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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Foodin' With Lawblog: Flavor!

For this column we will be getting a little more “sciencey,” as we deal with flavor. More specifically: What is flavor? This guy knows what I’m talking about:

Nothing like some sweet-ass turntabling to get you pumped from some dry writing about food science! Before we continue, let me just give a brief shoutout to Cooking for Geeks, by Jeff Potter. It’s an awesome book that delves into the science of cooking, from basic concepts of taste and cooking methods to the super advanced molecular gastronomy (ugh) of places like wd-50, Alinea, El Bulli, and Richard Blais’ brain. Most of the science in this article comes from that book, so if that type of stuff intrigues you, I strongly recommend it. Moving

1) What is flavor?

Flavor is made up of two sensations: Taste, which are sensations picked up by taste buds on the tongue, and Smell, which are sensations detected by receptors in the nose. The brain combines the two electrochemical impulses and creates a sensation that we call “flavor.” People commonly interchange “taste” and “flavor,” but they are, in reality, two very separate things. As a fun test, take a particularly stinky cheese (such as gorgonzola or gruyere) that you are fairly familiar with, flavor-wise. Take a bite, but this time hold your nose shut before you do. Notice how different it “tastes.” That is because you’ve eliminated 50% of your flavor-sensing faculties. It’s the same reason that food tastes blander when you have a cold. Let us delve a little deeper into the specifics of each.

TASTE (Gustatory sense if you’re a NERD)

Most people are familiar with the concept of “taste buds.” They are tiny receptor cells on the tongue that react to chemicals in the food that are being broken down by your saliva. They then send signals to the brain, which assemble the various messages into a sensation of “taste.” The four main tastes that these receptors can distinguish are salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Recently, it has been discovered that we can also sense a fifth sensation, known as umami in Japan, sometimes called “savory” in Western cuisine. It can best be described as that “meaty” sensation you get from mushrooms, parmesan, actual meat, and the like. It has also been discovered very recently that we can also taste some metals, which is what gives that “mineral” sensation in eating foods like liver and other organ meat. A common misconception is that “spice” is a taste. It is, rather, a sensation caused by the irritation of taste buds, most commonly by a chemical called “capsaicin,” found in most chili peppers.

What we find appealing has a lot to do with the types of food we were raised with. People in Western cultures tend to like food a lot sweeter than those in the East. By the same token, people in Southeast Asia tend to like more “sour” food. People in Japan tend to place more emphasis on umami. These are all generalizations, but the basic tenets hold true: Everyone has the same tastebuds*, but what you were raised with, balance-wise, tends to appeal to you more than foreign food. That being said, the more cuisine from different parts of the world you eat, the more they tend to appeal to you. They may taste weird at first, but give it time.

Another thing that affects taste is appearance and texture. If any of you watch Top Chef: Masters, they have a quickfire in which they blindfold the chefs and then have them taste 20 different ingredients. Most of them couldn’t even get half of them correct, and these are world-renowned chefs! A fun experiment suggested by the book is to take a series of small bowls and fill them with normal foods, altered in such a way to remove their normal size and texture. Examples they use are white turnip, cooked and diced; Hazelnuts, ground to coarse sand; tamarind paste; cilantro paste; oreos, ground to a fine powder; caraway seeds; almond butter; puréed blackberries. Give them to your guests (6-8 is good), and have them guess what each thing is. You’d be surprised at how few people actually get right.

*There is a small segment of the population known as “supertasters.” Their taste buds are abnormally sensitive, particularly to bitter, making it very difficult to enjoy things such as beer, coffee, tea, and walnuts. It does, however, make normal things taste that much more awesome. True story: The Dadblog is a supertaster, which explains why he loves single malts and wine, but can’t stand beer and coffee. At least, that’s one explanation. The other, of course, being that he’s a pretentious ass. I choose to believe the supertaster theory.

SMELL (Olfactory sense if you’re a NERD)

Where tongues can only sense 5-8 different sensations, your shnoz can detect over 10,000 different odors! Thassa lotta odors! Also, not only do we smell things regular-style, but we are also smelling as we are eating, as odors from the food in our mouth travels up through the nasal passages in the back of the throat. You know that thing where you shoot milk out of your nose when someone makes you laugh? It’s like that, but with smells. It’s like you are constantly snarfing odors. Typically, we only smell “volatile” odors, that is to say odors that are being released into the air by a series of chemical reactions.

Temperature has an important effect on smell, as well. Colder food is more difficult to smell because temperature plays a large role in determining an odors’ volatility. The lower the temperature, the less volatile the odors are. That is why red wine and fine liquors are suggested to be served at room temperature, whereas white wines and cheep booze are usually chilled, to cut down on the somewhat acrid smell. Temperature also affects taste, as chilled things typically taste less sweet, which can help with aforementioned white wines and cheap booze. It’s also why chocolate bars are the best when frozen, and why soda tastes gross at room temperature. It’s too sweet!

There are people who make their living smelling things. In Scotland, when making single-malt whisky, it is imperative that every bottle taste the same. A Macallan 18 from 1985 should taste the same as a Macallan 18 from 2010. This is done by a skillful blending of different casks of the same whisky from the same year. A person known as a “nose,” whose job it is to smell and taste all of the different barrels and determine the right combination so that it tastes identical from the previous year, oversees this process. They are highly specialized and trained to smell over 100,000 unique odors! They also, taste, of course, but the money is in the nose.

2) Fucking Flavor, How does it work?

Ok, enough of that science shit. Why is bacon so good? Why do we like sweet things? Why do certain things taste good with other things? There are actually many things that factor into these answers. The simple reason why we crave sweet and fatty things is evolutionary. Sugars are not naturally abundant in nature, in addition they signify that a fruit is “ripe.” Our brains have been trained to stock up on as much energy-boosting sugar that we can find, since who knows when we’ll get any again? I know. It’s everywhere now and it’s making us fatties, but you can’t fight evolution! Likewise for fatty foods. Food that is high in fat is high in calories, as fat has the highest density of calories per gram. Back in our foraging days we needed calorie-rich food, hence the craving.

To answer the question about food combinations, we need to go back to the five basic tastes that we can sense: Salty, Sweet, Bitter, Sour, and Umami. Without getting too deep into the science, the most basic reason why certain flavor combinations work goes back to my first article, which is to say balance. Bitter and sour things are usually very difficult to eat. Most of the commonly disliked foods by children (spinach, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, lima beans) are all naturally very bitter. Luckily, salt naturally masks the flavor of bitterness, as does sugar (hence adding it to coffee). An example of salt masking sour flavors is “unseasoned” vs. “seasoned” rice vinegar. Not that you’d drink seasoned rice vinegar by itself, but it is much more palatable than regular rice vinegar. You could throw it on a salad with some olive oil with no problem. The only difference between the two is that the seasoned kind has salt and a little sugar added. Salt is remarkable in that it is a natural “flavor enhancer.” Even sweets, which generally don’t have a “salty” taste, usually have a pinch of salt in the recipe, as it brings out the other flavors without making things taste “salty.”

The interaction of fat also plays an important role. There’s a saying among chefs and cooks that “fat is flavor.” They’re not far off. As mentioned earlier, we are trained to crave fat genetically. It also can serve to mellow out certain tastes. That’s why when you cook Brussels sprouts with bacon and maple syrup, you get the masking of the bitterness from the sweetness of the syrup and the saltiness of the bacon, but in addition the fat of the bacon adds unctuousness and further balances the flavors. Spicy food, in particular, works very well with fat, as capsaicin is fat-soluble, meaning that it cuts out some of the heat while retaining the rest of the flavor. That is why sriracha mayo is the world’s best thing.

When coming up with the recipes for people’s five favorite ingredients, I kept these concepts in mind. If I know that two things go together (goat cheese and honey) and two others go together (bacon and honey), why not try to see if the three will go together? In theory they should. Goat cheese is somewhat sour, which can be masked by the sweetness of the honey and the saltiness from the bacon. I don’t know if it’ll work, but instinct tells me it will. When trying something for the first time, Always Be Tasting. If something’s too bitter, add some sweet or salt; if it’s too sour, add sweet; if it’s too sweet, add sour or heat; if it’s too salty, add a little bit of sweetness or dilute. Again, experiment with different methods of adding salt, sweet, or sour. Find out what works best for you.

3) Why doesn’t this taste good?

The simple answer is that you’re not used to it. As mentioned earlier, culture is a very important part in defining flavor as appealing or unappealing. Although we all sense the same tastes, our opinions vary greatly on how to bring about those tastes in our food, and the ratios of each. For example, for bitter ingredients Chinese cuisine typically can use Chinese broccoli or bitter melon; French cuisine typically can use radishes and endives; Greek cuisine typically can use mustard greens; Italian cuisine uses artichoke; etc. etc. Likewise their salty ingredients can change from olives to soy sauce to anchovies to fish sauce. It all depends on the culture of the cuisine. If you are unfamiliar with a type of cuisine and the way they inject and emphasize certain parts of their cuisine, your brain is like “WTF?” and you don’t like it. As Westerners we love cheese, but people in China are all, “You take cow’s milk and leave it to ferment and harden for months? Are you crazy?”

Likewise, certain tastes, such as bitterness and sourness take some conditioning to enjoy, as they can also be markers of spoilage. The same part of our brain that loves salt and sugar and fat is also wary of things that taste or smell sour, as that is traditionally a sign of bacteria growth due to a piece of meat or vegetable going bad. In the middle ages, most of the meat they ate was rancid due to the lack of refrigeration, which is why there was such a high demand for salt, pepper, and other spices that could mask the flavor. They literally fought wars over that shit!

The most common reason for not liking a food is just having a bad experience. Maybe the first time you had scallops they weren’t cooked properly, and consequently were rubbery and gross. Since then you don’t like scallops. Our brain is very finicky that way. All it takes is one bad experience and we can be turned off of all kinds of awesome foods. The most extreme form of this is Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA). That is when you are physically ill, either from a food or otherwise, and afterwards you associate the food with feeling ill. "Modafucka I'm ill, which is why I can't eat shellfish."-Lil Wayne. CTA is a deep-rooted brain issue (official scientific term), and very difficult to get rid of. To this day I can’t eat oriental flavored ramen noodles because of a bad gastrointestinal episode I had when I was 10. I also can’t drink clear rum straight because of a bad drinking episode I had when I was 19. Unless you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, in which case I never drink and I just made that story up.

I guess my main goal in writing these articles is to get people to venture out and explore more foods. My hope is that by understanding where flavor comes from, and why things taste “good” or “bad,” they’ll be more willing to try different things. My best piece of advice is, if you’re thinking of trying something new, whether it’s a whole new cuisine or a type of food, such as asparagus or shellfish, go somewhere where you know they do it right. Ask your friends or read online where to go for the best pho, or cassoulet, or eggplant parm, or fish stew, and give it a try. You may be surprised by what you like.


  1. My immediate response to this post was "Lawblog, please marry me!"
    But I realized this was dishonest. What I really meant was "Lawblog, please move into my house and cook for me, and while you cook tell me all about what you're doing and why. Then we'll play scrabble, probably."

  2. Next can you teach us how to make