16th December 2020

Ginger is a popular spice now a major part of Christmas tradition in the form of gingerbread. But what makes ginger flavour so pungent? Chemistry explains.

The Chemistry Behind Ginger

The chemistry of the compounds that make up the ginger we find at supermarkets – also known as garden ginger - are responsible for the strong flavor we associate with the spice. What’s more, the compounds are altered when ginger is cooked or dried, influencing the final taste we get when we add the spice to our food.

Fresh raw ginger root consists of various chemical compounds, including zingiberene, which makes up about 30% of the essential oil found in the root. It also consists of other compounds such as ß-sesquiphelandrene and ar-curucumene but the pungency is down to the presence of compounds known as gingerols. Chemically, gingerol is related to capsaicin, the compound that makes chillies so spicy, and piperine, a compound present in black pepper.

Interestingly, some gingerol is altered when ginger is cooked and can even transform into different a different compound. When ginger is heated, gingerol changes and becomes zingerone, due to a reverse aldol reaction. This process softens the pungent taste found in fresh ginger and produces a spicy yet sweet aroma, just like the ginger we can taste in gingerbread.

However, when ginger is dried or slightly heated, gingerol goes through a dehydration process, which forms shogaols – compounds about twice as spicy as gingerol! This explains why when dry, ginger has a much stronger pungency to it than fresh ginger.

It may be more popular over Christmas, but with so many ways to cook and serve ginger, there really isn’t a right or wrong time to enjoy the spice is there?


Compound Chem

Science and Food UCLA

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