Crunch time

A lesson on texture

By
March 30, 2012

Recently, I was asked about texture and food, and that got me thinking about how we Americans especially like crunchy things. We don’t respond nearly as well to foods that are soft and slimy, foods that other cultures may well prefer.

Nattō — a fermented-soybean-based food that’s popular for breakfast in Japan — with a raw egg beaten into it has not made it over here the way miso, tempeh, and tofu have, even though it is apparently better for us.

We like to feel our food between our teeth. We like to chew. We don’t much care for cream of rice cereal or semolina pudding unless there’s a little something in it to munch on.

We do like ice cream — but especially so when it’s got chocolate jimmies on it, or broken cookies in it.

Walnut bits add texture to soft foods.

So what are some of the foods that have crunch, and how can we use those to enhance the crunch in softer dishes?

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are something I’ve already explored on Culinate, though not because of their texture. In fact, they work really well at providing texture. If they’ve been crisped in butter or oil, they are master crunch providers.

Where to use breadcrumbs? Definitely on a puréed soup or a soup of very soft vegetables or legumes. Puréed soups are easy to make but can be boring to eat, so crispy breadcrumbs (or croutons) go far to make them more interesting by adding texture.

Where else? Add them to a dish of cooked lentils or white beans, or to a bowl of spaghetti. Sprinkle them over scrambled eggs, especially if you’re the kind of person who’s nervous about soft eggs; the crunchiness distracts. And of course you’ll use them on gratins.

If you have a bowl of crisp breadcrumbs sitting on your kitchen counter, you will find dozens of ways to use them.

Groats

Yes, whole grains. Whole oats, farro, spelt, wheat berries, rye — all of these grains add texture in spades. In fact, it’s hard for them not to be chewy. They’re just not going to disappear unless you cook them into a mush, and that would take a determined effort.

So if you add some oat groats to a bowl of soft oatmeal, you’re going to get texture. Similarly, you might add steel-cut oats to a bowl of oatmeal. I often add leftover rice to other hot cereals. It’s not that the texture is crunchy; it’s not. It’s just that it’s there, that you feel the little nubbins of grain beneath your teeth, against the softness of the cereal, and it’s pleasant.

Rice in pancake batter? It’s great. And of course, I’d serve rice with beans, which are usually very soft. In addition to the protein complements, maybe that’s one reason for all those rice-and-bean dishes — texture. The rice is always chewier than the beans, or it should be. (If not, your beans might not be thoroughly cooked.)

Tiny quinoa, too, naturally has a little crunchiness to it, even when it’s thoroughly cooked. I enjoy it as a grain all by itself, or as a hot cereal with dried fruits and toasted nuts (more texture!). But I almost like it best added to muffins, bread, and waffles. In these baked goods, the quinoa grains manage to retain that bit of bite, even though they’ve already been cooked. And they happen to contribute moisture as well.

Nuts and seeds

Another obvious source of crunchiness is nuts, starting with crunchy peanut butter (even though peanuts are actually legumes). You can buy it smooth or crunchy, so you know there are people out there who prefer that extra bite of the unblended peanut. It makes life interesting.

Think of walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and other nuts — the true nuts. They’re often added at the end of something just for their texture, even if they’re finely chopped. I’m thinking of green beans rolled in buttery shallots and chopped pistachios, or walnuts sprinkled over breakfast cereal. Or roasted cashews added to a stir-fry, or toasted salted almonds passed around to nibble with drinks. Drinks are sipped; almonds are chewed.

Similarly toasted seeds, like sesame seeds, make smooth things perky with both visuals and their delicate texture. Imagine braised sweet Japanese turnips with a miso sauce and toasted black sesame seeds, for example. But if you wanted to, you could also slice those same little salad turnips and put them on a plate with nothing more than (crunchy) Maldon sea salt and toasted black sesame seeds, and you’d have a study in color and texture, all of it lively.

Dukkah, that mixture of toasted seeds, spices, and nuts, offers texture to soft foods. Classical hummus includes a garnish of some of the chickpeas that were set aside, which offer identity and texture both.

Vegetables and pasta

Apart from crudités, which are always raw and therefore crisp, iceberg lettuce has appeal mainly because of its texture. It certainly doesn’t have much flavor, and it’s not especially gorgeous to look at, but how is it we’re still serving “The Wedge”? Because it’s crisp! And that creamy blue-cheese sauce makes it seem even crisper. The same might be said of a Caesar salad or any salad based on romaine lettuce. Grated beets — like turnips, parsnips, and, of course, carrots — add texture and color.

Pasta is cooked al dente, “to the tooth,” which says something about what its texture should be, and that is definitely not soft and mushy. It’s the preference in Italy. I’ve eaten pasta so al dente in Rome that it seemed practically raw. Well, OK, not quite, but close. On the other hand, I love to slide a cooked ravioli, which is softer than a strand of spaghetti, into a ragout of tender vegetables, because it offers such a different texture. It may not add crunch, but it does offer contrast.

Here’s to more crunch in your munch!

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1. by vintagejenta on Apr 15, 2012 at 1:33 PM PDT

This is SO TRUE of Americans, and I’d never thought about it before. Although I love ice cream and puddings, I usually like things in them (although cake with milk poured on it until it falls apart is a favorite treat at our house). And fruit sauces have to be chunky (no smooth applesauce for me!). Jams too. And savory things? Forget it. Unless it’s rich chicken broth poured over bread until it’s silky, I like my savory things to have bite to them. I like soups better chunky than smooth, ditto pasta sauces, salsa, etc. About the only savory thing I don’t like chunky is dip, be it bean or sour cream. It’s got to be smooth for dipping.

Fascinating look into American tastes.

2. by Deborah Madison on Apr 16, 2012 at 6:52 AM PDT

Funny you mention cake with milk. That was one of my Dad’s favorites, only he poured the cream from the bottle, usually over warm chocolate cake. That is pretty good stuff. Enjoyed your comment.

3. by vintagejenta on Apr 16, 2012 at 2:04 PM PDT

Haha. Yes, my boyfriend prefers lots and lots of heavy cream, but if the cake is very sweet I prefer milk as it is a little less rich. Was your Dad a dairy farmer? Because my guy grew up on a dairy farm. I’m a milk-on-cake convert.

4. by Deborah Madison on Apr 16, 2012 at 2:17 PM PDT

My dad was a dairy farmer. How did you guess? We had Jerseys and Guernseys that gave the richest milk—and cream. If you’re a milk-on-cake convert, then you can understand why creme Anglaise was so often paired with dense cakes in the past. And even not so dense cakes.

5. by vintagejenta on Apr 21, 2012 at 7:29 PM PDT

I think it must be a dairy farmer thing. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but both sets of my great-grandparents on my mom’s side were dairy farmers. It must be in my blood. Everyone I know (except my boyfriend) looks at me funny when I put my cake in a bowl, but I don’t care. It’s too delicious!

6. by juegos inflables on Oct 1, 2012 at 2:04 PM PDT

buen articulo te felicitio

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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