The term “volatile oil” and the acronym “V.O.” are frequently used in describing individual spices and herbs used as ingredients in seasoning blends. But what does it mean, and how does it impact the flavor of a seasoning blend? The team at Asenzya is here with all the answers.
What is volatile oil or V.O.?
A volatile oil, or V.O. for short, is the chemical compound in the form of oil, which provides the distinct flavor and aroma of the spices and herbs that provide the character of a seasoning blend.
Are volatile oils different from one herb or spice to another?
Yes, they are. Not only are the V.O.s different from one herb or spice to another in terms of flavor and aroma, but they’re also different in level, effect and chemical composition.
What is the relationship between V.O. level – material availability and cost?
If there is a higher V.O. content mandated, the cost of that material will be more as well. This is because there typically is an inverse relationship between the V.O. level and the amount of material available in the marketplace. The higher the V.O. desired, the more scarce the material available, therefore the higher cost.
What impacts the volatile oil level contained in whole plant material?
Many factors impact V.O. level: Growing conditions, such as moisture and temperature, nature’s timing of changes in those conditions, and the length of time favorable or unfavorable conditions exist. The maturity of the plant at time of harvest is also a factor. Since growing conditions can change from year to year in a region, the quality or level of V.O. can vary from one crop year to another, and the quantity of high V.O. material available can change from year to year.
Why does volatile oil diminish over time?
Once harvested, the V.O. content in plant material begins to degrade or diminish. The speed at which V.O. diminishes depends on the material and whether it is whole or ground.
In general, V.O. in seeds degrades much more slowly than V.O. in herbs. This is because a seed is contained, protected by its outer and inner layers, whereas leaf structures do not have equally effective protection. That’s why whole black pepper berries or “corns” in your home pepper grinder provide a still-flavorful ground pepper even after a couple of years, whereas a jar of ground basil opened and used once two years ago may not offer the same flavor when opened again today.
V.O. content of whole material diminishes more slowly than material in ground form, as the whole form is its most protective natural structure.
Grinding whole material disrupts that natural structure, exposing more of the V.O. to air. In addition, the process of grinding creates friction and generates heat, which accelerates the degradation of V.O. That is why a targeted V.O. level for ground material starts with whole material of higher V.O., to allow for some loss of V.O. during grinding and still provide the V.O. level necessary to achieve the desired character of the final seasoning blend.
The speed or pace at which V.O. in spice and herb materials diminishes can be slowed based on how they are stored. Just as refrigeration and freezing have a beneficial effect on meat, spices and herbs benefit from cool, dry storage conditions and deteriorate faster if stored in a hot, humid warehouse.
Is a high V.O. level spice or herb always better in a seasoning blend?
The real question to ask is, “Better for what?”
On a purely mathematical basis, a high V.O. level is better when comparing it to a low V.O. level. On a practical basis, is the high V.O. needed or is it overkill for the application?
Using a spice or herb with a higher rather than lower V.O. in a seasoning blend may sound like a good idea, but if that higher V.O. is not key to the final finished food product in which it is used, that higher V.O. at significantly higher cost may not be “better.”
On the other hand, if that higher V.O. level is of primary importance in delivering the seasoning blend flavor “pop” that provides the principal character of the finished food product, saving money by using a lower V.O. level may provide shortsighted cost savings that in the long term jeopardize the character of the food product that consumers know and expect.
In some instances, using a higher V.O. material at a higher cost may actually save money. How? When sufficiently less material can be used to achieve the same flavor impact (e.g, using higher V.O. level material at twice the cost per pound, but at only one-third the usage level of the lower V.O. material, will yield a cost savings).
Is V.O. available by itself?
Yes, it is. V.O. can be extracted from plant material, usually combined with other materials to form an oleoresin, resulting in material that provides flavor without the solids that offer visual characteristics. For example, incorporating oleoresin of black pepper into a seasoning blend will provide a black pepper note or flavor to the finished food product but without the black specks associated with black pepper. Whether this is beneficial or not depends on how important it is that consumers do or do not see black pepper specks to reinforce the black pepper flavor being tasted.
There are multiple methods of extracting V.O., including expression, hydro or water distillation, water and steam distillation, steam distillation and solvent extraction. What remains after extraction are the solids without any V.O., called spent material.
Spent material is sometimes used as an economic adulterant; cheap flavorless filler mixed with regular ground material. For example, a box of black pepper ground overseas may contain spent material left over from an extraction process. When incorporated into your seasoning blend, it may appear to match your visual expectations, but the flavor and impact on the final food product is put at risk.
Asenzya has chosen since 1953 to maintain our on-site grinding operation, which starts with whole material, to assure freshness of V.O. as well as eliminate the possibility of adulterated material that would put the flavor or safety of customers’ food products at risk. That’s why customers repeatedly say that Asenzya’s seasoning blends offer a flavor “pop” not found elsewhere.
Bottom line: caveat emptor, buyer beware. If a seasoning blend is offered at a price that seems too good to be true, it may contain spices or herbs adulterated with spent material. That below-market price is paying for a below-standard seasoning blend that will have an unintended detrimental effect on the flavor of the final food product consumers receive.
Customers rely on the expertise and experience of Asenzya to assure that spices and herbs used in their seasoning blends contain the V.O. levels specified; that the V.O. levels specified for an individual spice or herb are appropriate in terms of cost and flavor impact for your seasoning blends that Asenzya develops; and that only pure, unadulterated ground spice and herb ingredients are used.