By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
For years, we’ve been taught to avoid ingredients on labels that we don’t recognize, can’t pronounce, or aren’t whole foods. However, for some chefs, a few of these ingredients are modern day links between wholesome foods and flawless presentation.
Chefs, at heart, are purists. Often times, their goals are to hone their craft naturally and organically. To paraphrase an old French saying: “Seek out the highest quality ingredients, and don’t screw them up.”
We want to keep the essence of flavors honest and unadulterated. After all, we chefs are the gatekeepers with regards to how we think Americans should eat.
Starting in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, packaging began including words we had not seen before: guar gum, dextrin and xanthan gum to name a few. Chefs and nutritionists led the charge, telling us these were ingredients to avoid. We shouldn’t be incorporating these ingredients into our foods. After all, what was guar? And why was gum in my salad dressing?
But then chefs like Spaniard Ferran Adrià, the widely regarded father of avant-garde cuisine, came along and turned our view of food and cooking on its head. He made paper out of asparagus, puffy clouds out of mushrooms, and numerous other creations most chefs still marvel at today. He made waves in the culinary field and the world took notice.
In Adrià’s wake, chefs began experimenting with gum, for example, years ago; the public just didn’t know it. The Spanish were early pioneers in these new directions. The French weren’t far behind. And not to be outdone, American chefs were collectively on the heels of these culinary pioneers, creating such interesting trends as “tongue-in-cheek” dishes like Wylie Dufresne’s “hollandaise sauce” – egg yolks and xanthan gum cooked in a cylinder at a perfect temperature.
Fast forward: You’re at a restaurant and you just tasted the most amazing sauce. You ask what’s in it, you go shopping, and you set out to recreate your memory.
You arrive at the moment of truth: Your sauce is good, but not quite the same. Or, maybe the texture doesn’t have that silkiness that was as much a part of the experience as was the flavor. Chances are you’re missing a bit of dextrin to add an “umami” component for a tingle in the mouth, or a small pinch of xanthan gum to create a certain texture.
Additives and emulsifying aids that we shunned for years are now the focal point of some modern day chefs. More importantly, learning the potential of these components has catapulted chefs into a world where flavorists and scientists have been living for years. After all, these products are derived from simple, familiar foods such as sugar, starch, beans, and corn.
While some ingredients on labels can intimidate even a chef, many are actually fun, useful, and harmless. It just takes a bit of curiosity and creativity to utilize them successfully.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.