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The Science of Maceration

Giving fruit a good soak can bring out its best

June/July 2017 Issue
photos: Scott Phillips; illustrations: Haisam Hussein
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Maceration is a process of breaking down and softening various substances. In food preparation, the process most often occurs when soaking fruit in sugar, alcohol, or other flavored liquids with the goals of softening and flavoring the fruit.

Why Macerate?

Maceration changes a fruit’s flavor and texture and is useful for improving the texture of hard, underripe fresh fruit as well as for flavoring fruit at the peak of ripeness. When fruit is macerated, it softens and releases some of its flavor and aroma compounds through its plasmodesmata, which are small channels in the wall of a plant cell that allow molecules and substances to pass through (both in and out) as needed. After maceration, fruit becomes something new, a complex mingling of flavors and textures. The soft fruit and liquid have many uses: a tasty dessert on its own topped with a dollop of whipped cream; a sauce for ice cream or cake; or a filling for pie or a cake where it adds not only flavor, but color and moisture.

Osmosis Has a Role

Osmosis is a process in which a fluid flows through a semipermeable membrane (such as a cell wall) from an area of lower concentration to one of higher concentration. Salt and sugar are two of the most common catalysts for osmosis, so putting either ingredient into your maceration mixture will trigger the process. When either comes in contact with food, it works to reach a state of equilibrium with the water content of the food itself to balance the concentration of the salt or sugar in the solution, so beginning the process of osmosis; available water contained within the cells of the fruit is drawn out. The loss of water from the fruit causes it to soften; it also concentrates its natural flavors.

Osmosis works pretty much the same way when fruit is macerated in alcohol because alcohol, like sugar, is hydrophilic and will “steal” water from the fruit, with other flavor molecules along for the ride.

Sweet Spot

Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts and bonds with water. When you macerate with sugar, the water in the fruit is drawn out into the surrounding sugar. As water leaves the fruit, its cells lose volume, reducing the internal pressure on the fruit’s cell walls, which then relax, causing the fruit to soften.

Mediums for Maceration

Liquids for maceration include liquors, liqueurs, wine, fruit juice, vinegars, and water that may (and in the case of water must) be infused with all sorts of flavorings, like spices, herbs, tea, and coffee. When it’s sprinkled on fruit, sugar draws out moisture, creating its own juicy medium for maceration. Liquids for maceration are sometimes heated to hasten the process or to infuse flavors prior to maceration (see below) but maceration does not require the application of heat.

Flavor Boost

Liquids that have already been infused with flavor provide the fastest flavor transfer to the macerating fruit. For instance, it’s best to macerate fruit in a cinnamon-infused liquid rather than adding a cinnamon stick directly to a cold water-based maceration liquid. However, alcohol extracts flavor really effectively. When using a liquid with a high alcohol content, such as whiskey, you can add any mix of whole spices, aromatics, or other flavorful solids because their flavors will be extracted without heating.

Are We There Yet?

The length of time for macerating fruit can vary from about 30 minutes to a couple of days. To calculate an approximate time, consider a few factors: the thickness of the fruit’s skin, the softness of the flesh, and the resulting softness you want for the dish you’re preparing. If you are macerating several fruits together, consider the order in which you add the fruit to the liquid. Start firmer-fleshed or tougher-skinned (if unpeeled) fruits first to give them a head start.

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