The 12 Tastes in Food – Create appealing dishes from the ground up

So many chefs still seem to ignore the basic building blocks of food – the 12 basic tastes and taste-smells. French traditions are built on empirical trial and error and apprentice chefs are shown the way it’s always been done. Rarely is the food science behind cooking presented as why various techniques are used.

Molecular gastronomy sits at the other end of the spectrum and looks at chemical reactions that can be used in cooking to present the basic flavours in a different style to what’s normal.

So what do we know about the sense of taste?

We have a range of different tastebuds on our tongue which detect specific flavours. These are scattered all over the surface and are not particularly concentrated in type or density over any part of the tongue. This means the old concept of salt or sweet being detected more on one part of the tongue than another isn’t right. We taste all the basic flavours pretty much anywhere on the tongue. It is true though that we lose our sense of taste with advancing age and that women tend to taste more accutely than men. We can also distinguish more than 17,000 different chemicals which makes the taste-smell sense the most sophisticated.

In any event, once we know and understand the basic 12 tastes we are able to layer flavours with different sensation times to not only ensure enough variety of taste that equates to great eating but also introduce a multi-dimensional effect of taste, smell, texture, colour, temperature and timing. Add company, environment (setting and service) and anticipation and dining becomes the organo-leptic experience people will gladly pay to enjoy.

The List …

First let me list the 12 tastes and then I’ll discuss how some of them can pair up to balance each other. Some can be disguised and others are to be avoided once you are aware of their existence.

Sour (tart, acid)
Bitter (not to be confused with sour)
Aromatic (herbs)
Pungent (spices)
Umami (the taste of glutamate as in MSG)
Maillard (roasted, toasted notes)
Astringent (from tannins as in strong tea)
Metallic (iron, zinc, aluminium, copper etc)

The surprises in the list might be fat and protein but think of butter, nuts, oils, fatty meats, oily fish and you’ll know about fat flavours. Protein is just as subtle, if not more so but is obvious in sushimi; raw meat, particularly lean meats such as game; and tofu.

Maillards are a class of flavours created by high heat and low moisture and only when carbohydrates (or glycogen stores in meats) and proteins are heated together. Red meat has only 3 flavours when raw (protein, salt and iron but if heated (seared) to create Maillards it then exhibits around 450 Maillard products with that characteristic grilled flavour.

It’s a Matter of Balance

So which flavours balance and what flavours are essential for a dish to be popular?

Firstly, sweet and sour balance each other. If something is too sweet then a sour flavour reduces the sweetness intensity. Palm sugar and lime are soft sweet and sour pairings. Sucrose and acetic acid are often found in cheap, manufactured vinegar and are harsh flavours of little value to the discerning cook.

Salt and bitter are two important flavours as they enhance the culinary experience as much as aromatics and pungents. If something is too salty (anchovies) then adding a bitter lettuce can tone down the saltiness. Similarly, if eggplant is bitter then salt can mask this effectively.

Try adding a tiny pinch of salt to a strong coffee. If you want to really test it, try one of the disgusting brews in that American coffee chain. Loads of bitterness in their badly-roasted coffee. You’ll need just a few grains of salt to mask the bitterness but do not add enough to taste the salt itself. It won’t resurrect the brew completely as they have already cooked out the aromatics but it will get the brew to the almost drinkable stage.

I was part of a coffee tasting event in Seattle a while back and the only coffee pairing they presented that worked was with a salted macadamia chocolate. The salt balanced the bitterness and the chocolate brought back some of the Maillard products that were cooked out of the coffee with the flash roasting.

Aromatics generally are found in herbs and some spices but even in fruits eg riberry, lemon aspen, rainforest limes or durian, mango and conventional limes in the non-Australian range. Like the pungency of spices, aromatics are not detected in the tastebuds but are higher sense flavours. Smell (olefactory senses) and pain receptors (all over the soft tissues of the mouth and throat) detect the ‘flavour’ of Lemon myrtle sprinkle and Alpine pepper respectively.

Umami is an odd flavour for Western chefs. From the Wikipaedia entry on umami, we know the following: “In 1985, the term umami (which means pleasant savoury taste in Japanese) was recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. Umami represents the taste of the salt form of the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP) which both amplify the taste intensity of glutamate.

It can be described as a pleasant “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue. The sensation of umami is due to the detection of glutamate in specialized receptor cells present on the tongue. Its effect is to balance taste and round out the overall flavor of a dish enhancing the palatability of a wide variety of foods.”

Interestingly, umami flavours tend to make us more hungry and so are often used in fast food and more highly processed products.

I have had many chefs confused over just the first 4 basic tastes and they have tried to tell me that sweetness and salt have some interplay or if a sauce is too salty then potato or lettuce can disguise it. None of these are more than old chef’s tales.

An interesting point with bitterness is that it is a crucial flavour in food (and drinks) and can stimulate appetite (as in a gin and tonic) as well as enhance digestion (many aperitifs). Also, the more ancient a culture, the more bitter flavours in the cuisine. Less developed cuisines often ignore bitterness and entire courses can lack that something, simply because a whole flavour category is absent.

What is the World’s Most Popular Dish (in Caucasian restaurants)

For example, what would you say is the most popular dish in Caucasian restaurants around the world? I’ll give you a clue. It has sweet, salt, sour, bitter, aromatic, pungents, umami and Maillards in it as well as soft, firm and crisp textures too.

It is the Caesar Salad and if the customer asks for ‘no anchovies’ then to rebuild the appeal, you need to find some other core flavour ingredients. More bacon cooked to crispness might supply the salt, umami and Maillards but you may need a hint of fish sauce in the dressing to make up the anchovy-secret-sauce.

Classic Caesar Salad

Recipe from Bon Appetit

Similarly, a pasta dish with mintbush marinade (or basil), pine nuts, grilled chicken or seared seafood with a creamy dressing or oil (olive oil if you have a variety you like or try macadamia nut oil), Alpine pepper and Yakajirri (or black pepper to be ordinary) and some tomato, Fruit balsamic (or balsamic vinegar, again for the conventional option) and rocket is universally sublime.

And your Meal Finished by …. the waiter

The inclusion of aromatics and pungents raises another pet hate of mine where the waiter is the one who offers the pepper mill to the customer. What? The chef hasn’t thought of the final flavour in the dish? He or she is willing to let the patron decide if their dish will taste good or not? And what happens when the waiter never gets around to making the offer to finish the flavour profile? The dish lacks that something and leaves the diner underwhelmed.

Get rid of the peppermill in the restaurant. Put it back in the kitchen where some thought goes into the use of this amazing aromatic pungency.

But moving on …

Think of building a dessert with sweetness, sour piquancy, saltiness (pastry or a tuile needs salt), bitterness (high-cocoa chocolate or well roasted coffee), Maillards, aromatics and pungents. You will make a winning recipe because of its completeness of appeal.

This is one reason I ask for a coffee WITH my dessert but so often, I need to ask the waiter 3 or 4 times before it arrives. What’s so hard about serving coffee with dessert rather than after it? Doesn’t everyone know that desserts spelled backwards is ‘STRESSED’? I want the coffee with dessert, not when the waiter thinks about it as an upsell.

Deep breathe. Ommm!

I need to mention the final flavours in my list; astringency and metallic. Neither of these are appealing tastes and so we need to avoid or mask them. Astringency is common in unripe fruits and acid from lemon juice or a fine white wine vinegar will mask it. Metallic flavours just need to be avoided and they might come from a copper bowl in which an acid dressing or marinade has been left too long or iron from a skillet that has migrated into an acidic sauce.

Of course there’s another problem from a metallic reaction and this is when uninformed cooks use aluminium foil as a food wrap and the plastic coating dissolves into the food leaving the aluminium metal exposed to oxidation. If this is eaten there are all the health risks associated with aluminium cookware which thankfully, is disappearing from most commercial kitchens. For more on this, read this article

I hope that you’ll give some thought to the flavours you compile as the building blocks in your dishes and experiment to assess the results. Test and measure using my guides above and you’ll find more of the dishes you prepare will get rave reviews.

And for anyone who wants a more scientific explanation of taste of just the first 5 flavours, here’s an eloquent summary from

The tongue, soft palate, and epiglottis are covered with structures known as taste buds, or lingual papillae, that allow humans to sense different tastes in the foods they eat. The taste buds are chemoreceptors, meaning that they transduce, or translate, chemical signals in food into electrical signals in the body. These electrical signals, called action potentials, travel to the brain via the nervous system, allowing us to experience the sensation of taste. Taste buds are known as direct chemoreceptors, meaning that they must make direct contact with the chemicals in food in order for us to taste. Distance chemoreceptors, on the other hand, such as those that sense smells, do not need to make direct contact with chemicals.

Taste buds sense salty and sour tastes through ion channels triggered by electronically charged particles, or ions, in certain foods. Salty foods contain the chemical sodium chloride (NaCl), commonly called table salt, each molecule of which is composed of a positively charged sodium ion and a negatively charged chlorine ion. The sodium ions trigger ion channels in the taste buds, changing the electrical charge of the taste bud cells and beginning an action potential. Similarly, sour foods contain acids, which have positively charged hydrogen ions that create an action potential in taste buds.

Bitter, sweet, and umami foods are sensed by the taste buds through G-protein coupled receptors, a more sophisticated mechanism that is not as well understood as that of ion channels. The compounds in bitter and sweet foods trigger G-protein coupled receptors to release a messenger protein known as gustducin, which in turn triggers certain molecules that close potassium ion channels, creating an action potential. The mechanism through which umami is sensed is similar, though triggered by the amino acid L-glutamate.

Three cranial nerves are responsible for carrying the action potential initiated in taste buds to the brain, where taste is ultimately registered. The facial nerve carries signals from the front two-thirds of the tongue, the glossopharyngeal nerve from the back portion of the tongue, and the vagus nerve from the soft palate and epiglottis.

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