In the Kitchen
Training your taste
By Laura Aiken
Taste is tops for your customers.
Taste is tops for your customers. There’s no disputing that. Although factors like providing lower fat and sodium options are driving menu development, the real winning pies are the ones that make you go “mmmmmm.” We’re going to explore the science of our special sense of taste and give you a few tips for how to fine-tune your buds for your own recipe development.
| A darker red colour is associated with stronger flavour, so ensure your sauce is a bold, rich hue.|
What is taste?
Food is first consumed by sight, confirms sensory analysis expert John Hale while presenting at Puratos’ 2011 Toronto International Bakery Symposium (tibs). Lisa Duizer, assistant professor and graduate co-ordinator in the department of food science at the University of Guelph, seconds that absolutely.
“Colour has a big impact if it’s unusual,” says Duizer. “I was at a conference in another country and it was the fourth of July. I wasn’t in the U.S. but to honour their American guests they served bread dyed red, white and blue. Nobody ate it. When the colour is not what you expect you tend to regard it quite suspiciously.”
One need look no farther than the resounding failure of coloured ketchup to see we really need things to look as we expect. A darker red colour is associated with stronger flavour (up to a point, no neon), says Duizer. So if you want to portray the vibrant taste of your pizza, ensure your sauce is a bold, rich hue.
Hale, who is the director of product appraisal and customer care for Sobeys, listed the full roster of taste categories: sweet, salt, butter, unami, sour and often overlooked metallic. Unami is the taste of MSG. When you eat, you pick up these flavours, as well as smells and mouth feel. Food heats up as you chew and your taste buds pick up the taste compounds, explains Duizer. When you swallow, it creates a vacuum that pulls those compounds into the olfactory nerves in the back of the brain. This is where our connection with smell and taste happens.
“I hear a lot of people say they have a cold and can’t taste,” she says. “But you can. Your ability to smell is impaired but you can still taste.”
Hale shared some other interesting misconceptions and facts about taste at his tibs talk. Smoking doesn’t actually wreck your ability to taste, as is popularly thought. Rather, he says, nicotine enhances the taste of sweetness but destroys bitterness. What can actually ruin your sense of taste is too many chilis. We get hooked on the endorphins and the accompanying rush when we eat spicy food but they can burn out your taste buds.
And that tradition of coffee after dinner? Hale says coffee is a real culprit, interfering with the taste of that gourmet meal if you drink it before or after. Hale’s field of sensory analysis is rather sophisticated, and the backbone of food processor consumer testing. Sensory analysis means using human senses to determine differences, preferences, quality grading. The U.S. army caterers founded modern sensory analysis using a nine-point hedonic scale, which was further advanced by Rose Marie Pangborn, but Hale says it is essentially still the best one. Sensory analysis is on a rather sophisticated path. Advances in the work include being able to see brain activity, using new methodology with time and intensity and preference mapping so they can make a product that matches what the consumer wants exactly and links with emotion. Sensory analysis is what gives you the balance of quality versus cost, he says. This is the kind of slick consumer testing frozen pizza makers are up to, so while we know fresh is still best, there is sound grounds to take some cues from what sells well in the grocery aisles. Often, their products have really been put through the paces.
Tips for better taste-testing
Yes, you can improve your taste buds. The more experience you have tasting, the more aware you’ll be, says Duizer. Start by honing your awareness of taste nuances. The University of Guelph works with a lot of bread tasting, so when teaching people to evaluate the product they start by teaching them the differences in levels of one aspect. For instance, to evaluate the sweetness of the bread, they give them varying sugar solutions so they start to understand what is sweet and what is not. This method helps your ability to assign a taste, such as sweetness, to a scale.
Duizer suggests going out and getting some herbs, perhaps starting with one kind such basil. Buy this herb in all its forms – dried, fresh, Thai, etc. You want to start with an understanding of the ingredient in all its different forms before incorporating it into the dish. This is a good way to determine how you want the flavour of the finished product to be.
Be aware that while food will taste different to a smoker than to a non-smoker, it is still individual, she says. However, it helps to leave some space between the cigarette and the tasting of your latest pie.
When teaching yourself to taste, blind is a better way to be impartial. If you were trying to compare your pizza to the competition, do it blind so you get a true measure.
Don’t do tastings in a room with lots of odours. You’ll get all those other smells in the food. Don’t taste in the kitchen: take it out to the dining room or other area that is more neutral.
If you have multiple versions of a recipe side by side, don’t eat too much of each when tasting to determine which ought to be your winner. You get fatigued very quickly, says Duizer. A small portion is better than a whole slice. She also noted that people often confuse bitter and sour, so if that’s the taste you’re trying to detect, be aware that it’s a toughie.
Taste is complex beyond the science. It’s emotional and deeply rooted in what we’ve been exposed to.
“Exposure is the way to improve liking,” says Duizer. She adds that what we eat in our adolescence is most important for the development of the range of things we like to eat. In essence, the broadening tastes of the changing face of Canada are due in part to the repeated times that we eat new flavours.
Ethnicity really makes a difference in tasting, notes Hale. Preferences are cultural and rooted in what you’re brought up with.
What people choose to consume is also dictated by factors beyond taste buds. Duizer recalls a recent conference where they discussed how findings that showed changing environment altered what people choose to drink. For example, in a pub-like atmosphere they were more inclined to order than in a slick, modern martini-inducing room.
Why maggot-filled cheese is a delicacy
The words Italian cuisine and maggoty cheese don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, perhaps not even the same breath. But Italy’s Casu Frazigu cheese is a wonderful example of a thing being what it seems, at least in terms of taste.
Dr. Massimo Francesco Marcone, a food scientist and associate professor at the University of Guelph, is the author of In Bad Taste? The Science and Adventures Behind Food Delicacies. Marcone’s Indiana Jones-style adventures took him across the planet in search of the weirdest delicacies and why people consumed these outrageously expensive goods but his foray in Italy is probably of most interest to pizzialos and their fine appreciation of cheese.
His chapter on the Sardinia and Abruzzi regional specialty of Casu Frazigu (or Casu Marzu) cheese, also known as “rotten cheese.” or “maggot cheese.” details the thousands of maggots consumed in the eating of this cheese. The sale of it is illegal, although its production persists and it is served at weddings and special occasions. Marcone describes his introduction to the cheese by noting that you can hear the clicking of maggots in the container from six metres away and smell it from several rooms away.
Historically, Marcone’s sources told him, the cheese was typically produced in May and aged where the elements could get at it. During this aging process, a specific fly called Piophila casei (not the kind flying around your house) deposited eggs in holes in the cheese, which, if it led to successful births, resulted in larvae squirming around and excreting all sorts of digestive enzymes throughout the cheese. The cheese comes out creamy, like Camembert, writes Marcone. Common houseflies would render the cheese inedible but these unique flies left behind maggots with a special chemical that created a highly prized cheese edible for a short time from late July to mid-August. As one can imagine, telling when the cheese had actually expired for human consumption would be difficult, hence the Italian government’s outlaw of its sale.
While in Italy, Marcone worked with food scientists and researchers to test the safety of Casa Frazigu.
Complete counter-intuitive: the cheese was totally safe to eat and microbiological information painted a similar picture to other cheeses. Marcone’s research actually sparked a fervent push by the Sardinian press to have the Italian government overturn its laws against the cheese.
What seems disgusting to one can certainly be a delicacy to another. Such is the complex and fascinating world of taste!