In cooking, achieving a well-balanced synergy of flavours involves a Chef’s knowledge of what food items or chemical compounds affect the sense of the sweetness of a dish.
Sweetness is produced by the presence of sugars, some proteins and a few other substances affecting our tongue’s taste receptors.
The chemically different compounds that activate our tongue’s sweet taste receptors include:
- sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose)
- artificial sweeteners (e.g., saccharin, aspartame, cyclamate)
- sweet amino acids (d-tryptophan, d-phenylalanine, d-serine)
- sweet proteins (monellin, brazzein, thaumatin).
Chefs typically reach out for white and brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, agave, Demerara, Turbinado, and fruits and vegetables like onions, carrots, and beets to sweeten cooking and baking flavours.
But Chefs know that simply making food sweet is not the end game for sugar and other similar sweet elements:
Sweet calms down the other taste elements present in a dish.
Our tongue receptors play their gustatory dynamics. The five tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami) respond and interact with each other. Depending on the most concentrated substance, the rest of the receptors adjust it either by enhancing or even suppressing it. If there are aggressive flavours in the dish, adding sweetness can tame them or add fullness to tame sharp flavours, such as when adding maple syrup or honey to a vinaigrette. Another example is if you are using bitter chocolate in baking. When you reduce the sweet elements, it will result in a more bitter product.
Sugar enhances flavour.
Like salt, sugar is a flavour enhancer. It goes to say that when baking chocolate chip cookies, the flavours of chocolate, vanilla and butter will be less apparent when you reduce the sweet elements used, making the final product bland.
Sugar can emphasise the flavours of naturally-sweet ingredients, such as when adding a teaspoon of sugar to sliced strawberries.
Sweetness enhances the perception of richness in a sauce, soup or broth. The sweetness can result from slow-cooked vegetables or simply adding a pinch of sugar.
Caramelisation or the browning of the natural sugars in ingredients, when exposed to heat, can result in sweetness. Sulphur rich vegetables such as onions develop rich sweet flavours as a result of the sulphur breaking down in the heat. Most vegetables that are naturally low in acid and high in sugars, such as carrots, and cabbage family members, lend themselves best to caramelising. Vegetables and fruits have varying natural sugar content, so some caramelise faster than others.
Indirectly, the browning of complex sugars in meats called the Maillard Reaction can also lend a complex mild sweetening effect.
It is important to note that adding too much sweetness will make a dish heavy and dense.
Sugar adds moisture to the food.
Sugars help baked goods retain moisture because of their strong affinity for water. On a molecular level, sugar is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and contains a hydroxyl group, which makes the molecule very soluble. It makes sugar quickly bond with other molecules and, in doing so, helps to hold on to the moisture of foods.
A note: baked goods that use honey and similar liquid sweeteners lose water more slowly than if made with table sugar.
Sugar adds volume and produces fluffier baked goods.
Most baked goods undergo creaming, where softened butter and sugar are beaten together. This is to create air bubbles that will result in a fluffier product. The granules of sugars are trapped between the molecules of fat. If less than the desired amount of sugar is used, it will result in a denser product with a greasier mouth feel.
RELATED READ: Understanding The Elements of Taste: Salt
Sugar helps create structure.
When making meringues, the sugar stabilises the egg whites. It prevents it from being over-beaten by slowing down foam production. It then prevents the foam from collapsing by dissolving in the water bubbles. It results in a thicker mixture, and while baking, it holds onto the water until the proteins in the egg whites have set.
Sugar helps create a creamy and rich texture in ice cream by slowing down the freezing process during churning.
Sugar helps to tenderise baked goods.
Sugar tenderises through mixing. Gluten is prevented from forming due to the sugar absorbing much of the liquid in the mixture. Sweeter batters and doughs are generally more tender than doughs and batters with little or no sugar. Too much gluten can result in harder chewing baked goods.
I have yet to find a study that directly mentions its effect on meat proteins, but here is an entry from Bon Appetit on how adding sugar can make your steak a bit better.
Sugar provides crunch or texture.
Sugar can also provide crunchy textures to the exterior of baked food items. When moisture evaporates from the food surface during baking, the dissolved sugars are re-crystallised, creating crunchy crusts.
Sugar preserves and delays spoilage.
Sugar delays food spoilage through its humectant property. Sugar draws in water and moisture from its environment. And when there is a high sugar concentration, water is drawn to sugar via osmosis. This sucks up water that bacteria thrive in, causing them to lose water. Without enough water, the bacteria can’t grow or divide.
Sugar helps slow or prevent the growth of bacteria in jams and preserves. Because of its preserving characteristics, it helps to prolong the shelf life of many foods sold in supermarkets and is used extensively in home-based food preservation.
Sugar and similar sweet elements have many roles aside from simply sweetening food. It affects the chemistry of food which is a piece of vital knowledge when changing or adapting a recipe.
That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!
Ciao for now,