Tea Adds Distinctive Edge as a Flavor Component

Tea adds a subtle yet distinctive edge and can be a reliable and exciting flavor component.

By Fritz Sonnenschmidt, CMC and David Feder, Editor

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Today's research chefs and research teams have to constantly study classic and new techniques of flavoring and adapt them into our shifting concepts of food and cultural trends.

Some of these trends can provide challenges, especially in translating them from the different agents bringing cuisine trends to the public - whether small restaurants (trendy avant garde or simple "mom-and-pop" places), large chains and fast food services - to processors developing the tastes to tempt millions of consumers at the retail end. One flavor trend, however, may have excellent crossover potential: cooking with tea.

Asian cuisine has utilized tea as a flavoring for centuries, especially in smoking. Tea-smoked duck is found on menus of nearly every Chinese restaurant in America. Tea is also used to make the famous "thousand-year-old eggs" in which eggs are simmered in tea until hard cooked, cracked all over, then steeped in tea or simmered further until they look like ancient porcelain.

For some flavors, the translation from chef to shelf is dependent on chemically derived flavors. Although many are outstanding, the current movement toward more naturally derived flavorings is driving more and more food companies, and chefs, to seek natural alternatives. Tea can fill the need for a strong and unique flavor that is both cutting-edge in appeal yet applicable to volume production. It is amazing how a small amount of tea can strongly enhance flavor and aroma in food.

"Some teas define how they should be used in cooking," write Robert Wemischner and Diana Rosen in their book Cooking with Tea (Periplus, 2000), "Sweet, grassy, green (teas) are wonderful with produce in salads or with briny shrimp and other shellfish. Soft Keemuns and edgy Yunnans taste great with poultry. Cameroon with its chocolate-like aftertaste is ideal with desserts or with sweetish sauces for pork or chicken."

By employing the basic principals of cooking, my experiments with tea as a component in a seasoning rub yielded excellent results when applied as a complementary factor pairing certain teas with meat, poultry and fish. For example, pairing turkey with apple-cranberry tea, pork with peach-flavored tea leaves, beef with black tea, poultry with an aromatic fruit-flavored tea (such as mango or lychee tea), and fish with a floral fruit tea, such as passion fruit tea or earl grey.

As Wemnischer and Rosen write, "The opportunities for combinations of food and tea are as endless and as enticing as teas are for drinking, and invite experimentation. The result is that tea adds a subtle yet distinctive edge to every dish on the menu." Wemnischer and Rosen also point to the value of smoked teas, such as Russian Caravan or Lapsang Souchong, noting they "lend a deep, dark smokiness to poultry and seafood" and "infuse foods with a smoky quality."

Another way tea can be a reliable and exciting flavor component for research chefs is as extracts. Tea extracts provide a distinct note to sauces, soups and marinades. Used in the initial stock, they provide deeper body and depth of flavor. This is especially true for vegetarian stock or vegetarian recipe applications, where it is harder to achieve a depth of flavor, especially in soups and sauces requiring vegetarian stocks.



- Certified Master Chef Fritz Sonnenschmidt recently retired after 34 years at The Culinary Institute of America, where he served as a faculty member, department chair, associate director of continuing education and culinary dean.

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