Changing the physical state of something is an integral part of cooking. The liquid batter transforming into a cake, water turning to steam to cook veg, or butter melting to a liquid to fry food in, are all transformations that have been used in kitchens since time immemorial. Mastering these transformations can be the key to creating interesting dishes, and we’re going to be reaching for some chemicals to help us convert liquids into a particular form of solid: powders. These powders give us a way of adding flavour to dishes with a little flourish.
You can use them in a way similar to sauces but, as they don’t add liquid, they won’t make anything soggy.
Maltodextrin is a type of sugar; however, not all sugars have the same sweetness. General table sugar, or sucrose, is what we usually think of as adding sweetness, along with things like fruits (which also contain other sugars like fructose and glucose). These are all sugars and fairly sweet. Other things are not sugars, but taste sweet – the most famous are the sweeteners, such as aspartame and sodium saccharin, that are far more sweet than sucrose. A tiny amount of these can add sweetness to a large dish. Similarly, there are sugars that aren’t sweet, and maltodextrin is an example of this. The exact sweetness of maltodextrin does depend on the exact chemical make-up. It’s made of chains of identical molecules – the longer the chains, the lower the sweetness. Maltodextrin can vary between slightly sweet and hardly sweet at all, but it’s not easy to know what you’re getting when you make a purchase as it’s all classified as maltodextrin.
So, what use is a non-sweet sugar? Sugars absorb fats and oils, and this means we can use them to solidify things that would usually be runny. If you mix maltodextrin into something like olive oil or peanut butter, the result is a light, fluffy powder that still has the flavour of the original. Because maltodextrin also dissolves in water, when you eat these powders they transform back to a liquid in your mouth, quickly filling your tongue with the delicious flavour.
"Sugars absorb fats and oils and this means we can use them to solidify things that would usually be runny"
The process for making this is really simple. You have to start with something that’s high fat and low moisture. You then sprinkle on maltodextrin and mix until you’ve got something the right consistency. It’s hard to say exactly what ratio of the two you’ll need, as it depends on the exact make-up of your starting product. You’ll probably find that you need somewhere between one and four times the volume of maltodextrin as original liquid. With something like peanut butter, that’s already quite dry, you’ll need towards the lower end. With something like olive oil, that’s pure liquid, it’ll be on the higher end.
Obviously these aren’t going to be dishes in their own right, but they’re garnishes that add an extra layer to a dish. For example, peanut butter powder sprinkled on top of a chocolate dessert is delicious, while olive oil powder can add an extra layer of savoury deliciousness to almost anything.
It’s quite a limitation that we can only work with oil-based foods, so let’s look at another way of achieving a similar result – gellan gum. There are quite a few additives that turn liquids to gels, through various different mechanisms.
Gels are an odd physical state where a substance is mostly made up of liquid, but they have the properties of a solid because they contain solids dispersed throughout the liquid that impart form on the liquid. Gels can range from the soft to brittle. At one end of the scale, there’s jelly (that’s Jell-O to our transatlantic friends) that’s soft and wobbly. At the other end, there are more rigid gels.
Gellan gum comes in two forms – low acyl and high acyl. Both will form gels, but the low acyl kind will form the sort of rigid gel that we’re after. It’s fairly easy to use – just dissolve about 5 g of gellan gum per 100 ml of liquid while the liquid is cool, then heat it up to boiling point until it’s fully hydrated. At this point, pour it into a container for cooling. After a couple of hours, it should be fairly solid and you can use a fine cheese grater to convert this into a powder. This powder will retain its structure even at fairly high temperatures, so you can do this on hot food. What you use this for is up to you, but sprinkling some powdered fruit juice over a dessert adds a delicious tang without making anything soggy, while powdered vegetable juice can have a similar effect on savoury dishes
When you’re thinking of food condiments, powders are probably top of your list, even if you don’t realise it. Salt or pepper are, after all, powders. This form makes it really easy to add to a dish and pump up the flavour, without altering the dish in any other way. The golden rule when it comes to condiments it to make sure it’s packed with flavour. Whichever method you use to create your powder, you need to start with something full of taste, otherwise it risks getting lost in the dish, and as you’ll only be adding a little, there’s not much risk of overpowering the main flavour.
This story is an excerpt from HackSpace magazine Issue #14. Interested in regular updates from the world of making? Join thousands of other readers in becoming a HackSpace magazine subscriber.