Herb extracts: this holiday’s best, unknown cooking hack

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    Herb extracts are the unknown holiday kitchen hack.

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    Ditch the traditional herbs this holiday. (Star Kay White)

A new line of savory extracts wants to do for cooks what vanilla extract does for bakers — become a shortcut to better taste.

Star Kay White’s new Culinary Extract line, which includes rosemary, garlic and parsley, aims to provide fresh herb flavor without the hassle of shopping, chopping and grinding. Think spice rack made liquid.

Savory flavors are virgin territory for Star Kay White, the flavoring company that was “the original flavor supplier to Haagen Dazs,” says Barry Katzenstein, the founder’s great-grandson.

Recipe: Rosemary scented mushroom gravy

For 125 years the family owned-and-operated company has produced extracts like vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate, and crunch flavors like caramel, butter pecan and butter crunch, for companies like Breyer’s, Friendly’s and Ben and Jerry’s.

Recipe: Lime glazed butter coookies

“Forty million pounds last year,” says Katzenstein, a self-described dyed-in-the-wool “vanilla guy” who’s ceding the new savory line to his sons Alex and Gabe.

Alex credits Gabe, an avid cook, for the savory extract idea. “He’s a little bit brilliant,” he said. Gabe wanted something for cooks that would be easier than fresh herbs and taste better than dried. Dried herbs lose potency and fresh herbs “aren’t always available, affordable and easy to use,” Gabe says.

Recipe: Garlic parsley mashed potatoes

That especially true for something like trendy cardamom, which comes in pods that require crushing, and often shucking, then grinding.

Fresh herbs just don’t have a lot of staying power. Parsley quickly yellows; dill turns slimy; garlic sprouts creepy green shoots that are safe to eat but bitter. And odor can be an issue: Chopping or crushing garlic releases its “volatile compounds” — i.e. aroma — and heat only intensifies its sharp, pungent smell. For everyone who loves a house redolent of garlic, there’s another who regards the reek as collateral damage.

Gabe cites garlic mashed potatoes to make his point. You can shop for garlic, heat the oven to 400, slice off the top third of the garlic, surround it with tinfoil, drizzle with oil, roast, cool, pop out the sticky cloves, do a rough chop and add to mashed potatoes. Or, he says, you can stir in one teaspoon of garlic extract per pound of potatoes.

Other companies also produce industrial flavor compounds as well as custom flavors — like the brie extract California-based Amoretti developed for a client who found that adding actual brie made bread dough unworkable, says marketing president Maral Barsoumian.

Amoretti also produces a savory extract line (basil, chipotle, jalapeño, etc.), but theirs is oil-based, not alcohol-based. It’s a significant difference.

Typical extracts, like Star Kay White’s, are ethyl alcohol and water-based, which means they mix with water, a major component of most foods. Oil-based extracts don’t mix with water and generally won’t flavor as evenly. They’re better suited for marinades or as concentrated finishing oils.

Convenience aside, the question remains: Do savory extracts actually deliver, or are they just a culinary trompe l’oeil?

“If they do a good job of extracting, and you can’t taste the alcohol and it cooks off, then the flavor ought to be good,” says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a sensory scientist with Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Pelchat says smell is essential because it clues you into taste. If “unstable volatiles (aromas released by chopping or crushing) are present,” they are highly effective.

Sight is also key. Green flecks in food indicate the presence of parsley, “which allows you to construct a more enjoyable sensation.” If you can’t see it, but you can still smell it, your brain anticipates a parsley “sensory sensation” before the food gets to your mouth, she says.

Bottom line: Lemon and rosemary extracts can’t replicate chicken roasted with actual lemon halves and rosemary sprigs, but extracts can improve the gravy and make side dishes a breeze. Extracts are potent, so add a quarter-teaspoon at a time to taste. And do not use in flavor injectors. Nothing good comes of this.

Taste sensation diminishes with age, Pelchat says. So if you’re expecting “aging relatives” this holiday season, heightening flavor with extracts will make grandma and grandpa’s holiday more delicious.

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