Cookie crunchtime results: I bet you weren’t expecting this one

It’s time for another weekly weigh up!

On the nicest Dunedin day we’ve had in a while, spirits were high and people wore jubilant faces around the university. I had set up my humble stall outside the OUSA Clubs and Societies building, ready to make someone’s day. You see, I had four batches of cookies, all with one different mystery ingredient, that needed rating by an unbiased audience.

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These ingredients all served the same function: to hold their cookies together and create a fluffy, chewy texture, along with a great taste. And did they succeed? Let’s find out!

cookiesgraph

In case you hadn’t guessed it (or missed my previous blog post), the mystery ingredient was egg agents – that is, egg-like or actual egg ingredients. And the winning cookie was…

softtofu

…soft tofu!

Surprised? So was I! Let’s find out why this ingredient took the cake (or the cookie).

‘Everyone Happy’

Tofu, or bean curd, has a bad rep in the Western food world – squidgy, flavourless and just plain weird. In order to keep its moisture, freshness, and form, it is stored in water and happily sits there like some strange amphibian. Even its manufacturing process is unique – a combination of soaked soy beans, blending, heating, coagulants, and molding.

tofu                          tofu 2

Magnesium chloride, or nigari, the traditionally used coagulant, causes the proteins in the soy milk to change their structure and create a network that will trap liquid and form a gel; in other words, the soy milk solidifies to give the tofu that firm, squidgy texture. It’s quite similar to what happens when your blood clots to help close up a wound.

Aside from it’s fascinating production, tofu holds a special place in the hearts of its original makers – the Chinese. In fact, the Chinese word for bean curd ‘tofu’ sounds similar to the poetic Chinese phrase ‘everyone happy’.

But why so tasty?

To answer this question, let’s turn to our bodies. Our tongues can identify five basic tastes, and our personal sensitivity to these flavours is influenced by our genetics.

five

Umami, or savoury taste, is found in foods contain glutamate (also known as MSG), which is detected by the taste buds on the tongue.  Taste buds are receptors for food molecules such as proteins and send signals to the brain to identify the food we’re eating when we taste it – this is vital for our survival as it means we can identify foods that are good and bad for us. Umami has been described as mild, mouthwatering, and spreading across the tongue. In fact, the word ‘umami’ is Japanese for deliciousness. That’s right – our tongues have receptors that detect deliciousness!

And guess what – both egg and soy beans are ingredients considered to have high levels of umami – 20mg/100g and 70-80mg/100g respectively. Perhaps umami, then, was responsible for the tofu cookies success. However, despite our predisposition to be more sensitive to these different tastes, our personal experiences with these flavours dictate whether or not we actually enjoy them. This fact makes it even more interesting, then, that people enjoyed the taste of the less traditional, tofu cookies, more than the classic egg cookie.

Let’s talk texture

Texture is another crucial element in identifying foods. Research has shown that only around 40% of participants could correctly identify foods that had been pureed and strained. Texture can tell us about the quality of foods – for example first grade fruit vs. third grade. It can also help us to identify food we should avoid because they are actually bad for us or because we’ve had a bad experience with them in the past. For example, sliminess can often indicate that food has gone off or may be undercooked.

If this is true, then the tofu cookie won because of three main reasons:

  1. The texture of the cookie was similar to cookies the person had previously eaten and hadn’t had a bad experience with
  2. No one could identify that tofu was used instead of egg, and it still created a pleasant texture that was reminiscent of a good cookie
  3. The combination of the taste and texture was the most pleasant, based on both the person’s bodily response to it and past experiences with good cookies

An unexpected success

Well, all I can say is it was an unexpected, but pleasantly surprising, result. And whether it was down to umami, good texture or an undetectable ingredient, tofu was the clear winner. What we do know for sure is that eggs can be replaced by many different ingredients in baking, just like in other kinds of non-vegan food, and no one knows any better – and they may just like it better than the original. So if someone offers you a piece of tempeh bacon, coconut ice cream or tofu cookie – don’t be afraid! You may be on the verge of discovering a whole new world of taste and food.

DSC_1394

Peace and science,

Veg-iance.

Tofu production diagrams by How Products are Made; Soft tofu image by Wikimedia Commons. Both under licence of Creative Commons.
Other images and figure by Summer Gleeson
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