Thursday, November 15, 2012

#foodchem: Secret ingredients, secret recipes

This is written for Central Science's food chemistry (#foodchem) carnival.

Where would dessert be without it?
Credit: misanthopology101
At grad school gatherings, a good friend would always bring his mother's special dessert. This stuff was incredible; it was creamy, chocolatey and crunchy and utterly delicious. It represented everything that was warm and friendly and homey about the American Midwest, even as it may have been bitterly cold outside.

Naturally, he was sworn to secrecy about the ingredients and the recipe and (honorably, rightly) refused to give it out. I was reminded of that when I read a recent column in The Atlantic when drink columnist Wayne Curtis visited the Benedictine distillery in F├ęcamp, France and talked about the secret recipe for the liqueur:
That notebook, in turn, had been associated with the Benedictine monks, who she said had helped devise the recipe. Any chance that I might glimpse this exalted tome? “No, it’s not here,” the guide said. “The location is a secret that nobody knows. We just know that it’s in a safe place.”...  
[In reference to other distillery tours] A top-secret formula is usually involved, known only to a small cabal. (At the Angostura bitters plant in Trinidad, I was told that only three people alive hold a key to the room where the barks and spices are mixed.) 
The author goes on to talk to chemist and absinthe distiller T. A. Breaux, who addresses the science nicely.
“Big spirits makers have chemists on staff, and if they’re worth a damn, there’s not a whole lot that you can keep secret,” says the chemist T. A. Breaux. Determining the exact processes used to extract flavor from a liquor’s various ingredients can be trickier. “You can do steam distillation, maceration, or ethanolic distillation,” Breaux says, and the tastes of the resulting products will vary widely. But he adds that here, too, chemical analysis can crack the code. “Anything can be resolved eventually, depending on one’s determination,” Breaux says. He cites Chartreuse and Campari—two liqueurs whose ingredients are guarded with particular secrecy—as examples of products he could probably figure out if he so chose. 
Chemistry is different, of course; intellectual property both protects patent holders from infringement, yet forces them to reveal the contents of their drugs. At the same time (perhaps like the distillers), the willingness to divulge the methods of manufacture can be equally small. I remember asking a salesperson of a raw material of ours recently over lunch about the broad outlines of how they made it. He tried to pull the same baloney as the Benedictine tour guide above, telling me that no one knew how it was done and there were maybe 4 people in the company who knew the details of the chemistry. (I think I grunted, rolled my eyes and went back to eating my burger.)

[Is this dichotomy seen in the home as well? It seems to me that there are many more burdensome special techniques (slow roasted for 14 hours in a clay pot at an unknown temperature, blah, blah) than there are secret ingredients.]

In the home kitchen, I think we're faced with the same problem as the distilleries, where secret recipes would ultimately yield to determination. Yes, I could purchase 2 gallons of Cool Whip and 14 brands of store-bought cookies to figure out the exact flavor and texture of my friend's dessert, if I wanted to. But why do it? It would have been fun to crack the recipe (and chemists love a challenge!), but without my friend's company and the warmth of a grad school gathering, it would just be another dessert in a 9X13 pan.


  1. This is great, CJ. I love the "wonder" that a good meal can inspire. And, sometimes we are happier not knowing. I would argue, also, that even when given the recipe, many of us would be incapable of reproducing a master chef's creation. And, that's OK too. This happens all the time in chemistry. I see lots of syntheses in the literature that I will not ever be able to run efficiently (or haven't ever been able to). It doesn't mean that the authors have necessarily published junk. Sometimes it just means that their synthetic capabilities are uniquely suited to making a synthesis work. Personally, I enjoy this sort of "awe" as well.

    1. Thank you. I am reminded of a favorite Mario Batali quote (from Bill Buford's Heat):

      "At home, you rarely get the depth of flavor that you find in a restaurant,’ Mario said on his first show, browning mushrooms in a ferociously hot pan, ‘because home cooks are not prepared to take the risks of professional chefs, who push their pans right to the edge. They want it browner than you’ll ever do at home, darker, hotter.’"

      I suspect that's mostly baloney (the scientist in me speaking), but I'll never know.

    2. But why is that baloney? No home cook can properly cook with a wok. You don't have the btus on your home stove. In Asian restaurants, those burners get the pans over 1000 degrees. (That may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) The same goes for general browning (Maillard) reactions. The hotter the pan, the faster the reaction. (The chemist in you inherently understands those kinetics.) You can get a completely different product with that kind of heat.

    3. All right -- the BTU explanation makes the most sense, and is the first mechanistic explanation I've heard. Thanks, Matt.

    4. @Matt

      It's true that a typical home stove doesn't provide the prerequisite BTUs for proper wok-cooking. However, a home cook can use his/her wok properly. I recall Alton Brown cooking with a wok over a turkey fryer. That takes some monetary commitment on the part of the home cook, but to borrow further from AB, it's hardly a "uni-tasker". Besides their intended use as a turkey fryer, those burners are also favorites in the home-brewing community to sustain boils on full 5-gallon batches.

    5. @CE - I've never heard of a turkey fryer being used for these before. Thanks for the education. I'll have to look into it!

  2. "intellectual property both protects patent holders from infringement, yet forces them to reveal the contents of their drugs"

    You have a very positive spin on patents. Few patents written in the last thirty years reveal much of anything. The lawyers have mastered the art of saying nothing with a whole bunch of near-meaningless words and absurdly broad ranges. Key details are always left out, and the examiners aren't informed enough about the particulars to know what is critical and what isn't. Good luck reproducing anything your competitor did based on information in their patent. You will need it.