Textures and flavors are closely related, especially when animal protein products are concerned. The type of product you want to produce will determine not only the flavor, but the desired texture as well. For example, you would not want your hamburger to have the firm dry bite of hard salami and vice versa. Consumers understand the basic flavor of a hot dog, but add Chicago style and the concept changes drastically. Some products have a well-defined flavor, like a Sriracha meat stick, and some do not, like barbecue. When designing a new item, it is important to understand the interplay of ingredients and their impact on the texture and flavor of food items, since both qualities define the eating experience.
The Building Blocks
There are four components to any animal protein item: the protein itself, water, salt, and other non-meat ingredients.
Protein, the first component, can be factored by species, muscle selection, fat selection, and lean to fat ratio. In many cases, the first two factors are product driven. For example, ham comes from the hind leg of swine. You can buy turkey ham, and there the muscle selection and species are defined. With a ham, the developer determines the lean to fat ratio. It is desirable to have a fat cover on a bone-in-ham for baking but usually less desirable in a sliced deli ham for sandwiches. Fat amount and selection is very important as well. Pork belly fat is much softer and has a lower melting point than its back fat, making the back fat much more desirable in genoa salami in regards to particle definition and appearance. Fat is also flavor! Ever heard the saying “No waste, no taste?” Fat and water are key determinants of juiciness and mouthfeel.
This leads to the second component, water. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, lean muscle contains around 70-78 percent water depending on species and muscle selection. Formulating products with additional water has economic implications and affects the quality of the end products. In addition to affecting juiciness and mouthfeel, water facilitates flavors faster to the taste buds. Water may also be needed to help with mixing, emulsifying, and distributing other ingredients.
The third major component is salt. A preservative, flavor enhancer, and protein extractor, salt has many functional properties in animal proteins. How much salt is added, when it is added, the amount of physical action (e.g. mixing or tumbling), and time all affect the level of protein extraction, bind, and water retention.
The final component is other non-meat ingredients. These ingredients can be grouped as functional or flavor; though there is crossover between the two groups, ingredients generally fall into one or the other. Some common ingredients that fall into this fourth component are described below.
Phosphates can be a useful tool in making a juicy and flavorful food. In meats, phosphates have a breadth of function: they can increase water holding capacity, amplify ionic strength to allow actin myosin fibers to attract more water, improve stabilities of emulsions, bind divalent cations (Ca++, Mg++, Fe++), reduce oxidative rancidity, lower viscosity of meat, and have a synergistic effect with sodium chloride. They come in many different forms, but the most common is sodium tripolyphosphate.
Sodium nitrite is a key ingredient used in the meat industry, though its use is becoming less common. Nitrite is used when making a cured meat item. While naturally occurring ingredients exist for curing, sodium nitrite is the most popular. In many items, sodium nitrite is a required ingredient for both food safety and product identity.
Carbohydrates, including fibers, starches, gums, and sweeteners, assist with moisture management in meats by absorbing, immobilizing, or binding water. They are key additions for controlling texture and flavor. Sweeteners like sugar are typically used to sweeten and help balance flavors.