Culinary Sweetener Strategies

Originally Published: October 29, 2020
Last Updated: February 25, 2021
Image of Amazake. Amazake is a probiotic rice concentrate made from steamed rice, köji, and water. Fermentation converts starches in the rice into sugars.

THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS chefs use sweeteners, but how do we perceive sweetness? Sweetness is one of the main taste components of flavor, balancing out with salty, sour, bitter and umami. Understanding sweetness perception is especially important to building balanced flavors, Allison Rittman, CRC, Owner, Culinary Culture, pointed out in her presentation “From Amazake To Acid Blockers: Culinary Strategies for Enhancing Sweetness,” prepared for the 2020 Sweetener Systems Conference. Here are a few highlights from her presentation.

First, let’s clarify a few definitions:
• Aroma – refers to an actual aromatic compound with a specific scent that can be identified by smelling.
• Taste – the tongue can sense taste and feel texture. Taste is developed through the taste buds on the tongue, and there are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
• Flavor – Flavor is the brain’s association between what it smells through the nose; tastes with the tongue; and feels in the mouth.

Since flavor is a combination of smell and taste, it can be useful to consider that the sense of smell is more sensitive than sense of taste. And, when consumers talk about “taste,” they may well be referring to how a food smells, looks, its consistency, texture and other characteristics, such as temperature and even sound (e.g., the crunch of celery).

So, how do chefs use aroma to create a unique experience? One example is Chef Grant Achatz, from Alinea restaurant in Chicago. Chef Achatz showcases the importance of aroma to flavor. He presents a dish with English peas, placed on a pillow inflated with lavender-scented air. As the pillow deflates, it releases lavender air slowly—creating an interactive sensory experience that incorporates aroma into the taste experience.

Sound is another sensation that can impact flavor. Professor Charles Spence, from Oxford University, found in a set of experiments that higher frequency sounds can enhance sweetness in foods, and lower frequency sounds can bring out bitterness in foods. Chefs could use this to enhance the sweetness in dishes without changing a single ingredient, suggested Rittman.

There are many common sweeteners used by chefs beyond white granulated sugar, including brown sugar, jaggery or piloncillo. Honey, agave, dates, maple syrup, sorghum and molasses are just a few of the many other common options.

The chefs are also experimenting with more unique components: yacón, aronia berry, lucuma, sweet potato syrup and amazake.

What exactly is amazake (ah-mah-za-keh)? It is a probiotic rice concentrate made from steamed rice, kōji and water. Fermentation converts naturally occurring starches in the rice into sugars, and it has a neutral flavor profile. All these attributes make it a great alternative sweetener.

kōji (koh-jee) is an important part ofamazake. kōji is a filamentous fungus (mold), Aspergillus oryzae. Some of the sugar bound by starch in grains cannot be fermented by yeast, so this specialized fungus is inoculated with the grains and releases enzymes that convert these starches into sugars. kōji has been traditionally used to turn soybeans into miso; rice into sake; and rice into vinegar, Rittman explained.

kōji is being used more in kitchens in non-traditional ways. Chefs like David Chang have made miso with pistachios. Chef Sean Brock from Husk created a dish called scallopbushi-kōji spores and rice flour-coated scallops, then cured them for two days to create scallops that smell like honeysuckle and have a perfectly cured, sweet note. Chef Cortney Burns, from Duna in San Francisco, is using mother spores from a Japanese sake producer to sweeten a rice-based ice cream, which also acts as a stabilizer. For chefs, kōji is not an ingredient; it’s not a technique; it’s a little bit of both.

Sweeteners play a role in not just adding sweetness to a dish; they can also enhance other flavors, as well as mask bitterness, astringency and acidity. By mixing and matching sweeteners, it is possible to achieve different layers of sweetness impact within a dish.

Chefs also look beyond just ingredients to balance basic flavors and enhance sweetness. There are a wide variety of cooking techniques that can create this affect. Roasting, caramelization, drying/dehydrating, reduction and fermentation are just a few cooking techniques to enhance sweetness.

Chefs have many tools in their kitchen to enhance sweetness, including engaging all of the senses; experimenting with unique ingredients; and using a variety of cooking techniques. “I hope my presentation gives a glimpse of what is possible in the kitchen and beyond,” concluded Rittman.

“From Amazake To Acid Blockers: Culinary Strategies for Enhancing Sweetness,” Allison Rittman, CRC, Owner, Culinary Culture

This presentation was given at the 2020 Sweetener Systems Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to:

See past and future Sweetener Systems Conference Events at: