(A version of this article was originally posted in Issue #4 of Pastry Arts Magazine)
The elemental goal of culinary arts is to give people a pleasurable sensory experience, which entails much more than an exceptional taste and wonderful visual presentation.
In the past years, witnessing the rapid development of neuro-gastronomy – a scientific field dedicated to studying every possible aspect of our eating experience – chefs all over the world have become conscious that being able to create, modify and combine textures might be the key to unlocking consumers’ satisfaction.
From this perspective, we can see that nowadays understanding and mastering textures is a prerequisite for pastry and savory chefs alike. And since among pastry textures creaminess might just be the most desirable one, it seems justified to devote some time to understand its basic technical principles.
We all seem to know when a food product, like yogurt, cheese, ice cream or chocolate is abundant in or lacks creaminess. Studies report that both food professionals and untrained tasters usually agree as to whether a given food is creamy or not, which suggests that the perception of creaminess is a basic skill that we all possess. But while the perception of creaminess might not cause us any problems, defining it is another matter.
The definition of creaminess seems to be constantly evolving as this – primarily textural – food property has also been linked with some taste, smell and color characteristics of food products. What this means is that we experience creaminess not only through the touch receptors in our mouth, but also through our sense of sight, smell and taste. This, in return, provides some explanation as to why creamy textures are often described as smooth or velvety, but also rich, buttery or mouthcoating. All these descriptions of texture, mouthfeel and even taste contain important clues regarding the physicochemical properties of creamy foods. Let’s start with richness.
Creamy textures provide a pleasant, rich mouthfeel that for a long time has been associated with dairy products with high-fat content.
Undoubtedly, fat contributes largely to our perception of creaminess by changing how the food moves through our mouth. A sorbet passes through our mouth so quickly that it barely mixes with the saliva, rapidly changing its physical state from ice and sugar crystals to a flavored solution of water and sugar. Full-fat ice cream, on the other hand, lingers in our mouth. The milk fat molecules do not dissolve right away, but instead coat our tongue, providing the thickness and roundness we expect from creamy textures.
In order to build a creamy texture, we need fat (or, in some cases, an ingredient mimicking the properties of fat), but not just any kind of fat. We need a fat with a specific melting point. Think of two words describing textural properties of a food: buttery and oily. Why is it that buttery is associated with creaminess and oily is not? For instance, butter and olive oil are both fats, but the important distinction between the two is that they have very different melting points. The fats that procure a creamy sensation are usually the fats with a melting point around human body temperature (37 degrees): butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil, etc. These fats literally melt in our mouth.
Emulsions are structures that help us build creamy textures.
Choosing an appropriate fat, nonetheless, is not enough as fat alone procures a fatty rather than creamy sensation. The reason why cream, butter or chocolate give as a soft, pleasant mouthfeel is that they are all emulsions – homogenous unions of fat and water. We all know that oil and water do not mix. That is, until we mix them with a small molecule called an emulsifier. An emulsifier is composed of both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (oil-loving) parts and is responsible for bringing and holding together the water and fat molecules. In traditional pastry, egg yolk (lecithin and lipoproteins), and milk proteins (casein and whey proteins) act as emulsifiers, but modern pastry offers as a variety of ingredients that can be used to create emulsions.
Another important factor when talking about emulsions and creaminess is how the size of the fat droplets influences our perception of creaminess. In an oil-in-water emulsion the fat droplets are dispersed in the water medium with the aid of a whisk, hand-blender or a homogenizer. This mechanical action breaks down the fat droplets into smaller units and allows them to remain “suspended” in water. The smaller the fat droplets in an emulsion, the more we perceive the emulsion as smooth and velvety.
The last part of the creamy equation is viscosity. In simple words, viscosity describes how easily liquids flow. Milk has a relatively low viscosity, while yogurt has a much higher one. Even though they have a very similar fat content (around 3.2-3.5%), the difference in viscosity accounts for our perception of creaminess of yogurt vs. milk. Some ingredients have physicochemical properties that naturally help us increase viscosity. The coagulation of milk proteins and eggs is how pastry cream and crème anglaise turn from runny liquids into smooth and thick textures. If we decide not to use milk proteins or eggs, we can still increase the viscosity of a given preparation by using hydrocolloids (starches, gums, pectin, etc.), which we will see in the recipe example that follows.
Chestnut cream recipe – a comparative
[B·Concept is a method developed by Jordi Bordas for creating healthier, lighter and tastier recipes from scratch. This method – based on an analysis of all the technical and physicochemical principles behind different pastry textures – allows us to create gel, creamy and airy textures that are healthier, lighter and have maximum flavor.]
In order to demonstrate that creaminess is not dependent on the use of certain ingredients (like, for example, high-fat dairy products), but rather on the technical principles explained in this article, we have created two recipes of chestnut cream. We called the first one “classic” as we are using cream, egg yolks and butter. The second one is a vegan recipe containing no dairy or egg products. The result are two recipes with comparable levels of creaminess albeit different fat content and caloric values.
CLASSIC RECIPE PROCESS
- Mix together the sugar and the pectin.
- Heat the puree, cream and egg yolks to 45ºC and stir in the previous mixture.
- Heat to 85ºC, stirring constantly, and cool to 35ºC.
- Heat the butter to 40ºC and stir in the previous preparation, working vigorously with a hand blender.
- Cool in the refrigerator and use.
VEGAN RECIPE PROCESS
- Mix together the inulin and pectin.
- Heat the puree and water to 45ºC and stir in the inulin mixture.
- Heat to 85ºC, stirring constantly, and cool to 40ºC.
- Heat the coconut fat to 35ºC and mix with the sunflower oil, add the emulsifier and gradually fold in the previous preparation, vigorously emulsifying with a hand blender.
- Cool in the refrigerator and use.
While the classic recipe relies on cream, egg yolks and butter for creaminess and on pectin for extra viscosity, the vegan recipe builds creaminess using only chestnut puree, water, coconut oil and an emulsifier. Coconut oil – with a melting point very close to that of butter (28-35ºC) – allows us to create a soft texture. And the addition of sunflower oil increases the elasticity of the creamy (needed for the decoration of our individual cake ). Emulsion between the aqueous part of the recipe (chestnut puree and water) and the fats (coconut and sunflower oil) is formed with the help of Natur emul – an emulsifier composed of citrus fiber. And the viscosity is controlled on one hand by pectin, and on the other by Xanthan gum present in the emulsifier’s formula.
Both recipes give us a creamy mouthfeel, but the recipe without dairy and eggs has a purer, more pronounced chestnut flavor. It is also lighter in terms of fat and calorie content and has a slightly darker color. The recipes have similar sugar content and sweetness level, since most of the sugars in both recipes come from chestnut puree. Substitutions that we made for the chestnut cream can be applied for many other creamy recipes, proving that – upon a good understanding of its principles – creaminess can be achieved with any set of ingredients.
To sum up, creating creamy textures relies on three basic principles: (1) choosing a fat with an appropriate melting point, (2) making an emulsion, and – if needed – (3) changing the viscosity of the preparation. This list does not exhaust all the other sensory factors contributing to our perception of creaminess (such as color, aroma, etc.), but it is the technical base that helps us decode what makes a texture creamy. When we understand the foundations behind different food textures, we are no longer limited by traditional recipes or ingredients. We can design textures of all kinds, giving people a truly unique eating experience.
Photo Credits: Jordi Bordas, Martí Sans
World Pastry Cup Champion 2011
CEO of Jordi Bordas’ Pastry School
Jordi Bordas is a pastry chef who is revolutionizing the pastry field. After becoming the World Pastry Champion at Sirha – Lyon in 2011, he started to investigate pastry ingredients and techniques, which led him to create the B·Concept – his own method to create healthier, lighter and tastier recipes from scratch. In his pastry school in Viladecans (Catalunya, Spain), he is teaching pastry professionals the scientific principles behind different pastry textures and how to use them to formulate recipes adapted to their needs.
 Mouritsen, O., Styrbæk, K., & JOHANSEN, M. (2017). Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste. New York: Columbia University Press, p.106.
 Kirkmeyer, S.V. and Tepper, B. Understanding Creaminess Perception of Dairy Products Using Free-Choice Profiling and Genetic Responsivity to 6-n-Propoylthiouracil. Chemical Senses, 28, 527-536.
 In the vegan recipe we have substituted added sugar for inulin – chicory root fiber that is an excellent bulking agent, as well as a prebiotic. This substitution is not necessary for building creaminess, but it keeps the added sugar amount in the recipe in check, while still giving us some sweetness (inulin has a relative sweetness of 10% compared to sugar). It also makes the recipe healthier by increasing its fiber content.