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Scientists estimate that the human nose can distinguish up to a trillion different odors. But our vocabulary for describing them is far more limited. Harold McGee sticks his nose into the issue in his latest book, Nose Dive: A Field Guide To The World's Smells. McGee describes the aromas and chemical components in everything from oranges to compost and engine oil to sewage. He also elucidates the elusive olfactory workings of truffles, wood smoke, and whisky. Nose Dive is well organized into chapters focusing on smells in the atmosphere as well as in animals, humans, plants, herbs, spices, vegetables, fruits, fungi, fish, and seaweed. Cooking, curing, fermentation, and decay also get special attention. Another scientific estimate: about 80% of what we call flavor actually consists of aroma. If you ever sipped a glass of wine then stumbled to describe it, this book will give you the words.
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The official shelf life of a Twinkie is 45 days. But many folks assume the confection is so highly processed that it will last forever. That's what Colin Purrington thought when he bought a box of Twinkies in 2012 after hearing that Hostess Brands may retire the iconic treat. Eight years later, some of Colin's Twinkies molded over inside the plastic, while others remained relatively fresh and edible. In the interest of science, he sent them to a lab for analysis. Here's what the fungi specialists told him.
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Israeli startup DouxMatok has developed a restructured form of real sugar that tastes 40% sweeter. Called Incredo, the product consists of sucrose mixed with naturally occurring silica, which exposes more surface area of the sucrose to saliva, increasing the perception of sweetness. Silica also restructures the atoms in each sucrose molecule from a typical orderly lattice to a random “amorphous” structure, causing the sugar to dissolve faster on the tongue and deliver more intense sweetness. Later this year, Incredo enters production with Südzucker, Europe’s biggest sugar producer, as well as with a leading refined sugar distributor in North America.
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Wildtype, a San Francisco cellular agriculture startup, has created lab-grown “sushi-grade” salmon from coho salmon cells in “a brewery-like system,” according to the company. “We believe the 21st century will require new seafood options that are better for us and the planet,” said Wildtype’s CEO Justin Kolbeck. The startup already has a pre-order waitlist for chefs interested in cooking with the lab-grown salmon.
Aryballe, a digital olfaction startup from France, has developed a digital “nose” that has the ability to detect odors and categorize them into a mapped, visual, comparable format. The device is called the NeOse Pro. NeOse Pro mimics the human sense of smell by binding odor molecules to biosensors, which behave similarly to the receptors in the human olfactory bulb. The software within the digital nose is then able to compare captured odor signatures with its library of previously captured signatures. Many food manufacturers have expressed interest in the device. “Coffee companies and coffee-machine manufacturers are coming to us and asking, ‘How can you help us understand the quality of the coffee before we brew it?’,” said Sam Guilaumé, CEO of Aryballe. “It’s extremely difficult to characterize coffee powder… The only way these guys can do it today is that they brew it first, analyze the liquid coffee then smell it and compare it.”
Peat is partially decayed vegetation and organic matter that can accumulate over thousands of years to create large peat bogs hundreds of feet thick. In North America, peat bogs are known as muskegs, and when chunks of peat are dried, it can be burned for fuel. In areas with fewer trees to burn, peat has long been used has a source of heat. Peat has long been used to malt barley for making whisky, and in doing so, the peat smoke gets absorbed by the grains. The grains then pass the smoke flavor, known as peat reek, on to the whisky. It turns out that every peat bog has a distinct chemical signature with a specific aroma and flavor profile determined by the organic matter composition and climactic conditions of the place in which it formed. For instance, in areas that get a lot of rain, peat tends to accumulate a large quantity of sphagnum moss, which contains phenolic compounds that impart a medicinal character to peated Scotch whiskies. The more moss in the peat, the more medicinal taste in the whisky. In Eastern Scotland, where the climate is drier, the peat has less moss in it, so whiskies from that region lack the overtly medicinal quality of Scotch from the western part of the country. The western islands of Scotland, such as Islay, and the Northern Highlands, also contain peat with maritime influences, so the whiskies made there exude aromas of iodine or smoked, oily fish. And in the Orkney Islands, the peat composition includes a high quantity of heather, which imparts a delicate, floral, potpourri like aroma to the local whisky.
Apart from the composition of the peat itself, the temperature at which it is burned also influences the flavor profile of whisky. Excessive combustion temperatures can degrade some of the volatile peat phenolics, impacting the flavor of the whisky. For instance, one of the phenolic compounds called guaiacol, imparts the aromas of kippers, smoked bacon and aged cheese to whisky. Cresol, another phenol, imparts medicinal flavors reminiscent of disinfectant and antiseptic. When peat is burned at higher temperatures, by stoking the fire or using drier peat, the amount of cresol increases and the amount of guaiacol decreases. In addition to choosing what kind of peat to burn, whisky makers can also alter the aromas in their whiskies by changing the combustion temperature to, say, increase the smoked fish aromas and decrease the medicinal aromas. The fermentation time and temperature as well as the amount of aging also influence the total quantity of phenolic compounds, and the perceptible flavors, that remain in the bottled whisky.
The Georgia Institute of Technology has created an online tool that estimates how many of your fellow American diners might have COVID-19. The COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool is an interactive U.S. map using data from the Atlantic’s aggregated COVID Tracking Projectto calculate and indicate your chances of contracting the virus based on locations you choose on the map. “We want people to be informed about the risk,” Georgia Tech professor Joshua Weitz said. Of course, the risk predictor is not 100% accurate, but its data is regularly updated to offer those dining out or entering public spaces useful information on which to base decisions. Stanford University infectious disease expert Robert Siegel says “it’s more of an explanatory thing than a model for behavior,” and that it should be used as a guide rather than the sole basis of decision-making. For diners contemplating the relative risk of eating out in various locations, at least the map’s data is better than nothing.