The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good
by Barb Stuckey
We all know certain foods taste wonderful, but we rarely consider why they taste this way – the saltiness of your favourite potato chip, the spicy tingle of a curry, or the pleasant bitterness of coffee. Not to mention the flip side of the flavour equation and those foods we can’t stand to have on our plates. Good or bad – that’s where science comes in. In her book, Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good (Free Press, 2012, $29.99), Barb Stuckey demystifies the science behind our food. As a professional food developer, she makes gastronomic chemistry accessible to non-scientific-minded people who are just out to eat good food.
Each of us experiences hundreds of flavours every day, but they can all be broken down into five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty and umami. These are the basic tastes detected by the tongue, but other sensations are integral to the eating experience. Stuckey writes: “Taste happens in your mouth, but that’s only about 20 percent of the story. Food that tastes good also looks good, smells good, feels good, and sounds good.” It is the working of all five senses together that create the ultimate flavour profiles. Most of taste, in fact, comes from the aroma of the food wafting up through the nose; it is estimated that as little as 10 percent of flavour comes from taste and the other 90 percent from smell.
Each of the other senses also plays a part in providing the full perception of flavour. Stuckey writes: “Dining in a restaurant is one of the most complete multisensory experiences available to us.” We may not be attuned to how noise influences flavour, but experiments prove the sound of waves on a shore in a restaurant makes seafood taste more like the essence of the sea. High levels of auditory interference can even have a masking effect on taste – one reason airplane food isn’t usually good is because the roar of jet engines overpowers subtle tastes. There is even a theory that certain types of music stimulate your brain to taste the nuances of certain wines. Apparently, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding is perfect for optimizing the flavours of a Merlot.
Texture or tactile sensation also plays an important role in how tastes develop in your mouth, especially for those who have a decreased level of taste and smell perception. Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame, was fixated on textures in the creation of their ice cream flavours because he suffers from an inability to smell. He set out to compensate with textural indulgence in the form of chunky treats embedded in the ice cream, like crunchy chocolate-covered pretzels and moist fudge brownies.
Visually, food relies on colour and presentation to make it palatable before it hits our mouths. Sight can also have a confusing effect on taste. The phrase “We eat with our eyes” is true in research cases where beverages are purposely miscoloured. Stuckey discovered, “If you are given an orange-coloured glass of apple juice to savor, you are likely to say that you taste orange juice. If you are given a glass of clear but flavored liquid, you’re unlikely to recognize it as cola even if the beverage tastes exactly like the cola you drink every day.”
With all the senses at work at different levels, taste comes down to a very complex scientific process. And it is also a very personal phenomenon. Different people taste differently for many reasons: genetics, brain activity, medical history, and taste-bud density. Taste What You’re Missing has sections that act as an instructional manual to improve your perceptions of flavour. There are interactive exercises to measure how many taste buds you have on your tongue, how to adjust your coffee with sugar and cream for the optimum level of bitterness, and a Spice Rack Aroma Challenge to detect the subtle smells within the spectrum of spices. Stuckey offers these personal experiments to learn how to make every bite count as a sensual experience.
At the top of the tasting chain are wine tasters. Nothing has as much rigour around its flavour as wine. A simple wine tasting incorporates all the senses: the tongue gives us taste, slurping the wine increases the aromas that resonate through the nasal system, swirling the wine gives a visual impression in the glass, the tannin levels give degrees of texture, and glasses are clinked together in a toast for sound. Stuckey wants us to know that if we put the attention toward food in the same vein as a wine taster, “our meals would progress more slowly and we would absorb much more sensory input. In the same way that the nutrients nourish our body, sensory input nourishes our psyche and makes a meal truly satisfying.”
Darin Cook works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.