Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavoring Choices

Spices and flavors have been used for thousands of years all over the world. So much of our food would be pretty bland without these ingredients. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to explore this world of Flavors and Flavoring.

Did you know if you combine lemon, banana, raspberry and pineapple essences that you end up with strawberry? I sure didn’t know that but people who are educated and trained as Flavorists know this and so much more. These scientists have looked at items that bring us flavor such as fruits, vegetables, spices and leaves. Through their investigations, they have identified “flavoring substances” and how they work together to please our palates.

As the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) points out, there are hundreds of natural substances in a strawberry that lead to what we taste as strawberry flavor. Flavorists isolate these compounds to develop a strawberry flavor that we can add to our foods. They also design new flavor combinations that we love to try.

Do you look forward to those new Lay’s potato chip flavors each year? (The most recent offering – Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup – was supposed to be on shelves October 21.) How do they do it? According to FEMA, “when a food company decides it wants to introduce a new product to consumers … they often contact flavorists at companies that specialize in creating flavors, and they ask them to create a flavor that meets their requirements and will be appealing to the consumer.”

If you look at an ingredient list on a product, you may see “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”. We probably all prefer the term “natural” but they may not be that very different. FEMA’s definition is “Natural flavors are ingredients that come from natural sources such as a spice, fruit, or vegetable.  They can even come from herbs, barks, roots, or similar plant materials.  Natural flavors also come from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.”

And, “artificial flavors are flavorings that don’t meet the definition of natural flavor. There isn’t much difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings.  What is different is the source.  For example, an artificial strawberry flavor may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.” Of course, companies must abide by the FDA’s rules, which are found here, if you are interested. Other countries have their own rules.

Many times, we home cooks use flavoring extracts in our cooking and baking. I am sure we all have extracts in our pantry but what are they? FEMA defines them as “a solution that contains essential components of a complex material.  A flavor extract is such a solution, but composed specifically of compounds that create flavors.”

The most commonly used in the USA is Vanilla. I have written another Cooking Tip on Vanilla and it can be found here. What other ones do you have in your pantry? Besides vanilla, I have almond, anise, banana, lemon, orange, peppermint, raspberry and spearmint. There are many more, of course. Just check out your favorite supermarket or online supplier.

One little tidbit I want to tell you is that you will often see “Mint” extract on the shelves. You may also see “Peppermint” and less commonly “Spearmint”. If it just says “Mint”, it is most likely a mixture of peppermint and spearmint. If you are using it to make those holiday baked treats, you probably want pure peppermint. Plain mint can be used but will give you a slightly different taste.

There is also something relatively new to our supermarket shelves and that is flavoring pastes. Once again, vanilla paste is the most common but there are others. They all usually have natural flavors but also often have sugar or corn syrup as well as some sort of thickener (Gum Tragacanth , Xantham Gum, Carrageenan). The company with the most varieties is Taylor & Colledge.

If you look at a bottle of any kind of extract, you will always see alcohol. That is because it is used in the distillation process. There are those that say because alcohol evaporates during baking, extracts are not the best forms of flavor for baked goods. Rather, they recommend saving your extracts for cold applications such as beverages or sorbet. Here is a video from Natures Flavors that explains that.

This company recommends using “flavor concentrates” or “flavor emulsions” in baking. Here is a video about the concentrates and one about the emulsions. According to the company, these items are “extremely concentrated water soluble liquids containing no alcohol or sugar and are set in a Natural Gum Acacia Base.” They are made to withstand high temperatures, making them the preferred use in baking.

For even more info, check out this video that contrasts extracts with concentrates with oils and powders. I give you these links because I think this company explains things well. I have not tried their products (they do look fun, though) and they are not the only producer in the market.

I suspect that most of us home cooks use these kinds of flavorings in the extract form. We have done that for years and I would think that practice will continue to be the main one we use. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will see that there is more to flavoring than just extracts. Just have fun in adding flavor to your foods and let me know how it goes!