When It Comes To Crunch

I need crunch. Every day. Crunchy... crispy... - how do I love thee? Let me (re)count some of the ways.

  • potato chips, of course. It is true – you can’t eat just one – which is why they are almost never in my house. (Occasional exceptions are made for Covered Bridge Potato Chips from New Brunswick - home of 60 covered bridges, including Hartland - the world’s longest). 
  • perfect French Fries – and the award goes to Jamie Kennedy who recently ended an era in the Toronto food scene with the closing of Gilead. In related interviews, he recounts that his fries were inspired by his time in Paris. His two sons continue the tradition every Saturday at the impressive and unique Evergreen Brickworks Market.
  • pork crackling, most notably the little piece that appears in every porchetta sandwich at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg. Yes, “burg”, not “bord” – named as such since the indescribably wonderful flea and food market is in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn
  • super crispy wiener schnitzel – cravings were satisfied by the Coffee Mill (sadly, recently closed forever)
  • the crunch from the crust of freshly baked bread
  • vegetable crunch is also good – the first crop of coreless carrots; celery hearts – when fresh, are crunchy and can be nicely enhanced with crunchy peanut butter; radishes - freshly harvested, with a sprinkle of salt
  • and my favourite apples – aptly named Honey Crisp

It seems I am not alone. 

According to Mario Batali (in The Babbo Cookbook), "The single word 'crispy' sells more food than a barrage of adjectives describing the ingredients or cooking techniques."

Eating triggers many senses – visual (we want our food to be “eye candy”); aroma (helpful in triggering digestive juices). Flavour (the artful combination of the basic tastes - sweet, salty sour, bitter and umamai) may not be the most important sense. Texture (and often the accompanying sound) can trump all – and there is an entire industry focusing on that.

An article on food texture in The Guardian refers to the "Texture Centre of Excellence help(ing) the food industry achieve the perfect consistency for their products. Texture is big business and the science of food structure even has its own ology: food rheology... the professionals know all too well that, while the sensory spotlight may fall on flavour when we're savouring a mouthful, get the texture wrong and it's game over – we'll reject it outright.

Why do we like crunchy and crispy? It tends to signal freshness. And then there is the matter of chewing. The word conjures iconic images of cows chewing cud, but it seems we need to chew, and that need "continues right through to old age when... we'll throw cash and inconvenience at fixing our teeth so we may continue to chew, even though we could just as well get our nutrition from soft or pureed foods. Gnawing is… good for you, too. A growing body of research indicates that it increases blood flow to the brain, which helps stave off dementia.” (Source)

While some write haikus honouring mush, others claim it is almost tortuous to be limited to mushy food - “a form of sensory deprivation… the mind rebels against bland, single-texture foods, edibles that do not engage the oral device.” (Source) A food industry consultantsays the three most relished texture notes are crispy, creamy and chewy”. I like all those words, as long as "chewy" does not equal rubbery.

Rubbery. Gritty. Slimy. Not big hits with most people. I could not find a satisfyingly complete lexicon of food texture words. This British Nutrition Foundation Sensory Vocabulary poster makes a good attempt, but oddly does not include the word chewy. Think crunchy is the same as crispy? Apparently not, according to Wikipedia.  

So, we like crunchy / crispy because of chewing, and… because of sound! There are experts who spend years researching topics such as how crunch works. “To get this noise, you need crack speeds of 300 meters per second... The speed of sound. The crunch of a chip is a tiny sonic boom inside your mouth… to a certain extent, we eat with our ears… You eat physical properties with a little bit of taste and aroma. And if the physics is not good, then you don’t eat it.” (Source)

The happenings in our mouth while eating are called mouthfeel - also referred to as oral haptics. Recent studies suggest that oral haptics influence our judgement about calories. People tend to assume that crunchier food has fewer calories. Maybe my crunchy food moments are also a calorie delusion!

The appeal of crunchy / crispy is cross-cultural and may even be primitive. In his book The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, John S. Allen, a research scientist, proposes that we like crunch because it was central to the primitive diet - in the form of insects. Once insects (and other foods) met fire / cooking (and the Maillard Reaction) crunch became part of the human experience. I’ll have to ponder the idea that the love of crunch is the manifestation of the paleo insect-eater inside each of us. And yet, simple Google searches can lead to a reading journey about insects as the future food. Once the renowned René Redzepi begins to explore possibilities, we know we have not heard the last of this.

This blog exercise in thinking, reading and writing came from my need for crunch. Most days that need is satisfied by roasted, unsalted (healthy) almonds. Seeking some variety, I had some adventures roasting legumes (good for us), specifically chickpeas – and have also included a roasted edamame snack. (Click here for recipes.) Healthy snacks can make us feel virtuous, but too much virtue comes with a price – watch the calorie count.

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