Taste and perceptions of food
I previously did a blog on what makes a great salad. In that blog post, I wrote a bit about different tastes, and textures and how they make a salad interesting and taste great. By varying the dressing, greens, vegetables, proteins and textures, we can make endless combinations of salad and never get bored. This will not be a repeat of that previous post as this post highlights our sense of taste and what makes us perceive a dish as delicious, as well as flavor combinations that make food taste really good.
I love watching the Food Network show, Chopped. If you have never seen the show, the basic premis is four chef's compete in a three round contest, where they must use unusual combinations of ingredients to make delicious dishes (appetizer, entree and dessert round). The dishes are are evaluated by a panel of three judges, and after each round, one of the chef's is eleminated, until the final round (the dessert round). The winner receives a $10,000.00 prize. The twist is this: the basket always involves mystery ingredients (the chef's don't know what they are going to get) and the ingredients are such that you would not necessarily put together- items that are a challenge to create a great flavor profile. An example of one dessert basket from an episode in Season 34 was zucchini, caramel popcorn with peanuts, yuzu juice, manchego cheese. 1 Can you imagine trying to make a delicious dessert from those ingredients? The chef's actually manage to do that. One of the things that fascinates me about the show is how on earth these chef's can make foods that don't necessarily go together, taste really good. I decided to investigate this topic: what makes food taste really good?
I figured the first thing to look at was our sense of taste, because without it, I wouldn’t even be writing this post about flavors. If you can remember back to high school biology class, our sense of taste is governed by the 7th cranial nerve (facial nerve) and 9th cranial nerve (glossopharyngeal). 2 The 7th cranial nerve is responsible for taste on the anterior (forward) 2/3 portion of the tongue, while the 9th is responsible for the posterior (back) 1/3 portion of the tongue. 2 Scientists have recognized 5 basic tastes that our tongues perceive, including sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (aka umami which is a Japanese word that can be described as a meaty taste). A sixth basic taste is currently being debated as well, with possible contenders such as calcium, kokumi, piquance, coolness, fat, carbon dioxide and metallicity. 3
According to the National Library of Medicine, “What is generally categorized as “taste” is basically a bundle of different sensations: it is not only the qualities of taste perceived by the tongue, but also the smell, texture and temperature of a meal that are important. The “coloring” of a taste happens through the nose. Only after taste is combined with smell is a food’s flavor produced. If the sense of smell is impaired, by a stuffy nose for instance, perception of taste is usually dulled as well.
Like taste, our sense of smell is also closely linked to our emotions. This is because both senses are connected to the involuntary nervous system. That is why a bad taste or odor can bring about vomiting or nausea. And flavors that are appetizing increase the production of saliva and gastric juices, making them truly mouthwatering.” 4
Mouth feel and textures are also important in our perception of taste. Fat coats the tongue and mouth, and in combination with sugar and salt, creates an irresistible taste, something called “hyper palatable foods” 5 A few weeks ago I brought up the fact that different textures also make a dish interesting, and can enhance our perception of flavor as well. In doing my research for this blog, I have learned that the tongue does not taste certain tastes in specific spots. Rather, the tastebuds all over the tongue are able to perceive different tastes, with the sides of the tongue being a little more sensitive than the middle of the tongue. 4,6 And in case you were wondering about taste buds- did you know the average adult has between 2 and 10 thousand taste buds? Taste buds are also regenerated about every 10 days. If you have any interest in learning how our sense of taste and tastebuds work, please see source number 4.
Believe it or not, I never knew about the flavor star until about 6 months ago. If you are unfamiliar with the flavor star, it is a star, (see picture below) that illustrates how flavors balance each other. The ultimate goal is to produce flavors that balances another, thus counteracting (or offsetting) that flavor and creating a harmonious taste. An example of this would be spice balancing sweet and sweet balancing spice. It’s why Mexican hot chocolate is finished with a pinch of cayenne pepper – the spice works with the sweet to produce a more dynamic flavor. I love this because it illustrates the connections.
The website, “Cook Smart” is where I found this star. 7 The flavor star graphic shows the interplay between the flavors, with black lines showing how to level out a flavor and light gray lines revealing how to bring the flavor out more. If a dish is too sweet, you can balance it by adding a bitter ingredient or a spicy one. If you want to enhance the sweetness, add a salty or umami ingredient. This article is excellent at explaining flavors and what enhances and/or balances them. I highly recommend you take a look at it if you want a beginners course in mixing different flavors.
So to review- what makes food taste good? It is not only our sense of taste and our tastebuds, but textures, mouth feel, and most importantly flavor balances/contrasts that make a food taste delicious. Without even knowing these things, when I created Trixie’s dressings, I just went by taste, and I now realize I was balancing flavors. A great example is the honey lime cilantro dressing- I balanced the sweetness of the honey with the sour of the lime, and added garlic salt to add a salty element. I hope this blog post helps you with creating some new dishes and/or enhances the flavors of dishes that you already make.