Layering flavor is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of cooking, but so is layering texture.
From the crunch of something crisped, to the chewiness of dough, snap of a radish, or smoothness of purée, combining textures in the same dish adds depth, excitement, and balance—just like adding acidity or heat.
“If you listen to music and there’s just one note, even if it’s a beautiful note, it’s a monotone and redundant,” says Scott Gottlich, executive chef of Bijoux and The Second Floor Restaurant at The Westin Galleria Dallas. “When you put different notes together, it creates an exciting melody—just like when you put different flavors, techniques, and textures together in one dish, they start dancing around on your palate.”
One Ingredient, Many Textures
Playing with textures when using the same ingredient adds depth to a dish through contrasting mouthfeel, particularly when it comes to vegetables.
“You may have an ingredient you dehydrated into a powder, or cooked in a different way, and one’s raw and one’s fried or braised,” says Chef Gottlich. “Layering even the same product different ways can create a great melody.”
He once served a trio of onion crostini: crunchy grilled sourdough slices layered with a smooth fava bean hummus, roasted pearl onions on one, onion jam and fried onions on the second piece, and creamy caramelized onions with goat cheese and crispy trumpet mushrooms on the third.
In a similar way, Chef Victor Scargle at Lucy Restaurant & Bar at the Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, California, has fun with carrots that are grown in the restaurant’s on-site garden. His Freshly Dug Carrot Salad combines carrot confit, pan-fried carrot chips, finely chopped carrot fronds, and a chunky, curry shallot dressing.
Marrying different textures with meat adds interest, too. In his Pork Dirty Rice, Chef Mario Pagán, owner of notable San Juan, Puerto Rico, restaurants Chayote, Lemongrass, and Laurel, sautés crumbled blood sausage in olive oil, adding the Spanish bomba, or medium-grain rice, and simmering until tender. Caramelized fennel, onion, cooked pork belly, chopped egg whites, and creamy avocado add extra softness to the mixture, which is topped with crispy pork skin or cracklings and lime aioli for extra creaminess, brightness, and crunch.
“By using less rice, it ends up crispier, and then the earthy taste of the blood sausage, pork belly, and sweetness of the fennel bring different flavors and textures to the dish,” says the Puerto Rico native.
Chef Michelle Bailey from Season’s at Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock, North Carolina, combined different preparations of chicken in a course served at the Got to Be NC dining competition held in that state’s capital. She served a chicken confit fritter spiked with crunchy Chapel Hill Toffee, which she paired with a smooth chicken liver torchon, tender buttermilk-brined chicken liver, crispy chicharrones, chopped chicken confit, a creamy-center croquette, and a chicken fat aioli laced with tarragon. Crushed toffee, a creamy red beet purée, and pickled golden beets balanced out the richness of the dish with extra acid, sweetness, and crunch.
“In thinking chicken, I wanted to utilize each part in a way to highlight the product and maybe turn some folks on to new preparations,” Chef Bailey says. “It was important for us to incorporate a lot of texture into this dish to keep it interesting on the palate and to break up some of the richness from the liver. Balance and diversity in texture is crucial as it keeps the diner engaged and makes a dish more interesting on multiple levels.”
The classic combination of creaminess with a crunchy top never fails to liven up a dish. At 42 Grams in Chicago, winner of two Michelin stars, Chef/owner Jake Bickelhaupt makes a cultured barley porridge using the ancient Japanese technique koji, which means rice that’s been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, an enzyme used as a starter in cultured Asian foods such as sake, soy, miso, and mirin. After five days, Chef Bickelhaupt tops the umami-rich, creamy porridge with tender pig heart, crispy pork jowl, fried enoki mushrooms, puffed grains, and grapefruit or other citrus to add additional layers of texture, flavor, and color to the comforting dish.
“In many Asian cultures, texture is flavor,” says Chef Bickelhaupt. “Incorporating layers of flavor will enhance your food and can make it more interesting, beyond mere ingredients and technique.”
While it’s important to impart contrast, he says, it’s just as important to show restraint when adding varied textures and toppings.
At Bondir Concord in Concord, Massachusetts, sunchokes harvested after the frost get roasted with nutmeg until caramelized, then folded into a custard base and topped with teff polenta for pop, served with tender glacé vegetables like black radish, bronze fennel, and white carrot, crisp-roasted scallions, and a poached quail egg for added richness and creaminess.
“We try hard to make sure dishes evolve as you eat them,” says Chef/owner Jason Bond. “Texture is an important tool in building a dynamic dish that brings extra surprises and holds your interest.”
Adding fruit can bring new textures to a dish, too. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos of Bohemian House in Chicago tops slow-roasted beets with apple slices for a “beautiful, bright juiciness.” The dish is paired with a crunchy sweet molasses streusel and walnuts tossed in egg whites and smoked to crisp up a bit. Extra beets are roasted and puréed into a silky-like smoothness that becomes the base of the dish.
The concept of layering textures is no different when it comes to desserts. At barleymash in San Diego, pastry chef Jess DiBona makes a bourbon-poached pear with a warm and buttery, applesauce-like pear, a cranberry and Cointreau sauce, and candied orange and lavender chai ice cream that is topped with almond brittle broken down into a dust. The treat’s contrast in temperatures also makes for an interesting finale to the meal.
“When I create new desserts for barleymash, I always try to include three distinct elements: smooth and creamy, chewy, and crunchy,” DiBona says.
At Fat Rice in Chicago, Chef/owner Abraham Conlon plays off creamy and crunchy textures with his Chinese Almond Gelée. “We start with a very soft almond gelée, similar to a panna cotta, and then add slightly chewy and poppy basil seeds,” he says. “We often add persimmon, which gives a squeaky noise in your mouth when you bite into it. Sometimes we add gooseberries, but kept whole so they burst in your mouth. Or we might use coconut strips from a sport coconut, which adds some firmness.”