When you think about appetizing food attributes, what words come to mind?
The crispness of a water chestnut. The juicy firmness of a blanched carrot. The chewiness of a piece of turkey jerky. The tenderness of a well-prepared filet mignon.
What texture words seem negative to you, off the cuff? Slimy? Viscous? Stale? Tough?
And what of taste? The savory taste of a garlic-buttered crouton. The spicy taste of barbecued pork. How about the mild sweetness of a vine-ripened tomato?
Take away the savory taste of that crouton and you're left with stale bread. Take the sweetness out of the tomato and you're left with something slimy rolling around on your tongue. The point?
Texture and taste work in tandem to produce mouthfeel — the organoleptic (or, overall sensory) experience a consumer receives when he or she samples a food. They are interdependent, and food brands need to consider them equally when developing new products.
As any winemaker could tell you, adding sugar not only sweetens a liquid, it builds body. A grill master will tell you that dusting a blend of salt, sugar and spices over a steak will not only improve the taste, but will impart a certain amount of crispness to the surface as the sugar caramelizes and improve the juiciness of the meat as the salt and spices dissolve into the steak and increase its ability to retain fluids.
The trickiest thing about mouthfeel is that it's not only dependent upon the ingredients that go into a food — it's also dependent on how those ingredients are mixed (or not mixed), on the chosen method of cooking, temperature and time, and, to a certain extent, it's dependent on the skill and subjective preferences of the cook.
Assuring that all consumers experience the same mouthfeel every time for a given food product is a little like trying to put lightning in a bottle. It can be an elusive goal, even for the best food developers and the best chefs.
Is there any way to improve mouthfeel consistency?
Certainly. Ensuring consistency in quality and quantity of ingredients is probably the easiest. But that still leaves a lot of chaos to tame on the preparation side. How does one ensure consistency in the cook?
A reliable and forgiving style of food prep – like sous vide — can be a powerful ally. Due to its low-temperature and slow cooking times, sous vide is very forgiving.
Boiling, baking, grilling and other traditional cooking styles call for using a high temperature to bring a dish quickly to its serving temperature — that means overshooting an intended cooking time even by a minute or two can be disastrous for both taste and texture. Flavorful juices can be boiled away. Sauces or marinades can caramelize too early. Surfaces can burn and become tough.
But because the highest sous vide cook temperature is comparatively low, you’re less prone to unforeseen and undesirable chemical reactions between the constituent ingredients. The intended mouthfeel becomes less elusive.
When targeting a particular mouthfeel, you must control everything you can.
Be sure to carefully consider your ingredients and the way they will interact on a consumer's palate. If you are taking sugar out and substituting agave, for example, you must account for the accordant textural change in mouthfeel.
Don't be afraid to adjust your ingredient list or prep procedure to improve mouthfeel, if warranted. You might need to consider adding a natural, full-bodied texturant. Or maybe you should consider using a different sweetener with a texture similar to sugar.
Finally, be sure to experiment with cooking methods and times and find the solution that allows for the widest margin of error in the cook. Developing your product around a sous vide prep gives you a larger degree of control over the cooking procedure and, thus, over the consumer's experience.