Bakers/Food scientists: Mystery flavor in scones
May 4, 2022 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Every now and then I treat myself to a scone from a certain shop. They have a particular flavor to them I can't identify. Can you offer guesses - based on the additional info below the fold - about what the ingredient might be?

First, a request: Please resist any urge to give me advice/suggestions to ask someone associated with the making or selling of these scones. I want guidance or guesses from your knowledge. Thanks!

The scones come from a single-location bakehouse with limited repertoire of good quality products. They are normal color and texture, so the ingredient is something that doesn't show up visibly. There's a sweet scone and a savory scone and those ingredients change periodically, yet this "undertone" flavor is there consistently.

I can't describe the taste, but could respond occasionally to guesses. I don't think it's a sweetener, or a chemically flavor like baking soda/powder. Could it be a special type of flour? Powdered milk? Some kind of enrichment ingredient for body/texture?

Hope me with your baking expertise, please!
posted by dancing leaves to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My guess would be use of lard vs. butter or shortening.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:19 AM on May 4 [7 favorites]

Maybe a touch of nutmeg, or perhaps caraway?
posted by mono blanco at 5:22 AM on May 4

Scones (base recipe, minus any mix-ins) are likely to contain: flour, sugar, butter or shortening or lard, cream or milk or yogurt, eggs, leavener (usually baking powder), salt.

My first guess before reading below the fold was the leavener. If it isn't a chemical taste, my next guess would be that they use lard as sexyrobot said.

Is the flavor slightly fruity? They might also be using a base recipe with bananas or applesauce incorporated.

Less likely: really good eggs taste richer so maybe eggs. Maybe they use a bit of whole wheat or other specialty flour. Yogurt as dairy if the taste is tangy. Turbinado sugar would add a maltier flavor.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 5:24 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]

If they're using lard I would expect that to be disclosed somewhere on the menu as not vegetarian friendly, so check around for a note like that.

Most scones have a little vanilla as a flavoring. They could be using a different flavor extract, or like mb suggests, a small amount of an aromatic spice rather than an extract.
posted by phunniemee at 5:25 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

Another possibility would be buttermilk rather than plain milk/cream, which I think is more traditional than yogurt but has a similar tangy flavor.

(And if they use buttermilk powder, it can clump up, which I find makes it more taste-able since you sometimes get sudden bursts of it.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:37 AM on May 4 [7 favorites]

They may use cream of tartar (tartaric acid) as one of the raising agents. We have used a recipe that includes this and the scones have a different taste to those made with normal baking powder as leavening.
posted by dowcrag at 5:48 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]

If you don’t eat a lot of butter, the milky taste of uncooked butter can really stand out. Could they be brushing the tops with melted butter?
A sprinkle of flaky salt on top of things (even sweet things) can also be quite noticeable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:55 AM on May 4

My guess is that these are sourdough scones. I’ve only had them from a couple of bakeries and it would fit your situation. The starter base was used for all scone varieties, it didn’t alter the look, from what I recall, and the flavor was distinct.
posted by zenon at 6:00 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

Both might have an egg wash on top? Almond paste has a very distinct flavor. Not sure if that is put in anything savory. Malt? That is sometimes used for making bagels.
posted by mokeydraws at 6:03 AM on May 4

Margarine. For me, margarine is always discernible in a way butter and lard aren't. It has a slightly synthetic, but not artificial, taste.
posted by mani at 6:07 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

So, things to try based on the guesses so far:
  1. Is the flavor homogenous through the whole scone? Just on the top? (Points to salt or a wash.) Just the bottom? (Probably a fat or cooking spray that they're using to grease the pan, or a cooking fat that melts out and pools at the bottom.) Specifically clustered somewhere else?
  2. Do you still taste it with your nose plugged? This is a good proxy for "is it a basic taste like sour or sweet, or an aroma like you get from spices?"
  3. Does it show up in non-scone quick breads from the same place, like muffins or banana bread? This would point to a nonstandard version of a basic ingredient — maybe they use a fat other than butter in everything, or buy extra-rich eggs, or use a weird leavening, or etc.
  4. Do they sell sourdough bread? If they do, does it taste similar?

posted by nebulawindphone at 6:15 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]

My money is on buttermilk, yogurt, possibly cream cheese or another soft cheese.
posted by Dashy at 6:22 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

I would also guess buttermilk or sourdough, or the leavening process.

Either of those would not be visible. I have a baker near me that makes sourdough brioche and it is fantastically different than regular brioche such that its an acquired taste. But just a slightly longer rise would also give out this enhanced flavor.
posted by vacapinta at 6:29 AM on May 4

Brown butter in baked goods is absolutely delectable but can be hard to place if you're not used to tasting it. It gives a nice oomph, and some nuttiness depending on how browned the butter is. I've made rice krispy treats with brown butter and no one could place the taste but every person said they were the best rice krispy treats they'd ever had.
posted by rachaelfaith at 7:04 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

I think others have called it. But, another remote possibility is fennel. It would be kind of strange to use it in *every* scone of any kind. But, it's not uncommon to find in scones and can be pretty subtle.
posted by eotvos at 7:19 AM on May 4

I'm afraid that this really isn't much to go on without some kind of description of the taste, even a general one. Is it sweet? Sour? Fruity? Herbal? Warm-and-spicy? Salty? Umami? Chemical-y? Meaty?

Seriously, any thing you could add could help - I once heard someone describe a flavor as being "like if you liked an old woman's cupboard", and as bananas as a description that was, somehow I knew what he was talking about. Anything you can say about this flavor might help.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on May 4 [10 favorites]

Cinnamon on the baking sheet (rather than in the recipe itself) can give baked goods a more subtle, harder-to-identify flavour. I find it a bit woody/smoky, and it doesn't necessarily read as sweet to me, so it can work fine with savoury flavours.
posted by quizzical at 7:55 AM on May 4

Someone mentioned it above but I wanted to highlight cardamom. It is a very distinctive taste which I don’t much care for in baked goods. There is a Scandinavian bakery locally that uses it in some of their breads and sweet rolls and it is definitely one of those *whoa* moments when you bite into one.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:22 AM on May 4

Is it a “spice” type of flavor, or a “sharp” type of flavor, or a round, savory, wholesome type of flavor?
posted by mekily at 9:15 AM on May 4

Stella Parks suggests adding malt powder to baked goods, describing it as the sweet equivalent of savory umami bombs.
posted by indexy at 10:03 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

Does the bakery happen to be Scandinavian or German?
Hartshorn salt (ammonium carbonate), also known simply as hartshorn, and baker's ammonia, was used as a leavening agent, in the baking of cookies and other edible treats. It was used mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a forerunner of baking powder.[7] A half-teaspoon of hartshorn can substitute for one teaspoon of baking powder. It is called for in old German and Scandinavian recipes and, although rarely used in modern times, may still be purchased as a baking ingredient. Hartshorn helps molded cookies such as Springerle to retain their intricate designs during baking. Cookies made with hartshorn can be kept for a long time without hardening.
I think this is one of the sources of the distinctive flavor of Animal Crackers, if that helps.
posted by jamjam at 10:04 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]

"like if you liked an old woman's cupboard"

posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:46 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

"like if you liked an old woman's cupboard"

Quick since this was a tangent: it was an episode of QI, and it was Alan Davies' story about an elderly fan who gave him a Kit-Kat that was five years past its sell-by date; he ate it anyway and said "it tasted exactly like an old lady's cupboard."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:34 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, I ate another scone this morning. Probably the slowest and most mindfully eaten scone of my life to date! And I'm back here to report on my observations and respond to questions and guesses.

The mystery flavor is evenly distributed throughout the scone. No matter how small a piece I eat, it is there. So, no egg wash, sprinkle of salt, etc. on top, and nothing on the baking sheet.

It’s not a spice, seasoning, flavor extract, or fruit. I think I’d recognize any of those mentioned.

I doubt it’s lard, by taste and by the fact they tout their partners, one of which is a creamery - and their advertising includes ‘made with butter and love’. They don’t allude to any German or Scandinavian heritage; for what it’s worth, their products are mostly of French derivation.

Describing the flavor still eludes me. It’s not fruity, or tangy, or sour, or creamy, or sharp, or herbal, or spicy, or salty, or meaty. Maybe a bit warm, maybe umami. It’s rounded and smooth, and not earthy but somehow "low" or "close to the ground". Sorry, best I can do.

I’m doubtful of buttermilk, because it’s not at all sour/tangy, and because the flavor seems like it came from something dry, not wet. I know how weird that sounds, so I’m skeptical of myself, but…

I think I’d recognize the flavor of a sourdough. I’m as certain as I can be (92%) that it’s not yogurt or cream cheese, etc.

Could it be a corn product, possibly some kind of finely-ground corn meal? I detect a hint of almost-graininess. And though it doesn’t really taste like the outside of a tamale, but there’s something kind of related, maybe? It’s hard to imagine there being enough to impart the flavor as strongly as it does in even the tiniest morsel.

I’m not familiar enough with cream of tartar, malt, or animal crackers to have an opinion about those possibilities.

The pinched nose test was inconclusive.

I will endeavor to do some recon with bakery staff, though anyone familiar with the culture of the state I’m currently living in will sympathize with the degree of passive-aggressive niceness I’m going up against. (lol) I may see if they have a different quick bread product that I can eat. If they sell a sourdough, I will try that and report back.
posted by dancing leaves at 6:36 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

That is REALLY helpful, thank you!

You say that there's a "graininess" to it - I wonder if they are dusting their baking sheets with cornmeal or semolina? That's something I've often seen suggested for baking (more so with pizza than with scones, but still), and if they used cornmeal that might lend that hint of "tamale" you also say you get.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:11 AM on May 5

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