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Creating the best Bloody Mary: better living through chemistry

March 29, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times
  • Making a great Bloody Mary requires some good chemistry
Making a great Bloody Mary requires some good chemistry (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

The life of a scientist isn't all boring lab work and dry statistics. Sometimes those folks have fun. Take Neil Da Costa, an expert in chemical analysis of flavors at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. in New Jersey. Da Costa made a presentation Tuesday on what it takes to create the perfect Bloody Mary at the 241st National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim.

"We thought this was an interesting subject that would appeal to the popular masses," said Da Costa, speaking from the conference, "and that it would get people thinking about the chemistry of food."

What does this all have to do with health, you may be thinking? We'll get to that in a minute.

The Bloody Mary, while seemingly a straightforward beverage, is much more complex, chemistry-wise, than most people realize. Making the drink, which allegedly dates back to the 1930s, isn't just a matter of dumping some tomato juice, lemon, spices, Tabasco and vodka into a glass.

"Each of the main ingredients has been shown to contain many flavor components, thus indicating that a Bloody Mary cocktail flavor is a very complex blend of several hundreds of flavor compounds," he writes in the abstract. "These include semi- and non-volatile ingredients with chemesthetic effects such a heat, burn, sour, salty and umami."

Who knew?

Here's how Da Costa broke down the the flavor components in a summary: Tabasco has "heat and burn sensations of capsaicin," tomato juice has lycopene anti-cancer health properties, black pepper offers "tingle effects from piperine," horseradish has "allyl isothiocyanate sinus-clearing effects" and Worcestershire sauce adds umami and an acid taste (umami refers to a pleasing savory taste and is often referred to as the fifth taste after salty, sweet, bitter and sour). Lemon juice adds an "unstable fresh lemon citral mix and sour citric acid," and vodka, of course, adds alcohol.

As for the healthful aspects, there's the lycopene, as previously noted, plus the vitamins and fiber from the celery garnish. Even the small amount of alcohol may be beneficial -- in moderation, of course.

A Bloody Mary is meant to be enjoyed within a finite space of time, Da Costa said, since the ingredients turn, well, funky after sitting a while. "When you get all these ingredients together it makes for an unstable mix," he said, mostly because of the amount of acid in the drink. "It's kept cold to slow that process down, but when it warms up you'll get less of the citrus notes, and some of those notes might become bitter or off-tasting. Then it becomes unpleasant, even if you put ice back into it."

The good news is that premium vodka isn't necessary. "The Bloody Mary is so flavorful and there are so many taste effects," Da Costa said, "that the alcohol is really lost among those components. You're better off having a fair vodka with little taste -- not a cheap one, though, because you'll get a headache from the poor quality of the spirit."

And although the components may be a bit tricky to assemble successfully, Da Costa says experimentation is a good thing, so bring the beakers out and get to work: "People are more willing to experiment now than ever, and that's a good thing. Sometimes it doesn't work, but sometimes it does."

What's your best recipe for a great Bloody Mary?

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