Bobbing for apple flavour: Seasoning with malic acid

It’s become a common refrain that acidity is as important to balancing the seasoning of a dish as salt is. Just as salt, properly used, doesn’t necessarily make food taste “salty,” acid doesn’t necessarily make food taste sour; the word usually used is “brightness.” Acid is especially useful in balancing sweetness, which can lurk in some easily forgotten places, including sweet vegetables like beets, carrots, and squash.

In fact, acidity balancing out sugar is one of the characteristics that makes fruit taste like fruit: Heston Blumenthal comments in the Fat Duck Cookbook that beet juice, with enough added acid, will come to taste like blackcurrant – a phenomenon that my own experience has borne out. The same is apparently true of pumpkin (which gives the impression of apricot) and fennel (lime).

Although various culinary acids (such as acetic, citric, lactic, malic, or tartaric) can all be described as “sour,” they all suggest different tastes as well. Lactic acid, commonly found in fermented milk products, tastes very different from the citric acid in lemons, which is different again from the acetic acid in vinegar – and it’s not just because of the aromatic molecules, though it may at least in part come from learned associations.

Malic acid comes from apples (which are in the genus Malus), and is often described as adding a green apple-like tartness to foods. I’ve heard that, when making apple-flavoured confections, such as caramels, adding a little balancing malic acid can make the product taste more “apple-y” than it would otherwise.

According to Modernist Cuisine, a fluid gel made from juice will have a clearer flavour than the equivalent puree, because there are no particles to get in the way. So I thought I would try this out, at the same time as seeing the effect of malic acid on flavour. And what better place to start with malic acid than an apple itself?

So I took some apple cider (that is, unfiltered apple juice; not the alcoholic variety), sweetened it with 10% sugar and set it with 1% agar, then pureed it in my Vitamix.  I divided this fluid gel, and added 0.5% malic acid to one portion. Then I took some McIntosh apples, cooked them, added 10% sugar, and pureed it in the Vitamix as well. Then it was time to taste test.

The fluid gel with added malic acid tasted balanced, like pure apple cider but with a thicker texture. By comparison, the un-acidified fluid gel tasted flat and overly sweet. The applesauce made from whole apples surprised me, though: it tasted fresher than either of the fluid gels. There are a couple of things that might explain this. First, the agar I use has a distinct flavour of its own, which was absent in the pure applesauce. A gellan fluid gel might give a different come.

As well, apple cider is pre-oxidized: its brownish colour is the same browning reaction you get when you cut into an apple and leave it sitting around for a while. This oxidation affects not only the colour, but also the flavour. So I wasn’t really comparing apples to apples.

How do you use balancing acidity in your cooking?

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