There is an ingredient that has been around for thousands of years and even though it is used widely in a vast number of products, few people know what it is, where it comes from and what it tastes like. The chances are everyone has probably eaten or drunk something containing this ingredient on several occasions during the past week. If they started the day with a breakfast cereal or piece of toast, enjoyed some popular chocolate confectionery or toasted their evening meal with a beer or two then they will definitely have benefitted from this lovely ingredient.

Malt is an exceptionally versatile ingredient, bringing a range of benefits to a wide variety of products, yet pin individuals down and ask them what it is and the answers can be surprising. In a recent informal study one respondent answered, "Malt? My cat does that in the summer". Yet the taste of malt is well recognised once it is linked to popular malted milk drinks or the famous topselling malted chocolate balls that even include the word ‘malt’ in their name.

"The addition of just a small percentage of malt extract will enhance the flavour of savoury ingredients without imparting the actual taste of malt itself."

When pushed, the products that most people are likely to associate with malt are whisky, vinegar, malt loaf and malted milk drinks. Ironically, one of the largest uses for malt is in the brewing of beer. The problem is this; ask the average person and many believe beer is just made from barley and hops.

It is believed that malt was created by accident around 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. Grains may have been left out in the rain by mistake following their harvest, which then started to grow. To save wasting them, they were spread on rugs in the baking sun until they were dry, and suddenly the grains had been transformed from bland cereals to something more sweet and tasty – malt had been created. The process of making malt today remains largely unchanged, it has just been scaled up and mechanised by modern maltsters who are now able to control all the processes accurately to ensure consistency and quality. During malting, enzymes are naturally developed and released within the grain that can convert starch into sugar, and it is these complex sugars that give malt its distinctive taste.

An ideal ingredient

In its simplest form, as a grain, malt is an ideal base from which to brew beer or make the base for distillation into malt whisky. But these simple grains can be further processed into useful malted ingredients, making them ideal for use in a wide variety of products. For the baking industry they are milled into flour, cut into kibbles, and lightly toasted and rolled into flakes. When used in baked products these malted ingredients will add texture, improve visual appeal, enhance colour and, of course, introduce a wonderful malt flavour. These lovely textured kibbles and flakes can also be used in pastry to introduce a rustic feel or even used as a replacement for nuts and seeds – great in pesto, for example.

Perhaps the best-known malted ingredient is malt extract, the thick viscous syrup made by extracting the malt sugars and concentrating them using multi-effect evaporators that remove much of the water. The resultant thick malt syrup is sweet to taste (although only about half as sweet as sugar) with a lovely rich malt flavour. By varying the processing temperatures and the blend of malts used in the process, a wide variety of malt extracts and syrups can be produced with varying colours and flavour intensities. The addition of just a small percentage of malt extract will enhance the flavour of savoury ingredients without imparting the actual taste of malt itself. Pies, casseroles, stews and sauces all benefit from a small dash of malt extract. Not only are flavours and savoury notes enhanced but sauces become shiny and visually more appealing – without the addition of fat. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the marked improvement in mouthfeel, making the eating experience a rich and pleasant occasion.

Malt extract contains naturally developed sugars that are more slowly digested than simple sugars, providing a more sustained energy release. In Asia, malt extract is commonly combined with milk and other flavours to produce cold malted-milk drinks as a thirst-quenching, energy-boosting drink. In other parts of the world, malted milk drinks are served hot as a bedtime drink to stave off night hunger. Either way, their popularity has proved timeless with a history stretching way back into the late 1800s. In the US, in the 1950s, a ‘malt’ or ‘malty’ became the generic term for a milkshake, so popular was the malted milk drink. Ask for a malt today in the US and there is a 50/50 chance of getting handed a milkshake or a whisky.

The sweet truth

Sweets and desserts benefit greatly from the inclusion of a little malt extract, often used to replace some of the simple sugars to reduce overall sweetness. In chocolatebased products such as brownies, cakes, muffins, cupcakes and cookies, malt extract will enhance the chocolate flavour, enabling a reduction in cocoa inclusion. This lowers the cost and rounds flavours by reducing the bitterness from cocoa, and as malt extract is a natural humectant, it helps improve the quality by increasing the moisture content. A side benefit is that malt extract will encourage cakes to brown more rapidly, reducing bake time. Typically malt inclusion will bring about a 15% saving in energy or enable a 15% increase in daily production throughput.

"Made from roasted malt, Muntons offers a range of ultra-dark extracts designed specifically to impart a wonderful colour, and introduce a subtle bitterness and clean label with no Enumbers."

There is a natural affinity between malt, chocolate and milk, so it is not surprising to discover that some of the most popular chocolate bars and snacks contain malt. Some even feature the word in their title, others simply rely on the inclusion of malt to make their products irresistible and moreish. Yet malt can be included for other reasons. Looking for a natural dark colour to enrich appearance but want to avoid E numbers? Then malt extract may well be the answer. Made from roasted malt, Muntons offers a range of ultra-dark extracts designed specifically to impart a wonderful colour, and introduce a subtle bitterness and clean label with no E numbers. Perfect for sugar and gum confectionery.

In a recent trial, malt extract was added to fruit smoothies to enhance berry fruit flavours. The control was made, and the taste was acceptable – if a little tart. An identical version with a small quantity of malt extract added had a much richer, more rounded flavour that was slightly sweeter but with noticeably more intense fruit notes. The same was tried with a banana smoothie, but when it came to tasting the version with malt extract added, the banana aroma and flavour were notably absent. Interestingly, in this instance the malt extract had masked the banana flavour. This trait highlights another useful application of malt extract – as a masking agent, particularly useful in products such as soya milk drinks, damping down the slightly ‘green’ soya notes.

People can be very passionate about malt. This versatile ingredient brings a host of benefits to the creative food and drinks manufacturer. It can introduce the great taste of malt, enhance flavours, bring a shine to sauces, add colour and texture, help convert starch into sugars and even mask unwanted flavours.