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9.1: About Flavors

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    Flavor and Taste

    A must have book for any serious chef is The Flavor Bible by Page and Dornenburg. A listing of different foods, spices and herbs along with the other foods, spices and herbs in which they pair well



    The chef must understand how to flavor foods and be able to recognize flavoring ingredients and know how to use them. This chapter looks at the sense of taste and smell and the flavoring ingredients used in the professional kitchen to enhance foods. Flavorings are the herbs, spices, salt, oils, vinegars, condiments, wines and other alcoholic beverages typically used to create, enhance or alter the natural flavors of a dish-are featured.

    From the simplest grunt of pleasure upon biting into a chunk of meat fresh from the fire to the most sophisticated discourse on the fruity top notes of a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, people have long attempted to describe the flavors of food. This is clone by describing physical perceptions ("it tastes tart or sugary" or "it feels greasy") or the recognition of the flavor ("I can sense the rosemary" or "there is a hint of strawberries"). In either case, the terms flavor and taste are often confused. Although often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous.

    A flavor is a combination of the tastes, aromas and other sensations caused by the presence of a foreign substance in the mouth.

    Tastes are the sensations we detect when a substance is exposed to the taste buds on the tongue (sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami.) Some substances irritate other nerves on the tongue or embedded in the fleshy areas of the mouth. These nerves respond to sensations of pain, beat or cold, or sensations our brain interprets as spiciness, pungency, or astringency.

    Mouthfeel refers to the sensation created in the mouth by a combination of a food's taste, smell, texture and temperature.

    Aromas are the odors that enter the nose or float up through the back of the mouth to activate smell receptors in the nose. Whenever a particular taste, sensation and/or aroma is detected, a set of neurons in the brain is excited and, with experience, we learn to recognize these patterns as the flavor of bananas, chocolate , grilled lamb or sour milk. Each person has a unique ability to recognize and appreciate thousands of these patterns.

    This collection of flavors and your ability to recognize them is sometimes referred to as your palate.

    Tastes: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and now Umami

    Over the centuries, various cultures have developed complex philosophies based, in part, on the basic tastes they found in the foods they ate. For example, ' as early as 1000 R.C.E., the Chinese were describing the five-taste scheme that they still adhere to today. For them, each of the basic tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent/ hot/spicy- is associated with a vital organ of the body, a certain season, a specific element of nature, or an astrological sign. Maintaining the proper balance of tastes in a dish or during a meal assists in the maintenance of good health and good fortune.

    About the same time, in what is now India, the practice of ayurvedic medicine was developing. Indians recognized six tastes (and still do) sweet, sour, salty, spicy/ pungent, bitter and astringent. Based on the tastes of various herbs and spices, practitioners of ayurvedic medicine associate them with specific vital organs or bodily systems. India n cooks attempt to create dishes with a balance of all six tastes, in part to encourage good health.

    A continent away and several hundred years later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified seven tastes. He arranged the various tastes on a sort of continuum with the two primary and contrasting tastes, sweet and bitter, at either end. He placed a secondary taste next to each primary taste: succulent to the right of sweet and salty to the left of bitter. Between these secondary tastes he placed - from left to right- pungent, harsh and astringent. Each taste gave way to the next, creating, along with the other senses, the perception of flavors.

    As the understanding of the human body evolved, the definition of taste came to be based more on science than on a balancing of elements. Today, taste is defined as the sensations detected when substances come in contact with the taste buds on the tongue.

    Sweet - For most people, sweetness is the most pleasurable and often sought-after taste, although, ironically, the fewer sweet-tasting foods we consume, the more enhanced our ability to recognize sweetness becomes. A food's sweetness comes from the naturally occurring sugars it contains (for example, sucrose and fructose) or sweeteners added to it. This sweetness can sometimes be enhanced by adding a small amount of a sour, bitter or salty taste. Adding too much sourness, bitterness or saltiness, however, will lessen our perception of the food's sweetness.

    Sour - Considered the opposite of sweet, a sour taste is found in acidic foods and, like sweetness, can vary greatly in intensity. Many foods with a dominant sour taste, such as reel currants or sour cream, will also contain a secondary or slight sweetness. Often a sour taste can be improved by adding a little sweetness or negated by adding a large amount of a sweet ingredient.

    Salty - With the notable exception of oysters and other shellfish and seaweed, the presence of a salty taste in a food is the result of the cook's decision to acid the mineral sodium chloride, known as salt, or to use a previously salted ingredient such as salt-cured fish or soy sauce. Salt helps finish a dish, heightening or enhancing its other flavors. Dishes that lack salt often taste flat. Like the taste of sweetness, the less salt consumed on a regular bas is, the more saltiness we can detect in foods.

    Bitter - Although the bitterness associated with tasting alkaloids and other organic substances may occasionally be appreciated, such as when tasting chocolate or coffee, a bitter-flavored ingredient unbalanced by something sour or salty is gene rally disliked and, as a survival mechanism, is believed to serve as a warning of inedibility or unhealthfulness.

    In the past several years, many western researchers have begun to recognize a fifth taste, akin to the savory taste long recognized as the fifth taste in Japanese savory a food that is not sweet cuisine. Called ‘um ami ‘(from the Japanese word umai, meaning "delicious"), this fifth taste does not have a simple English translation. Rather, for some people it refers to a food's savory characteristic; for others to the richness or fullness of a dish's overall taste, and still others, the meatiness or meaty taste of a dish.

    Taste buds sense umami in the presence of several substances, including the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate and its commercially produced counterpart known as monosodium glutamate (MSG).

    Cheeses, meats, rich stocks, soy sauce, shellfish, fatty fish, mushrooms, tomatoes and wine are all high in glutamate and produce the taste sensation of umami. Aged or fermented foods also provide umami.

    Often food professionals and others refer to tastes in addition to sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Typically, they describe something as pungent, hot, spicy or piquant or something that is astringent, sharp or dry. None of these terms, however, fit the definition of a taste, as none are detected solely by taste buds. Rather, these sensations are detected by nerve endings embedded in the fleshy part of the mouth. These nerves, when "irritated" by the presence of compounds such as piperine (the active ingredient in black peppercorns) or capsaicin (the active ingredient in chiles), register a burning sensation that the brain translates as the hot and spicy "taste" of Szechuan or Mexican cuisines, for example.

    Factors Affecting Perceptions of Flavors

    Obviously, the most important factors affecting the flavor of a dish are the quantity, quality and concentration of the flavoring ingredients. (With practice, a chef gains a feel for the proper proportions.) Other factors that affect one's perception of flavors include the following:

    Temperature - Food sat warm temperatures offer the strongest tastes. Heating foods releases volatile flavor compounds, which intensifies one's perceptions of odors. This is why fine cheese is served at room temperature to improve its eating quality and flavor. Foods tend to lose their sour or sweet tastes both the colder and the hotter they become. Saltiness, however, is perceived differently at extreme cold temperatures; the same quantity of salt in a solution is perceived more strongly when very cold than when merely cool or warm. Therefore, it is best to adjust a dish's final flavors at its serving temperature.

    That is, season hot food when they are hot and cold foods when they are cold.

    Consistency - A food's consistency affects its flavor. Two items with the same amount of taste and smell compounds that differ in texture will differ in their perceived intensity and onset time; the thicker item will take longer to reach its peak intensity and will have a less intense flavor. For example, two batches of sweetened heavy cream made from the same ingredients in the same proportions can taste different if one is whipped and the other is un-whipped; the whipped cream has more volume and therefore a milder flavor.

    Presence of contrasting tastes - Sweet and sour are considered opposites, and often the addition of one to a food dominated by the other will enhance the food's overall flavor. For example, adding a little sugar to vinaigrette reduces the dressing's sourness, or adding a squeeze of lemon to a broiled lobster reduces the shellfish's sweetness. Nevertheless, add too much, and the dominant taste will be negated. Likewise, adding something sweet, sour or salty to a dish with a predominantly bitter flavor will cut the bitterness.

    Presence of fats - Many of the chemical compounds that create tastes and aromas are dissolved in the fats naturally occurring in foods or added to foods during cooking. As these compounds are slowly release d by evaporation or saliva, they provide a sustained taste sensation. If, however, there is too little fat, the flavor compounds may not be released efficiently, resulting in a dish with little sustained flavor. Too much fat poses another problem; it can coat the tongue and interfere with the ability of taste receptors to perceive flavor compounds.

    Color - A food's color affects how the consumer will perceive the food's flavor before it is even tasted. When foods or beverages lack their customary color, they are less readily identified correctly than, when appropriately colored. As color level change s to match normal expectations, our perception of taste and flavor intensity increases. A miscue created by the perceived flavor (the flavor associated with the color) can have an adverse impact on the consumer's appreciation of the actual flavor. For example, if the predominant flavor of a dessert is lemon, the dessert or some component of the dessert should be yellow; a green color will trigger an expectation of lime and the possible disappointment of the consumer. Similarly, the dark ruby-red flesh of a blood orange looks different from the bright orange flesh of a Valencia orange. This tonal difference can create the expectation of a different, non-orangey flavor, even though the blood orange's flavor is similar to that of other sweet orange varieties. Likewise, a sliced apple that has turned brown may suggest an off-flavor, although there is none.

    Compromises to the Perception of Taste

    The sense of taste can be challenged by factors both within and beyond one's control. Age and general health can diminish one's perception of flavor, as can fatigue and stress. Chefs need to be aware of the age and health of their clientele, adjusting the seasoning of foods served according to their needs. Here are some factors that can affect one's taste perceptions.

    Age. "The bad news is that taste and smell sensitivity does decline as we age. The good news is that it declines at a slower rate than our vision and hearing. The sense of smell tends to decline earlier than the sense of taste. There is a great deal of variance across individuals, w it h some showing declines earlier than others."

    Health. "An acute condition, such as a cold, can result in a temporary loss of smell. The presence of mucus can prevent airflow, preventing the odor compounds from reaching the olfactory receptors. In contrast, the sense of taste would remain largely unaffected. Medications can also alter the perception of taste and smell. Some medications suppress the perceptions of saltiness, while others result in chronic perception of bitterness. Still other medications alter salivary flow, making it difficult to swallow dry foods. A further complication is the underlying conditions for taking medication. If an individual is taking high blood pressure medications, not only may the medication have a direct impact on perceived taste, but the same individual is likely to be on a sodiumrestricted diet."

    Smoking. "Anecdotal reports from those who quit smoking strongly indicate that smoking diminishes odor sensitivity. This is further supported by evidence indicating that people who smoke generally are less sensitive to odors than those who do not. In contrast, evidence indicates that if one waits two hours after smoking, the sense of taste is unaltered. Inu11ecliately after smoking, however, taste sensitivity is lowered."

    Describing Aromas and Flavors in Food

    Food scientists and professional tasters make their living describing the smell and taste of foods. Many have attempted to standardize the language used to describe positive and negative aromas and flavors in foods such as beer, cheese, chocolate, coffee and fish. Frequently they employ flavor wheels or other charts to identify types of flavors and tastes found in foods.

    Describing Food Using Flavor Profiles

    A food's flavor profile describes its flavor from the moment the consumer gr the first whiff of its aroma until he or she swallows that last morsel. It is a convenient way to articulate and evaluate a dish's sensory characteristics as well as identify contrasting or complementing items that could be served with it.

    A food's flavor profile consists of one or more of the following elements:

    Top notes or high notes - the sharp, first flavors or aromas that come from citrus, herbs, spices and many condiments. These top notes provide instant impact and dissipate quickly.

    Middle notes – the second wave of flavors and aromas. More subtle and more lingering than top notes , middle notes come from dairy products, poultry, some vegetables , fish and some meats.

    Low notes or bass notes - the most dominant, lingering flavors. These flavors consist of the basic tastes (especially sweetness, sourness, saltiness and um ami) and come from foods such as anchovies, beans, chocolate, dried mushrooms, fish sauce, tomatoes, most meats (especially beef and game) and garlic. Or they can be created by smoking or caramelizing the food's sugars during grilling, broiling and other dry-heat cooking processes.

    After taste or finish - the final flavor that remains in the mouth after swallowing; for example, the lingering bitterness of coffee or chocolate or the pungency of black pepper or a strong mustard.

    Roundness - the unity of the dish's various flavors achieved through the judicious use of butter, cream, coconut milk, reduced stocks, salt, sugar and the like; these ingredients cause the other flavorings to linger without necessarily adding their own dominant taste or flavor.

    Depth of flavor - whether the dish has a broad range of flavor notes, these expressions can be applied to any dish to describe its sensory characteristics. For example, a free-range chicken has a flavor profile with a top note of rosemary. Its middle notes are contributed by the chicken, and the low notes from the anchovies and garlic. There is an aftertaste of garlic and vinegar. The sauce adds roundness to the chicken, thus creating a dish with a fine depth of flavor. An experienced chef is able to taste and evaluate aversion of this dish, adjusting flavorings, ingredients and cooking technique as needed to maintain the balance of flavors in the original recipe.

    Important Terms

    • seasoning - an item added to enhance the natural flavors of a food without dramatically changing its taste; salt is the most common seasoning
    • flavoring - an item that adds a new taste to a food and alters its natural flavors; flavorings include herbs, spices, vinegars and condiments; the terms seasoning and flavoring are often used interchangeably.
    • herb - any of a large group of aromatic plants w hose leaves, stems or flowers are used as a flavoring; used either dried or fresh
    • aromatic - a food added to enhance the natural aromas of another food ; aromatics include most flavorings, such as herbs an d spices , as well as some vegetables
    • spice - any of a large group of aromatic plants whose bark, roots, seeds, buds or berries are used as a flavoring; usually used in dried form, either whole or ground
    • condiment - traditionally, any item added to a dish for flavor, including herbs, spices and vinegars; now also refers to cooked or prepared flavorings such as prepared mustards, relishes, bottled sauces and pickles.

    This page titled 9.1: About Flavors is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by William R. Thibodeaux & Randy Cheramie via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.