Of the latest emerging 2020s food trends, one of the most innovative and exciting is the use of non-psychoactive plant compounds like cannabinoids extracted from hemp (e.g. CBD) and terpenes. Because they aren’t psychoactive, terpenes are fully legal in all countries and don’t cause the intoxication or “high” associated with cannabinoids extracted from marijuana, like tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC).
Terpene infused foods are all the rage, and for good reason. Not only do they offer superior flavor and aroma profiles; they may offer added health benefits as well. However, it’s important for dabblers and aspiring creators of infused culinary creations to understand a few key factors when selecting which terpenes to use in cooking.
What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are a large and diverse class of organic compounds produced by a variety of plants, including conifers, citrus fruits, and other flowering plants. They are typically biosynthesized from isoprene units which give them their distinctive characteristics. Terpenes are responsible for the aroma and flavor of many plant products, and have been found to have medicinal and therapeutic properties in ongoing research.
Terpenes are generally categorized by the number of isoprene units they contain, with each unit consisting of five carbon atoms and eight hydrogen atoms. They can range from very simple hydrocarbons such as monoterpenes, which contain two isoprene units, to more complex molecules such as sesquiterpenes, which contain three isoprene units. Some terpenes are even more complex and volatile, containing up to thirty isoprene units.
Benefits of Terpenes
The diverse range of terpenes produced by different plants have a variety of functions and potential applications, including in flavorings, fragrances, and medical uses. Citrus terpenes are often used for their sweet and tart flavors in food products, while others like menthol and eucalyptol are commonly used as cough suppressants and antiseptic agents. In addition, a number of studies have shown that certain terpenes may also have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects.
As of this writing, the most thoroughly researched and established aspects of terpenes are their aromatic properties, along with their positive implications on food preparation. The True Blue guide “Terpene Boiling Points: Why do They Matter?” explains the ideal temperature ranges for preserving the beneficial properties of popular terpenes when creating consumables like food, beverages and vaping liquids.
Overall, terpenes are incredibly versatile molecules with a diverse range of uses. Despite their small size, they have the potential to make a big impact on our lives. As research continues to uncover new information about the physiological effects of terpenes, it is likely that we will continue to see an increasing number of applications for them in the future.
Terpene Flavor & Aroma Profiles
A good rule of thumb when cooking with terpenes is to take stock of the ingredients used in any given dish, and then hand selecting terps with complementary flavor and aroma profiles. Herbaceous terpenes, for example, would be well suited for a salad or vinaigrette, while citrusy terpenes are likely to be a better fit in marinades and beverages.
It’s important to do at least a little research on terpene flavor and aroma profiles before utilizing them in the kitchen. The nomenclature around terpenes is fairly intuitive in some cases, such as with limonene (i.e. lemon, citrus) and pinene (i.e. pine, resin) — but less obvious in others like humulene and alpha-bisabolol.
To close out this short guide, let’s look at three examples of terpene flavor and aroma profiles, as well as what they’re best suited to below.
- Caryophyllene is an often under-appreciated terpene that has a strong, spicy aroma reminiscent of peppercorns. It can also have woody and herbaceous notes associated with cloves and cinnamon. Its flavor profile provides complexity to many dishes, and it is often used to enhance the taste of meats and savory dishes.
- Linalool is a floral and sweet-smelling terpene that’s been used in perfumery for centuries. Its delicate aroma is reminiscent of lavender, ginger and bergamot. On the palate, linalool leaves a pleasant sensation with notes of basil, rosemary, geranium and pepper. Linalool is a particularly versatile terpene when used in food preparation, but is a favorite in pastry items like pie and cheesecake.
Myrcene occurs naturally in many plants and herbs, with some of the highest concentrations found in hops, bay leaves, thyme, lemon grass, and mangoes. It has a strong earthy and herbaceous aroma with a sweet note reminiscent of cloves or musk. It also has a musky, balsamic, and woody-like aroma with fruity undertones that make it a good addition in vinaigrettes and stuffings.