Thursday, December 3, 2015

Flavor: Taste & Smell

We generally consider taste and flavor to be the same thing. Most people would probably have a difficult time actually defining these terms separately. In reality, taste is only half of what goes into our perception of flavor. The other half comes from smell. There are five basic tastes that we can detect: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory/brothy/meaty). Everything we eat fits into at least one of these five categories. But if there are thousands of foods, how do we distinguish between them? This is where smell comes in. Both an apple and a pear are sweet, so they would both activate sweet taste receptors in the tongue. It's not until the food molecules travel up to our nose that we can distinguish between the actual flavors and tell which is the apple and which is the pear. This process is possible because the nose and mouth are connected by the back of the throat. While we chew, food molecules travel this air passage into our nostrils and activate our olfactory senses. It works the same way if food molecules travel directly into the nose, like when you first get a plate of food at a restaurant. This is also why we can practically taste that food before it even enters our mouth, because smell is so strongly linked with taste and flavor. When you think of this whole process in terms of cooking ingredients it all makes a lot of sense! Why do herbs change the way things taste so much? Because they smell so strongly! Think of pepper verses salt. Salt is actually going to activate the basic taste receptors for salty, while pepper is going to affect the way we smell the food. Thus salt changes taste while pepper changes flavor. Salt doesn't really smell like anything, but pepper does. This seems to be a general pattern in the world of food. Things that change basic tastes, like salt and sugar, smell very little, while things that change flavor (through smell) have very strong smells, like pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla.

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