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A Momentary Flow

Evolving Worldviews

These Funky Microbes Make Your Favorite Foods More Delicious

If you ask me, the best things to eat and drink almost always have a little something funky going on. Cucumbers are OK, but pickles are what I reach for when I want to make a kickass sandwich. Cabbage is boring, but kimchi rocks. When it comes to cheeses, a blue always trumps a jack. Edamame? Edama-meh. Give me miso soup and sake. What makes these foods better is the hard work of bacteria and fungi. These bugs transform the sugars and proteins in raw ingredients like fruits and grains into something else entirely, creating new flavors and more complexity. They’re the reason an aged cheese tastes more interesting than milk and a well-made craft beer tastes better than a mouthful of barley. They put the umami in miso and make pickles more piquant. Humans have been intentionally inoculating food with microbes for millenia, says food writer Harold McGee, whose classic book On Food and Cooking is a trove of information on microbe-enhanced cuisine (and everything else you need to know about the science of cooking). It probably started by accident. “My hunch is that foodstuffs would start to go off in various ways and they learned how to manage that and to appreciate some of the sensory changes that took place,” McGee said. So what exactly are our invisible friends doing inside our food? Many of the macronutrients in the foods we eat — the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats — are too big to trigger our taste and odor receptors. As the microbes go about the business of breaking these molecules down into smaller pieces they can make use of themselves, they create amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars that we can taste and smell. They also synthesize new compounds for communication and other purposes, and some of these compounds contribute to taste or aroma as well, McGee says. “This process of breaking down and building up makes food much more complex in its sensory characteristics and more interesting.” (via These Funky Microbes Make Your Favorite Foods More Delicious - Wired Science)

Notes

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