(This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
One of the most reliable constants in the food industry is change. In particular, chefs are always on the lookout for ways to update their repertoire and keep it from getting too predictable. Often, their focus is on finding new flavors.
According to Chef Jansen Chan of New York’s International Culinary Center, “Utilizing new ingredients in the food industry is commonplace – chefs always want new flavors to play with. Some are trends, and only time will tell which will have staying power. I remember, for example, when goat cheese in desserts was everywhere.” In the past year or so, insect flour has crept to the forefront as a fresh new flavor, texture, and protein source that pastry chefs and bakers can incorporate into their usual offerings for a fresh take on already familiar desserts and baked goods.
The consumption of bugs as a food source is nothing new. “Insect consumption by humans is historically and geographically an old, widespread phenomenon – not a new trend by any means,” says Aly Moore, the ‘largest brand ambassador’ for insects as food and the driving force behind Bugible, a popular blog that details the science, history, and innovation that is currently happening in the food industry.
While the human race has been eating bugs for thousands of years, the use of bug powder in baking and pastry is still relatively new. Experimentation in the form of recipe testing is the professional’s best bet, and the texture isn’t the only important factor to consider.
There is also the flavor of the various bugs, and Moore reports that there are three unofficial flavor categories of bugs: “The first is nutty and earthy. Crickets and mealworms are examples of bugs that taste a little like seeds, nuts, or mushrooms. The second is fishy and seafood-like. Locusts and scorpions are examples of bugs that have been compared to crab. The third is meaty and savory – sago grubs are often called the bacon of the bug world.”
Bug flour is best described as a powder. Discussing cricket powder, Chef Chan notes that “it is not a substitute as a starch. It is water soluble and thus impacts hydration in your baking. Treating cricket flour as cocoa powder will give you a good starting point in recipe development; it is intense in flavor, absorbs a lot of moisture, and [is] fine in texture.”
Chef Chan found that a 10 to 15 % replacement ratio with the cricket powder was most successful. He had a great deal of success making chocolate cookies and gluten-free scones with this ratio, while with buttermilk biscuits there was a greater amount of hydration needed, and unlike with his cookies and scones, the texture was too dense. He also felt that the flavor of the cricket powder was too dominant, coming across as “very pronounced and intense.” Yet the addition of a subtle savory note in baked goods and desserts can add a compelling complexity, and a great way to balance the intense flavor of locust, cricket, or other bug flour is to pair it with sweet flavors like chocolate (as Chef Chan did in his chocolate chip cookies) or with orange and raisins, as he did with his gluten-free scones.
As with the consumption of pork, eating bugs in any form is prohibited by tenets of Islam and Judaism. Customers who eat or shop in establishments that aren’t Halal or Kosher might still assume that all the ingredients in an item are acceptable, and the fact that bug flour was included in their muffin could be an unwelcome surprise. Purists in both faiths have some disagreement about the matter; some Jews and Muslims note that (according to religious texts) there are certain types of locusts that are permitted for human consumption, although many observant Jews believe that as the exact type of locust that is allowed has been lost in time, no locusts should be consumed.
Religious dietary restrictions aside, there are some good reasons to consider adding bug flour to your baking repertoire. In addition to the novelty of using it, there are considerable environmental and nutritional benefits to eating bugs as protein. The consumption of bugs benefits human health – they are a high-fiber, lean protein – and the environment (they use far less water, acres of land, and feed than livestock, for example). And if used properly, bug flour won’t have a notable visual difference or flavor. So order a selection of bug flour, let go of those preconceived notions of insects being ‘dirty little creatures’, and hop (or crawl) to it.