You know that saying, “You eat with your eyes”? While we can’t argue with the appeal of a gorgeously plated dish, the truth is that we eat with our mouths. This might sound laughably obvious, but when you think about it, your mouth is really an amazingly complex, sophisticated system! The fact that there are so many taste receptors and nerve endings on our tongue and palate that deliver moment-by-moment experiences of flavor and texture to our brains — it’s truly incredible.
We could wax poetic all day long about the miraculous joys of eating, but we’ll spare you our Shakespearean sonnets. Instead, let’s take a more practical look at how you can elevate your food with one of the most important components of cooking: texture.
Think about it this way: If your meal was a song, the flavor is the melody, and the texture is the percussion. Just like drums and bass, texture is what gives food power and precision, a cohesive energy that infuses every bite with life. If you’ve ever cracked your spoon through the caramelized top layer of a crème brûlée, or snapped through a perfectly crisp-tender snow pea adrift in a creamy curry, you know exactly what we mean.
Mouthfeel is the word that’s widely used to describe the sensation of experiencing different textures while eating. But how do you develop those textures? What are the best ways to turn a forgettable pop song into an obsession-worthy, Beyonce-level anthem?
Here are four of our most foolproof tips and techniques for developing texture in your home cooking, so that the feel of the food is just as awesome as the flavor:
You wouldn’t wear joggers and a hoodie on a first date, or clean your marble countertop with sandpaper, right? Just like you’d choose the right tool for the job, and the right ‘fit for the occasion, identifying the proper ingredients is a huge part of successful textural cooking.
For instance: When you’re making corn bread, you want coarse cornmeal that lends a hearty, grainy feel. But for polenta, you want finely ground cornmeal for a creamy texture. And for homemade tortillas or tamales, you need masa harina, corn flour that has undergone nixtamalization. One basic ingredient; three very different applications and outcomes.
Because we are pasta people, we think about this concept a lot when making dishes with our plant-powered pasta and sauces. The size and shape of the pasta have a profound impact on the composition and texture of the finished dish.
- Short pasta, like penne, work superbly well with chunky sauces, and in dishes that have larger ingredients mixed throughout, like pasta salad and chicken and pasta recipes. The ridged texture of the noodles grab onto sauces, and fit neatly on the fork alongside the other components of the dish.
- Elbows are classic for all kinds of mac-and-cheese because their cylindrical shape creates perfect little nooks and crannies for all that cozy cheese sauce to snuggle up in. A hearty meat sauce or herb pesto clings perfectly to the spirals of rotini. Longer noodles, like spaghetti, are the prime choice for rich, creamy sauces.
A universal textural delight is food that’s shatteringly crisp on the exterior, but soft, juicy, or yielding on the interior. The best way to achieve this sensation with proteins and vegetables is a good, strong sear.
Imagine a piece of coho salmon hitting a hot pan slicked with olive oil: The seared skin takes on an incredible crispy texture, which adds a glorious moment of interruption when enjoying the soft, fatty fish.
- Searing is a technique of hitting the ingredients with a blast of high heat, usually on a cast iron pan or grill. This contact causes a golden brown crust to form as the fat in the pan caramelizes with the sugars in the food.
- Searing can be done before an ingredient is cooked through, or it can be done after. Waiting until the food is cooked, then searing it is called “reverse searing.” You might do this with vegetables, giving things like broccoli or green beans a quick blanch, allowing them to dry, then exposing them to the powerful heat of the pan.
We’re so texture-obsessed, that we can’t wait to share even more ideas with you! Head here to check out the second installment of this post with additional techniques for building texture.
If your kitchen inspiration is starting to simmer, explore our library of 100+ plant-fueled recipes, each one an explosion of texture and flavor. For all of the ZENB goodness, and to join in our conversations about food, cooking, and nutrition, follow along on our Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook pages.