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How to Make Good Food Taste Even Better

In the spirit of helping people enjoy the highest quality gourmet experiences, we at team Chefstro are pleased to introduce the first installment of “Appetite for Deconstruction,” a series of essays that will explore the intersection of science and food culture.

What do we mean when we say that something “tastes” good? I love garlicky fried rice, and coconut-milk-based curries, and IPA, but I couldn’t tell you why – I just do. When I watch Masterchef, though, I see Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot break down the taste of each dish minutely, down to its subtlest components. If you’ve ever watched this show, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Are all of those hints of flavor really there, I’ve sometimes wondered, or are the hosts just being pretentious?

Turns out, they’re not being pretentious at all, and this essay is essentially an argument for taking this sort of flavor deconstruction seriously. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but as a recent convert and a real neophyte when it comes to mindful tasting, I want to lay out my reasons for thinking that the food snobs are onto something that the rest of us can learn to understand and enjoy.

A scientific report published in 2011 uses the word “palatability” to describe the degree to which we “like” a food (Ahn et al.). And palatability has three broad components: taste, flavor, and freshness. We often use the first two terms interchangeably, but taste and flavor are, biologically speaking, totally distinct. Taste is gustatory, meaning that it is registered on the taste buds, whereas flavor is olfactory, meaning that it is registered in the nasal passages. What some call “freshness” encompasses textural properties like crunchiness or creaminess, but it also includes other impressions like spiciness and the “coolness” of menthol. Essentially, “freshness” refers to the somatosensory impressions that our facial muscles and nerves register.

If all of this seems academic, consider the experiences of two people at a musical performance. Jessica has studied music, and although she’s not a musician, she understands basic concepts of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Nick doesn’t know anything about music theory, but he’s a music enthusiast. What kind of conversation might they have after the event? Nick may be able to speak in general terms about what he liked or didn’t like, but Jessica – if she thought Nick would understand her – could discuss harmonic intervals, time signatures, and so on. More important, her experience of the music itself would be colored by this knowledge. I’m not suggesting that Nick can’t enjoy himself, but I do think that being able to discriminate among the components that our senses coordinate into an impression can lead to a richer appreciation of just about any experience.

tongue map

Think about taste again. Most of us, at one point or another during our education, were exposed to a “taste map” of the tongue, showing the regions where our taste buds detect each of the four “main” tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Turns out, though, that scientists think this map is bogus. Developed in 1942 by Edwin G. Boring (no kidding, that’s his real name), the map doesn’t even include “umami,” a Japanese word for the “savory” or “meaty” taste of proteins. Twenty-first century scientists agree that umami names an important gustatory impression. Describing the taste of a dish without reference to umami would be like discussing a Beatles song without talking about the bass line, or even knowing that such a thing exists – it can be done, but you’d be missing something pretty wonderful.

funny tongue map

In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Cell Biology, Chaudhari and Roper explain that our taste buds play an important role with respect to biological survival. Taste is “the sensory modality that guides organisms to identify and consume nutrients while avoiding toxins and indigestible materials.” Sweet tastes indicate the presence of carbohydrates, which our bodies turn into energy; salty tastes reflect the presence of sodium and other salts, which our bodies use to regulate water balance and blood circulation; sour tastes indicate dietary acids, which we tend to avoid (as in spoiled food); bitter tastes alert us to the presence of poisons; and without “umami,” we might not recognize the proteins that we need to grow and stay healthy. Clearly, then, any model of taste which excludes umami is flawed.

taste wheel

The five main tastes, the names of their taste receptors, and diagrams of their transmembrane topologies. Scientists suspect that we may have receptors that give us the taste of “fat,” as well.

But this isn’t the only problem with the Boring map. According to Chaudhari and Roper, “the oft-quoted concept of a ‘tongue-map’ defining distinct zones for sweet, bitter, salty, and sour has largely been discredited.” If this is true, people who accept the map as fact may be fooling themselves into a pretty limited experience of taste. Looking for sweetness only on the tip of the tongue, for example, they may ignore sensory information coming from other parts of the mouth, like the soft palate and even the epiglottis. Having carved up our understanding of taste into Boring’s four categories, we may overlook the richness of umami. We may be like Nick, nodding our heads to “Glass Onion” but never noticing how Paul’s bass line relates to all the other parts and completes them. And taste is only one component of our experience of food! In order to account for other impressions, like “mint,” we need another category: flavor.

You’ve probably heard that “taste” largely depends on the sense of smell. If by “taste” we mean the overall experience of a bite of food, then popular knowledge and science agree: the nose plays an important role in our enjoyment of food. But strictly speaking, the tongue picks up tastes, and the nose flavors. Thus, in the food world, “flavor” is really synonymous with aroma, odorant, and fragrance. You can verify this for yourself by conducting the following experiment, suggested by foodpairing.com:

1. Mix together a small amount of sugar and cinnamon.
2. Hold your nose.
3. Put a bit of the mixture on your tongue.

You won’t detect the cinnamon until you unstop your nose, which means that your tongue cannot detect its “flavor” – only its sweetness. Being able to appreciate the distinction between flavor and taste is just the beginning, though.

cucumber flavor profile

The flavor profile of a cucumber, according to foodpairing.com. Spikes indicate prominent flavor compounds.

While we usually think of food – let’s say an apple – as having “a” flavor, most foods actually have a spectrum of flavors. Harold McGee, who has made scientific analyses of kitchen techniques accessible to the general reader, explains: “Flavor is a composite quality. A ripe fruit may contain hundreds of different aromatic compounds, and the same goes for a roast” (390). McGee notes that sometimes, as with cinnamon or anise, a single compound accounts for the predominant flavor, but in most cases, what we call “the” flavor of a food is actually a kind of symphony of various flavor compounds. His 1984 book On Food and Cooking, an important contribution to the relatively new field of “molecular gastronomy,” includes charts that identify the main aroma compounds of a variety of spices and herbs. Such charts offer home cooks a guide for experimenting with new combinations of ingredients, and they demonstrate that scientific knowledge of food doesn’t belong solely to food snobs – or it doesn’t have to, anyway.

Using gas chromatography and coupled mass spectrometry, the scientists at foodpairing.com have also created culinary tools that can help any home cook. First, they identify the flavor profile of a food – let’s say cucumber. Then they create a food pairing “tree,” which identifies the foods that have compatible flavor profiles – that is, foods that have flavor components in common. Anyone can use such pairing trees to design menus around foods that will complement one another. For example, blue cheese and chocolate share 73 flavor compounds, and this kind of scientific knowledge has encouraged restaurants to offer surprising combinations that nevertheless taste good together.

cucumber foodpairing tree

In an article he wrote for Food & Wine last year, Ray Isle describes how taking a molecular-gastronomic approach to food can help people break out of the grooves they have worn into their culinary lives. Isle tests some of the menus François Chartier suggests in his 2012 book Taste Buds and Molecules. Chartier’s book explains that combinations like salmon, black coffee, Chinese five-spice powder, and Zinfandel work together because of the odorants each component shares with the others. Without knowledge of these flavor compounds, cooks might never imagine putting such disparate ingredients together on the same table. And adventurous foodies would miss out on singularly delicious meals.

All of this aromatic harmony is fine, but the deeper I got into my research for this essay, the more I wondered – as a natural-born contrarian – what molecular gastronomists might have to say about contrasting flavors rather than matching ones. I’ve often heard the experts on Masterchef, for example, compliment a contestant for using citrus or vinegar to counterbalance the richness of a dish. This makes intuitive sense to me, and it turns out to make some scientific sense, too.

My curiosity about flavor contrasts led me to the paper by Ahn et al. The authors set out to determine whether food-pairing tendencies are universal, vary from culture to culture, or follow no particular pattern at all. They asked themselves, “do we more frequently use ingredient pairs that are strongly linked in the flavor network or do we avoid them?” Their analysis draws from 58,498 recipes (from epicurious.com, allrecipes.com, and menupan.com) grouped into 5 cuisine families. They found that North American and Western European cuisines tend toward “recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds,” whereas “East Asian and Southern European cuisines avoid recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds.”

flavor principles

This makes me think that my time living in Thailand, when I developed a taste for a much broader array of foods than I had ever enjoyed before, has predisposed me to favor dishes with contrasting flavor profiles. The resources I used in writing this piece focus on shared flavors, but then again they mostly come from European and North American culinary traditions, so that isn’t surprising. If you know of molecular-gastronomic treatments of flavor contrast, do let me know in a comment.

This is no idle curiosity on my part – I would put those principles to work in my kitchen, and I hope that I’m not alone. The molecular approach has much to offer the everyday home cook. It’s less about geeking out on the science, though, than about really paying attention to what’s happening in the kitchen and on the plate. Barb Stuckey, a professional taster and food marketer, makes a strong case for more mindful eating in her 2012 book Taste. Her goal in writing the book was to raise awareness, because the science of taste is almost universally overlooked: “wine-tasting courses are common and there are hundreds of books on the fundamentals of tasting wine. Yet I’d never heard of a food-tasting course and there seemed to be no books on the subject” (3). Chaudhari and Roper agree. “Taste research,” they write, “although making tremendous strides in recent years, has exposed major gaps in our understanding.”

All of this matters because food is so central to our lives. Food not only provides us with physical sustenance, it also reinforces social relationships. At meal times, we bond with our friends and families, we forge new business and personal relationships, and we share one of our most universal forms of pleasure. If there are simple ways to amplify this pleasure, I think we ought to know about them.

Scientific experiments prove that eating more mindfully actually does result in a higher-quality experience. Hervé This, a prominent figure in the world of molecular gastronomy, writes that “chewing slowly deepens the perception of odorant molecules in cooked food” (115). Remember, odorants make it possible for us to taste flavors like cinnamon, mint, cucumber, truffle, chocolate . . . just about everything that lies beyond the basic categories of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.

Reading about eating mindfully, I couldn’t help thinking of Graham Elliot taking a bite of a Masterchef contestant’s dish, tilting his head up, and looking at the ceiling, as though to prevent everything else in the room from distracting him from the tastes and flavors. There was a time when I saw this gesture as pretentious, but not anymore. If there really are flavors to be detected – flavors which I have been missing due to my own ignorance – why wouldn’t I want to get a taste of them?

Barb Stuckey concludes her book with 15 tips about how to get more out of every bite. I paraphrase the first five:

1. Chew well – meaning slowly and gently.
2. Treat eating the way you treat sex. That is, focus. Don’t distract yourself.
3. Avoid “sensory-specific satiety.” Move back and forth among dishes, cleansing your palate with something neutral like water or a cracker between each bite. If you eat bite after bite of the same thing, your senses become adapted to it and you notice less and less of what it has to offer.
4. Practice food appreciation at home using the exercises she suggests in the book. (tease)
5. Consciously attend to how each of your senses is being stimulated. Discriminate the colors from the flavors from the textures from the tastes…

Stuckey suggests that more mindful eating can not only help us take greater pleasure in food, but can also help people lose weight: “. . . if you can feel more confident that you will derive optimal satisfaction from every bite, you’ll be less likely to take unmemorable bites. You won’t waste precious mouthfuls on food that doesn’t taste delicious to you” (8). I suspect she’s right about this, but I don’t much care. If anybody can learn to get more enjoyment out of food, that in itself is the best argument for seeking out this kind of knowledge.

Learning how to taste food more mindfully should, I think, involve at least a touch of molecular gastronomy. I can’t imagine how I’ll pick up some of my food’s subtle flavors unless I know to look for them, after all. I’m still not sure exactly why I love garlicky fried rice, or coconut-based curries, or IPA, but now I at least have a framework for trying to figure it out. I suspect that finding the answers will help me enjoy them even more – and who wouldn’t want their favorite foods to taste even better?

Everyone at team Chefstro is dedicated to helping people get the most out of the food they share with family and friends. Take a look at the fine-dining experiences we offer, and put a personal chef in the kitchen for your next celebration or dinner party.

Works Cited

Anh, Yong-Yeol, et al. “Flavor Network and Principles of Food Pairing.” Scientific Reports 1 (15 December 2011). Web. 18 August 2013. http://www.nature.com/srep/2011/111215/srep00196/full/srep00196.html.

Chartier, Francios. Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Print.

Chaudhari, Nirupa and Stephen D. Roper. “The Cell Biology of Taste.” Journal of Cell Biology: 190.3 (9 August 2010). Web. 12 August 2013. http://jcb.rupress.org/content/190/3/285.full.

Isle, Ray. “Getting Food Pairing Down to a Science.” Food & Wine September 2012. Web. 14 August 2013. http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/getting-pairing-down-to-a-science.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Revised Ed. NY: Scribner, 2004. Print.

“The Science Behind Foodpairing.” Foodpairing.com. Sense for Taste, n.d. Web. 14 August 2013. https://www.foodpairing.com/en/what-is-foodpairing/the-science-behind/.

Stucky, Barb. Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good. Reprint Ed. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.

This, Hervé. Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Trans. Malcolm DeBevoise. NY: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.

Photo Credits

Test molecule: http://www.wired.com
Red Thai curry: http://www.kitchenoperas.com
IPA: The author snapped this shot of an IPA he enjoyed at the Chatham Squire, where he was lunching with his parents.
Tongue map: http://www.musingsonthevine.com
Funny tongue map: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/03/20/science/20QA.html
Taste wheel: http://www.jcb.rupress.org/content/190/3/285.full
Cucumber flavor profile and foodpairing tree: http://www.foodpairing.com/en/what-is-foodpairing/the-science-behind/
Salmon: http://www.shopfreshseafood.com
Black coffee: http://www.beanfruit.com
Chinese five-spice powder: http://www.yumsugar.com
Zinfandel: http://www.beveragefactory.com