compounds heat up with sugar molecules in the beef, the Maillard reaction of browning and caramelization occurs and draws out umami flavors. The charbroiler sears, too, but the short blast of heat from the broiler doesn’t compete with the slower and more-complex caramelization from the flat top, Johnson says.
The Chinese have long understood the nuances of texture. “All the classic Chinese cooking techniques of roasting, steaming, blanching, pan frying and wok sautéing involve texture,” says Chris Yeo, chef/owner of Straits and Sino restaurants in California, Georgia and Texas.
Velveting, or oil blanching, bestows a rich mouthfeel to vegetables and protein, and is Yeo’s “workhorse” technique in the kitchen. With popular entrées such as Malaysian Beef Rendang, Yeo relies on slow braising to enhance the craveability of the umami-rich dish.
The new Happy Hour menu at P.F. Chang’s relies on braising for its “street fare” appetizers. The braised beef in the Kogi Asian tacos holds texture without becoming mushy, says Gregg Piazzi, P.F. Chang’s director of culinary operations. Piazzi tested five versions of cole slaw to accompany the tacos and found that not all shredded cabbage is equal.
“We settled on a cut size of one-quarter-inch long and wide after discovering longer shreds overwhelmed the textural balance of the dish.”
Another slow-cooking method gathering steam is sous-vide. Chef Stephen Jones at Latilla at the Boulders Resort near Scottsdale, Ariz., infuses monkfish with miso and pepperoni, an unlikely duo.
“The earthiness and saltiness of the miso tenderizes the fish, and the pepperoni adds a porky, spicy, textural aspect,” he says.
Jones also upends classic techniques to create new texture sensations. Rather than sautéing sweetbreads, he deep fries them in clarified butter. He plates them with braised lettuce, spicy Tinga sauce, black-garlic/Key lime aïoli, and preserved pineapple — a grand mix of crispy, soft and chunky. Due to guests’ visual expectations and their familiarity with Tinga sauce as a chicken accompaniment, guests often think they are eating poultry.
In China, chicken is usually fried in a wok. At Straits, Yeo deep fries frenched chicken wings for his Chicken Lollipops. The sweet and spicy citrus glaze imparts a rich textural contrast to the crispy lollipops and may contribute to their top billing at Straits.
For the sauce, Yeo caramelizes sugar in a tilt skillet and then adds fermented bean paste, citrus zest and lemon, lime and orange juice.
Mexican cuisine plays off the texture of caramel. At his two Cantina 1511 venues in Charlotte, N.C., owner Frank Scibelli of the FS Food Group highlights the healthy amount of caramel sauce in carnitas with braised pork: “The caramel adds a lovely stickiness and sweetness that play against the creamy-spicy avocado-habanero salsa.”
CHEF’S TEXTURIZING TOOLS
Boll at the Spotted Donkey Cantina II extols the power of a light coating of smoke on proteins to excite the taste buds. He roasts pork, chicken and beef in a Southern Pride smoker. He keeps the firebox outside the kitchen and transforms the smoker into a large rotisserie with racks holding up to eight pork butts. The smoker keeps the meat intact and avoids the “mushiness” of traditional barbecue.
For Elena, both the cooking technique and vessel are essential to texture and flavor development. Mentored by Alain Ducasse at Adour and prior restaurants, Elena employs the Ducasse-designed Cookpot, a porcelain pot designed with his input and based on cooking vessels used in rural France.
“When I prepare our signature Cookpot dish, I slice the vegetables thinly and bake them slowly in the covered Cookpot,” says Elena. “I don’t add water, and the vegetables cook in their own flavor. The thin slice pleases the eye and enables even cooking. It’s all about getting the perfect texture for each vegetable in the dish, and we juxtapose the soft, cooked vegetables with crisp bread.”
Jones points to broadly available cooks’ tools to enhance texture. A dehydrator or low-heat roasting yields perfect strawberry chips to accompany his squab. Apple, olive or kale chips add textural surprise on many of his plates. He blast-freezes country ham, which he grates on a microplane, to top deviled eggs.
Other texture techniques in Jones’s portfolio relate to molecular gastronomy. He sticks to his classical training at Latilla but adds modified molecular notes to a few ingredients. Recently a guest asked to see him after dining on the lamb leg with brown-butter powder. “She told me the brown-butter taste sensation was magical, going from powder to an explosion of flavor.”
Jones also uses tapioca maltodextrin to create bacon and foie gras powders for various applications.
Sous-vide, the dehydrator and molecular techniques join forces in Jones’ yellowfin tuna dish. He prepares the fish sous-vide, marinated with olive juice. He then accents a savory Meyer lemon pudding with house-made Meyer lemon powder. Scattered across the plate are shards of “glass,” pieces of thinly sliced, dehydrated Meyer lemon rounds. Wakame seaweed salad, pickled fennel and mâche finish the dish.
TEMPERATURE AND TEXTURE
Boll knows that fried ice cream may not be authentic Mexican fare. But his customers crave the combination of textural crunch with the cold ice cream flavors made locally to his specifications. Mexican chocolate ice cream is topped with spiced almonds; roasted banana and coffee ice cream is covered in coconut; and vanilla ice cream is capped with cornflakes. Boll scoops the ice cream into mini-waffle cones dipped in chocolate and held in the freezer, thus avoiding “soggy-cone” syndrome.
At P.F. Chang’s, each location cuts about 20 heads of lettuce per day for the chicken lettuce wraps, described as “quickly cooked spiced chicken served with cool lettuce cups.” Piazzi specifies that the heads are held in ice water to maintain crispness. The filling ingredients — chicken, mushrooms, onions and water chestnuts — are cut to similar size for textural harmony.
“Diners seem surprised and delighted by the crunch of the water chestnuts in the wraps,” says Piazzi. “A simple ingredient, water chestnuts are the spark of the textural mix that makes chicken wraps our best-selling item at all locations. The contrast of soft and hard, hot and cold reawakens the palate. Texture is the unsung hero of our food.”