Thursday, May 15, 2008

Flavor 101

Flavor Dynamics
What is the key to good cooking? Making sure the food tastes good, plain and simple. When you learn about how flavors are developed through good cooking techniques you’re ready to impress with every meal you prepare.
Describing a cooked dish is always tricky. Tastes great. That’s wonderful, but what does it taste like? Tastes beefy? Spicy? Fishy? Tastes like chicken?
The tasting of food is a chemical and biological process that many of us (most of us) find difficult to express with language.
Bitter, sweet, salty, sour and what Eastern tradition (Chinese, Japanese, Asian) calls Umami, a feeling of heat and pungency. These are great general concepts to start with, but where do we go from there? Do all bitter items taste exactly alike? Is it bitter or sharp or astringent? How about puckering?
As an industry that deals with flavors, tastes, and aromas on a continual basis we often find ourselves at a loss when trying to convey the nuances.

Flavor – an identifiable or distinctive quality of a food, drink or other substance perceived with the combined senses of taste, touch and smell

– sensations, interpreted by our brain, of what we detect when our taste buds come into contact with food, drink or other substances. Taste refers specifically to what is perceived through the taste buds.

Taste Buds – the bumps you see on your tongue are not taste buds; they contain taste buds, which in turn contain taste cells (chemical reactors)

The number of tastes we can perceive is very limited (5)

It is the chemicals in food that cause reactions in the taste buds – some affect others (for example, Cynarin – a chemical in artichokes that temporarily makes other foods taste sweeter)

Scientists are working with chemicals that can block ability to taste sweet or bitter flavors – some occur naturally (Capsaicin, the chemical that puts the heat in chile peppers: temporarily lessens sensitivity to bitter and sweet flavors but leaves our perception of acids and salts unaffected)

Saliva acts to begin breakdown of foods into chemical components – This is why you won’t taste a pill no matter how bitter it may be, if you get it down before it starts to dissolve.

Alcohol also works this way; part of the reason a little alcohol added to a dish can make such a big difference in taste.

Some particular taste cells do seem to respond best to one type of stimuli – they are all capable of responding to all of them in some degree. “Map” of tongue is inaccurate.

Temperature affects taste – Bitter tastes are lessened when tasted hot as compared to room temperature – Explains why cooled coffee seems more bitter than hot

Sweetness is much less perceptible at very low temps – allow frozen desserts to warm slightly before serving

Sweetness may be the flavor most notably subdued by cold, but all flavors, even bitterness, decrease in intensity at very cold temperatures. Despite its popularity, ice cold beer has little flavor; beer aficionados prefer their beer warmer. Over chilling a white wine can hide the flavors; most all foods benefit from not being served directly out of the refrigerator (salads…)

Sense of smell: If you’ve had a cold you know that tastes suffer. It’s the same for anyone sitting next to someone with way too much perfume or cologne; makes it hard to taste your potatoes.

The average person can identify thousands of odors and discern about ten levels of intensity in each of those.

The connection between the mouth and the nasal passage accounts for the fact that taste and smell combine so thoroughly to produce the phenomenon we think of as flavor.

All substances, including foods, release more odor molecules when warm or hot than when cold, so smells are stronger (think trash on a hot summers day).

Natural Flavoring: Some researchers spend their time delving into the molecular structure of foods we eat in order to isolate the molecules responsible for various flavors (have isolated more than 4000 flavor compounds). They can concentrate these compounds and add them to foods as “natural flavorings” (making such things as buttered popcorn flavored jellybeans). Flavoring compounds in nature are made up from hundreds if not thousands of these compounds.

Desensitization: We “get used to” aromas, tastes and smells and then use more to get the same effects (too much perfume, too much salt)

Tasters, Non-Tasters, and Supertasters: There is a genetic component to how strongly we taste. The ability to taste the chemicals is determined by whether one has a particular dominant gene: those with two recessive genes are known as “non-tasters”, those with one recessive and one dominant gene are “tasters”, and those with two dominant genes are “super-tasters”. Overall about ¼ of the population are non-tasters, ¼ are super-tasters, and the remaining ½ are tasters.

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