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How to measure and analyse the texture of food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and adhesives.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

The Importance of Texture in Food

Take gummy mashed potatoes, leathery dried apples, and limp celery. We spurn them all, because their texture – the way they feel on the tongue, lips, hard palate, or teeth – is offputting.

Most people obsess over the flavour of everything from ice cream to chocolate – but the professionals, food scientists and chefs alike, know that crispiness, creaminess and chewiness is just as important. Texture is big business and the science of food structure even has its own 'ology': food rheology.

And yet in the everyday enjoyment of eating, texture is often considered the poor relation of taste and smell (US research found that textural awareness was often subconscious). But the professionals know all too well that, while the sensory spotlight may fall on flavour when we’re savouring a mouthful, get the texture wrong and it’s game over – we’ll reject it outright. People take texture for granted until something is wrong with it.

Creating Textures in the Kitchen

In Coi: Stories and Recipes (Phaidon) the Californian restaurateur Daniel Patterson argues that “after seasoning, texture is the most important element of our cooking”. Patterson sees texture as “the delivery mechanism for flavour”. Sometimes you might want a thin broth that “disappears quickly”, other times a “viscous gel” that lasts longer. A good meal mixes up things that snap and things that melt or flow.

Whether a texture is pleasing or not is largely a matter of context. Graininess is desirable in parmesan, but a disaster in hollandaise. Waxy potatoes are divine but waxy chocolate is horrid. A lovely book from 1957 called Cooking for Texture, by Josephine Emlee, elaborates some of the ways that texture can go wrong or right. Emlee celebrates the “joyous” wobble of a good jelly and the glossy plumpness of a triple-cooked mushroom, but thinks boiled celery “a disagreeable blend of stringiness and jellification”. She warns of sauces that turn from velvet to “corduroy”, of “bitty” consommé and meat “stewed to a rag”.

Identifying Food by Texture

Not only does texture have a casting vote over a food’s acceptability, it is also essential in identifying it. When researchers puréed and strained foods, young adults of normal weight were only able to identify 40.7% of them. Flavour alone is not enough.

We are incredibly sensitive to texture. Touch is of course the primary sense we use to determine it, but kinesthetics (the sense of movement and position), sound (crunch: good; squeak: bad) and sight are also involved. 

We can detect ice crystals in ice cream measuring 40 microns (or 1/25th of a millimeter). Millions are spent in research and development to deter the growth of these harmless crystals. This is also why ice cream made with liquid nitrogen is so prized. It freezes so fast that the crystals are weeny, giving the creamiest mouth feel.

Foods must woo the senses

A good dish will use all the customers senses to make the dish special. Texture is the sense of touch. In food it’s the second most difficult to pull off well. The hardest being auditory. Contrasting textures add much needed depth and can lift a dish. A monotone textured dish is more likely to be remembered as monotone all around.

Sometimes it’s there and we don’t even think about it. Take a creme brûlée for example. It’s a baked custard with a burnt sugar top. Now imagine the creme brûlée without the crunch from the burned sugar. It should still taste great, but lacks in depth. It’s completely different without the crunch.

It’s a small detail that makes a significant difference. Have contrasting textures on a plate. If the elements are all soft the customer can feel like they’re on a blender food plan. If the textures are too firm it can be chewy and discomforting on the customer's jaw. 

Another consideration one must take into consideration is off putting textures. A lot of people think oysters for example have a terrible texture to them. I’m not saying don’t serve oysters by any means, but take the texture into consideration as to not alienate the customer. Texture is one of our five senses used when dining. It’s important that restaurants use all five of the customers senses to make the dining experience special.

This article was inspired by other original articles: 

The Importance of Texture in Food (The Telegraph)

The Importance of Food Texture (FOODStuff South Africa) 

The Importance of a Food's Texture (Tylers Culinary blog) 

For more information on how to measure texture, please visit the Texture Analysis Properties section on our website.

TA.XTplus texture analyser with bloom jar The
TA.XTplus texture analyser is part of a family of texture analysis instruments and equipment from Stable Micro Systems. An extensive portfolio of specialist attachments is available to measure and analyse the textural properties of a huge range of food products. Our technical experts can also custom design instrument fixtures according to individual specifications.

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