Intensity of flavor

Most cooks will know to agree that “Intensity of flavor is important.”  It just sounds delicious.  But I haven’t come across an instructional cookbook that explains why exactly it’s important or how it’s achieved.  I think I’ve learned something about these in my recent carrot soups.  More of the things restaurant chefs say about intensity of flavor make sense to me now.

By Ondřej Karlík (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ondřej Karlík (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Supermarket carrots aren’t sweet

I’ve never been happy making carrot soup.  Mine have been either too starchy or too weak.  This surprised me given the carrot’s reputation.  Here’s Harold McGee on sugar content (see p. 306):

Carrots and parsnips contain less starch than potatoes and are notably sweet; they may be 5% sugars, a mixture of sucros, glucose, and fructose.  Carrots have found their way into cakes and sugar preserves in the West, are shredded and sweetened for rice dishes in Iran, and in India are cooked down in milk to make a vegetable kind of fudge (halwa)

and on aromas:

“The distinctive aroma of carrots is due largely to terpenes (p. 273), and is a composite of pine, wood, oil, citrus, and turpentine notes; cooking add a violet-like note from fragmented carotene” (p. 307).

That’s the theory.  Here’s Dan Barber on the practice:

Mr. Barber: There’s the quick example. We’ve proved this finally. We grew a variety of carrots called Mokum carrots in the middle of February. We picked them out of the ground. Jack Algiere is the Stone Barns Center farmer, a four-seasons farmer. He picked them out and we brought them to the kitchen and we took a Brix test. We squeezed a little bit of carrot juice on a refractometer, which measures part per billion of sugar, and it registered this Mokum carrot 13.8 on the refractometer. Now for all of you, you should be gasping. It’s OK. I didn’t gasp either.

Ms. Tippett: We’re trying to be quiet.

Mr. Barber: I had no idea what that meant. It means, I’ve since learned, that 13.8 percent of this small carrot was pure sugar. When I looked up a Mokum carrot on the Internet to find out what an average Brix number would be, the highest I got was 12, so it was literally off the charts. Now we, just for curiosity sake, took a Brix measuring of a carrot that we used for stocks in the restaurant. It’s an organic carrot, the kind of carrot you’d find in like a Whole Foods, so it’s a high-quality organic carrot. What did it measure on the Brix? 0.0.

Supermarket carrots aren’t sweet.  The Brix may also indicate an overall lack of flavor (see the last sentence):

Mr. Barber: ….there’s increasingly a direct connection between Brix levels and nutrient density, which is really interesting when you think about it and it makes sense to us. I mean, you just think about it as sort of axiomatically. Of course, the best-flavored food would also be the healthiest and the most nutrient dense. But there’s actually studies now that are showing that the highest concentration of nutrient density can be covered in that higher Brix, which goes back to Michael Pollan’s point is that not long ago we were hunter-gatherers trying to figure out what was good for us and for our children and healthy. And if we’re hard-wired to go for that sugar and that flavor, we’re also going for the best nutrient density and, as it turns out, the best ecological decisions for a farm.

This explains the weak flavor of my soups.  Intensity of flavor begins with ingredients.  Of course.  This is obvious.  Yet I needed to get consistently bad results to learn this lesson.

Solutions from technique

Suppose, for sake of argument, that I won’t grow carrots (looking likely) or find better carrots (not sure).  Can technique help?

I found a write-up by Thomas Keller on “extracting these flavors in their purest form.”  Technique also determines intensity of flavor.  Some of these techniques require only basic skills:

The soup recipes here demonstrate the variety of tools we use to extract these flavors in their purest form. Some (gazpacho and vichyssoise) are practically meals unto themselves, while others (corn soup and carrot consommé) are meant more as a palate-awakening amuse bouche.

Some are quite simple to make. For the gazpacho, you just chill the ingredients overnight to marry the flavors and then purée (straining afterward will give you a more elegant result).

Cucumber vichyssoise is only a little more complicated. For this recipe, a juicer really helps, though if you don’t have one you can simply blend the cucumbers and then strain them.

Some of these are more demanding:

Other soups are more involved but repay the effort. For the corn soup, you cook some corn kernels sous-vide and juice the rest. Then you make a corn stock from the cobs. Finally, you bring them all together with reduced cream to create a silky texture and really intense flavor.

For the carrot consomme, cold-clarify juiced carrots — thicken it with gelatin to suspend the solids, then freeze it and slowly defrost it in a strainer in the refrigerator over several days. The result is almost crystal clear but incredibly fragrant.

But as I’ve noted before, sous vide is a simple technique that requires complicated equipment.  To get the flavorof cold clarification, this Cooking Issues post on agar clarification may help.  (I’m not sure why there is a difference in names.  Maybe different gelatins are used.  I don’t use these techniques.)

Back to ingredients

I can’t spare the money or counter space for a juicer.  The farm stand isn’t yet open and I’ve gone with other seeds for the spring.  However, I found carrot juice at my local Wegmans.  The only ingredient is carrots and the consistency is nice and thin.  As soon as I saw the bottle, I knew what I was going to do… and it worked!  See the recipe at the end of the post for details.

Once more on intensity of flavor

I’m far from an expert on attaining it.  I have learned more about it, and internalized more through trial-and-error.

Holding techniques constant, better ingredients provide more intense flavors.  Better ingredients require less technique.  As a practical matter, it’s worth testing the same ingredient from different  sources, and different varieties within the same ingredient.

Ingredients express themselves through techniques.  The more thoughtfully techniques are applied, the higher the flavor yield from each ingredient.  It’s worth experimenting with techniques and learning new ones if unhappy with current results.  Cookbooks are especially valuable in this respect.

Carrot soup

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Best Recipes in the World.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tbsp butter
  • 1 shallot
  • 1/2 potato
  • 1 lb carrot
  • 2 cups stock
  • 1/2 cup carrot juice
  • 1/4 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
  • Salt and pepper

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a small pot or saucepan over medium heat.  Chop the shallot, potato, and carrot (removing the peels).  Sweat the chopped vegetables.
  2. Add the stock and cook the vegetables through.
  3. Turn the heat to low, puree the soup, and add the carrot juice .  You should add enough carrot juice to make the carrot flavor shine through.  Correct seasoning and serve.
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