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Asking the Question: Which food additives do fine-dining chefs use and why?

Shaun Quade at Lûmé

Shaun Quade at Lûmé

Maltodextrin, xanthan gum, sodium nitrate and MSG. What are chefs using and why?

What is a food additive? Simply put, it's an ingredient added to food to enhance its flavour, longevity, appearance, texture or nutritional value. Additives can be natural or synthetic, and they're generally not consumed as foods on their own. There are around 350 ingredients on the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) list of approved additives. Among them you'll find gold, beeswax, amaranth, various acids, baking soda, grape-skin extract, glycerine and nitrous oxide, as a well as many more ingredients that would be even less familiar to the average restaurant diner.

The vast majority of FSANZ-approved additives are used exclusively in mass-produced commercial products to make sure a Dorito chip, for example, maintains its colour, texture and taste from when it's first produced to when it's consumed, potentially months later.

But a few of those same additives are also used in restaurant kitchens. The flavour-enhancing additives widely found in convenience-store fare (MSG and disodium ribonucleotides being the most common) are rarely used in fine-dining restaurants, or at least not openly. That said, many chefs, Melbourne's Andrew McConnell included, say they've cooked with MSG when making staff meals.

Karl Firla, chef and owner of Sydney restaurant Oscillate Wildly, says most food additives you'd find in fine-dining restaurants are used to manipulate texture. "Almost all of them have no flavour. We generally use them for stabilising and being able to have an end result that wouldn't be possible [otherwise]".

The most widely used additives are multi-use stabilisers and thickeners (usually seaweed-, algae- or soy-based) such as xanthan gum, pectin, gellan gum and agar. They're used in restaurants to thicken dressings and sauces, to prevent ingredients from separating (a beurre blanc or hollandaise for instance), to affect mouthfeel or, in the case of agar, to make jelly that's temperature-stable and free from animal products.

"Xanthan gum is very common. It's probably the one that's most accessible," says Shaun Quade, chef and owner of South Melbourne restaurant Lûmé . "It produces a texture that's really pleasing. It's like having a nice rich stock, it coats your palate."

At Oscillate Wildly, meanwhile, Firla has used xanthan gum and pectin to produce an amuse bouche of pineapple juice bubbles. "We can pick those bubbles up and we can put them on a plate. [The additives] allow that product to maintain its structural integrity whereas without it, it would collapse," he says.

While some food additives such as agar have been used in restaurant kitchens for centuries, many of the common additives in today's kitchens came out of innovative Spanish restaurant El Bulli and the molecular gastronomy movement. One of the products El Bulli's chef Ferran Adrià popularised (and eventually sold under his own label) is maltodextrin, a product now commonplace on the shelves of Australian restaurant kitchen.

"There are a lot of different forms but the one chefs tend to use is a highly refined powder that basically absorbs fat so you can make fat into powder," says Quade. At Lûmé he uses it to create a savoury pine-nut and miso ice-cream. "It has the same effect as different kinds of sugar. It helps stabilise it, and gives it a certain texture and mouthfeel, but without the sweetness."

Another kind of food additive that has seen regular use throughout the history of cooking is the preservative. Apart from table salt, the most common of them is probably sodium nitrate, which is used to prevent oxidation in food. As Thomas Woods, chef and co-owner of Woodland House in Melbourne says, it's usually used to prevent discolouration of meats, mostly in charcuterie. "If a terrine comes out brown a customer will think it's old. It enables you to serve the terrine that people want to see."

Then there are the substances added to food before they get to the kitchen. These, for obvious reasons, can be harder to trace. Seafood is one of the food groups most commonly treated with additives, says Firla. "They add [sodium] metabisulphite to stop oxidisation. That's a visual change; oxygen attacks a product as soon as it comes out of the water."

Is the use of additives in restaurant food on the up? It's hard to say. On the one hand, many of the techniques pioneered by El Bulli, such as spherification, have largely fallen out of fashion. But on the other, many of the less visible additives remain popular, even as more rustic (or at least more rustic-looking) food comes to the fore, even at the most ingredient-focused establishments. As Quade notes, "Noma has placed importance on knowing where food comes from, how it was raised or how it was grown and they still use maltodextrin and xanthan gum." 

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