Texture: What French Fries Can Teach Us about the Bevs We Love

Imagine a plate of really awesome french fries; now imagine a plate of really terrible french fries. What makes the one different from the other?

This is a prompt I’ve started to use when training new baristas to steam milk (and, incidentally, I stole it from James Hoffman). I’ll ask you, too, dear reader: good fries, bad fries—what’s the diff?

Here is a pretty typical answer: “Good french fries are kind of crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Bad fries are mushy or soggy.”

You may notice the presence of words describing texture in this answer. Pretty much every answer to this question will involve descriptions of texture. You may also notice the lack of words describing taste or aroma or anything else about the plate of fries. Many—perhaps most—answers will use only descriptions of texture.

Now to the point: good texture is an integral sensory component not only of enjoyable fries or other solid foods, but of enjoyable beverages, as well. I use the french fry question in barista training because properly textured milk is the most important ingredient in any hot milk beverage a barista can make. It will make or break the drink. This may be obvious if you’ve ever had a cappuccino or latte.

Texture in beverages can be as apparent as the silkiness of steamed milk, or the viscosity of a cocktail made with egg, or the presence of carbonation in beer or wine or soda. It can be as subtle as slight variations in levels of undissolved liquids and solids in wine or beer or brewed coffee. All of these sorts of sensations of texture in the mouth are what we refer to as “mouthfeel.”

I found the word intimidating at first. Mouthfeel. Maybe because I associate it with lists of pricey wines whose flavor profiles are described in terms of fruits I’ve never heard of. But mouthfeel is just this: the feeling in your mouth of something that you are consuming. Is it creamy or heavy or round or watery or oily or chalky? Is it crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside or total mushy bullshit french fries? Whether you are aware of it or not, texture plays a major part in the way you perceive your your beer, wine, coffee, tea, whatevercetera; you may find it worthwhile to give it just a moment of thought on your next sip.