By: Janelle Myers
I first encountered tapioca maltodextrin when I was leading an after-school science program for middle schoolers. I brought in a mysterious white powder in a baggie and had them all taste it (it’s a miracle they let me come back), and then they guessed what it might be. They named a bunch of white powders commonly used in the kitchen, but none of them came close to the real answer—olive oil.
Yes, they were confused too.
Molecular gastronomy seems to take special pride in feeding people unrecognizable food, and this trick comes from that arsenal. The secret lies in a form of tapioca maltodextrin called N-Zorbit M. We’ve probably all eaten maltodextrin as a thickener in jello, salad dressing, and even soda—it’s just regular starch (long chains of glucose all bonded together) broken down into more manageable pieces (6-10 glucose units). You can make maltodextrin from pretty much any starch, including corn, tapioca, wheat, you name it, and it gets a lot of mileage as a food additive. N-Zorbit M, though, has some unique properties that make it perfect for modernist chefs.
We need to know two important facts about this particular maltodextrin: it has very low density and maintains the helix structure found in regular long-chain starch. The helix keeps the hydrophobic (water-hating, oil-loving) parts on the inside and the hydrophilic (water-loving, oil-hating) parts on the outside. So when N-Zorbit M encounters a puddle of oil, the oil flocks to the hydrophobic insides of the helices, squirreled away and separated from its kin. The fluffiness means the individual maltodextrin units are relatively far apart, which keeps the oil droplets away from each other and effectively makes your oil puddle suddenly look white and powdery. To rescue the oil from its tiny prisons, water or heat will break down the maltodextrin and set the oil free—so put it in your mouth and you taste the oil.
It’s a pretty good party trick for the modernist cuisine-inclined (we’ll get to that in a minute), but it also has big applications in food manufacturing. Baking mixes line grocery store shelves, promising near-instant treats from cornbread to birthday cake and earning $1.8 billion in sales annually. How do the producers get the fats that make their baked goods tender and yummy into powdered form for the mix? Well, a quick survey of mixes at the grocery store last week revealed “modified corn starch” as one of the ingredients in all of the boxes I picked up. While that doesn’t give us much detail, the example of N-Zorbit M shows us how modified starches may play a role in turning liquid fats into a more packageable form.
And now for the fun part! Get yourself some N-Zorbit M (you can buy it online here) and let’s play around with crazy modernist cuisine!
For all of these combinations, you can either stir vigorously with a spoon until the mixture becomes a dry paste, then crumble it, or you can combine the fat with the N-Zorbit M in a food processor. Once you have the powders, go crazy!
Deconstructed peanut butter cup
¼ c. creamy peanut butter + ½ c. N-Zorbit M
¼ c. chocolate chips, melted + ¼ c. N-Zorbit M
Layer the peanut butter powder and the chocolate powder in a shot glass or pour it over sliced bananas. Alternatively, dip fruit or cookies in melted chocolate and press it in the peanut butter powder.
Browned butter and parmesan popcorn
2 oz. parmesan cheese + 2 T. N-Zorbit M
Slice the parmesan cheese and place it in an oven-safe dish. Heat it in a 225 degree oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese releases oil (about 2 teaspoons). Pour off the oil, let it cool, and mix it with the N-Zorbit M.
2 T. butter + ½ c. N-Zorbit M
Brown the butter in a small skillet over medium heat: after it melts, continue to heat it until the milk solids on the bottom brown and it smells fragrant and nutty.
Combine the browned butter powder and the parmesan powder on top of popcorn, pasta, salads, or anything else you want to smother in goodness!
Janelle Myers is a chemist turned cook who loves figuring out the science behind great food. She grew up loving the kitchen and making inordinate amounts of chocolate chip cookies, and the food science part of it clicked in college, when she did her senior research project on cocoa powder. Since then she has worked in restaurants doing both pastry and savory cooking, founded the food science blog fchem101.com, and recently moved to Boston to intern at America’s Test Kitchen. She loves a good challenge in the kitchen, but it’s still hard to beat a great chocolate chip cookie.