A Sense-ational Enigma –
While sitting at the office, muddling through recipes and new trends, someone randomly asked, “Is sweet a flavor?”
Stunned, I had to think for a moment. The answer, of course, is no. Sweet is a taste.
The moment passed, but the complexity of the question stuck with me.
Taste is a sensory perception. Flavor is more of an experience. Yet, Merriam-Webster defines the verb taste as “to ascertain the flavor by putting in the mouth” and “to have a specific flavor”.
So what exactly are taste and flavor and how do they affect each other?
This is a very important concept for growth and understanding, both in a kitchen and behind a bar.
For the professional, every drink made and every meal plated has a desired end result based around taste and flavor.
So what exactly are taste and flavor and how do they (or should they) affect our overall approach to food and beverages?
Understanding taste is very simple… at least it used to be.
When I was in school years ago there were only four tastes, then around the year 2000 there were suddenly five. Currently, scientists are saying there may be as many as eight or more different tastes, and ongoing taste studies continue to reveal new insights daily.
The original four tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The fifth taste is umami, a “savory” taste, found in 1907 by Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda through his work on glutamate found in seaweed.
What designates a taste is whether or not a receptor on the tongue (called a taste bud) can be triggered by something in a food or beverage. So, for a sweet taste, the “taste” will fit perfectly into the sweet receptor like a key, triggering a response that sends a sweet message to the brain.
Science has not discovered every “taste” receptor. As this is being written, new studies are researching the possibility that humans may have unknown receptors for minerals, water, carbohydrates, certain fatty acids, and more.
One major problem with scientifically studying taste is that all human tongues are different and some people may be lacking in certain receptors. So testing a person lacking the receptor is like testing colors on a person who has red-green color blindness. It’s not that the colors don’t exist, but such a person wouldn’t perceive them at all.
Even with all of the complexities of taste, there is one basic foundation we can stand on: the scientifically provable fact that a taste bud receptor must have a corresponding trigger on the tongue. Defining flavor is a bit more tricky.
The definition of flavor is very fluid because so many factors can be included in it, even taste. Yes, taste is a large component of flavor.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines flavor as: “Distinctive taste; savor. A distinctive yet intangible quality felt to be characteristic of a given thing. A flavoring.”
Looking for a direct modern definition for flavor online quickly yields a huge spectrum of definitions. Most would agree flavor is a response in our brain to overall stimuli in a given experience, and that the two most common factors are taste and olfactory responses (the sense of smell).
Apart from taste and smell, definitions vary greatly, sometimes including emotions and past experiences. Even color and dining ambience is factored into some modern definitions. It could be that flavor is as nuanced as each “specialist’s” experience.
One very interesting study showed that changing the color of one beverage dramatically changes the way people describe its flavor: The same drink with a different color will lead to very different flavor responses from the same person.
All things considered, a general definition might be: Flavor is the personal interpretation of all factors (tangible, sensual, and possibly emotional) involved in a (food or beverage) experience.
Also, the olfactory or smell response in overall flavor is huge. Anyone who’s tried to eat with a head cold knows that food doesn’t taste the same. For many sick people the enjoyment of eating is gone and it can even be unpleasant until their sense of smell returns.
Some estimates are that we can smell over a trillion distinct odors, which is amazing. Of course, this number is ever changing as science reveals new information.
Conclusion – How to use this information
Because of the fact that both taste and flavor can vary from person to person because of biology and many other factors, it can be extremely difficult to know how to apply these ideas to creating food and drinks.
How can we prepare a cocktail or espresso that will work for most everyone? Fortunately, there are several age-old tips that can be used to gain approval from most.
First, use the known taste groups as a foundation and study the way they interact in different situations. Most food and drinks use more than one taste receptor, so thinking about different tastes while creating a recipe can help. For example, if you want a sweet yet complex drink, how could you subtly incorporate the umami taste for a depth of flavor without overpowering the dish?
Second, since our sense of smell is so much more complex than taste, smell can be incorporated into the creation and eating of a meal enhancing the overall experience. This is often used with the zest of a lemon or a bit of smoke added to heighten the flavor profile and subtly change the overall experience. Smell can make or break a dish or drink, so pay attention to it, use it, and have fun experimenting!
Third, although flavor is a subjective experience, people have much in common, so trusting your instincts and sharing your experiments with others can give you great insights. Share with people who care about you enough to give you their honest opinion, especially before bringing a new creation to the public. This way you can use both your own and other people’s flavor responses to hone and perfect the finished product.
Hopefully this article has shed a little light on the complexities of taste and flavor and how understanding can help us prepare to better make our favorite recipes.
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