How to Taste – A Chef’s Perspective

Posted on June 16, 2020 by Jack

How many people really understand how to taste food?

This is a question that has haunted me for years, and in order to answer it, I needed to first address a more fundamental question: what is taste?

But let me back up first and explain that my quest for understanding how to taste food began during my early months of studying culinary arts – which is a fancy way of saying I was learning how to become a professional chef. I pestered my chef-instructors with questions relative to building flavors and creating unique tasting experiences. I was relentless in my pursuit of understanding this core issue because I felt it was a tricky subject and absolutely critical to achieving future success. Can we objectively taste food, or is it always subjective? I wanted to know how these professionals dealt with this issue, so I asked a lot of questions.

I received very few answers – certainly no clear understanding of working within a structure to create tastes that would work for the majority of people.

As my career led me to various restaurants – really high-end restaurants – my pursuit for understanding taste continued. The more I learned from my mentor-chefs, the more confused I became.

Taste, taste, taste is the mantra young chefs often hear when they begin working for a new chef. But, no one really explained what I was supposed to taste – except the obvious general criticism that came with the job: “no flavor,” “too much salt,” “too little salt,” “too acidic,” and on it went. I didn’t receive any useful instruction as to what I should do if I encountered any of these problems. It all seemed intuitive – a guessing game that would change depending on someone else’s mood, or a constant experiment of adding a bit of this and a bit of that until I made the chef happy in that moment.

Surely, there must be a better way.

Understanding Taste
My objective as a chef is to produce ‘tasty’ food my customers will enjoy. But how do I accomplish this goal if taste itself sits somewhere between objective and subjective analysis?

Taste can be defined as our immediate and uninterpreted experience of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami sensations on our tongue. Flavors are a result of the food molecules hitting our taste buds and interacting with the food to create unique aromas. Our ultimate food experience is a result of taste and flavor mixing with other unique perceptions: the unconscious memory, prejudices, social influences, cultural influences, sight, touch, context, and on and on…

The conclusion for me rests within the old maxim that it is impossible to please everyone. But there are ways to improve your odds of pleasing more, as I discovered during my culinary studies in Northern Italy.

The Mercadini Method
Have you ever considered a wine critic or food critic? When they are rating a wine or writing about a food experience, we are led to believe they are actually rating the wine or food itself. But in reality, these critics are only rating their perception of the wine or food. They are perception critics. We follow them because of our need to connect, and they have a great ability to tap into a person’s personal narrative. They are often interesting to read, but critics are generally no better in tasting than the average person – they are simply better at describing what they taste…and mostly, they are working within the objective direct portion of taste – analyzing the physical sensations of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. The rest are just stories about how they picked out interesting apricot notes that must have originated from a certain orchard in the southern extremes of the Provence. They are building images the reader identifies with, and that binds the reader with the critic. Food critics and marketers do exactly the same thing to influence us. They write intriguing narratives that describe plate colors, presentations and aromas. They use vast amounts of creative adjectives to describe the food.

The Mercadini Method attempts to eliminate the fluff and help a wine student understand the various components of a wine by rating the intensity levels of specific categories. Then food is introduced to see how well it will match up to the wine – with the ultimate goal for the taster being a clean sensation in the mouth. This method relies heavily on the sensation of the physical tastes of the wine and food and how they interact with one another. For instance, a very acidic wine is balanced well with a fatty food. So, in theory, a wine taster can rate a wine with an acidity of 8 out of 10, then rate the accompanying food with a 7 out of 10 in fat content. On paper, this pairing would match for most people. The same basic idea applies to salt and bitter sensations. Bitter notes in wine are often off set by somewhat salty foods.

Do This Experiment
What’s really cool about this system is how it works even for those who have enhanced or diminished tastes. We tested the theory over years on many different participants prior to our food and wine matching courses we taught. We would begin by introducing just 4 tastes (we never really covered umami). We created a sugar sensation by dissolving just 2 grams of sugar into a large cup of water, salty sensation by dissolving 4 grams of sea salt into water, sour sensation by dissolving a scant amount of tartaric acid (you can also use citric acid) into water and finally adding a few drops of a bitter herb extract (it was safe to digest) into water. None of the cups were labeled, so it was a blind tasting of sorts. Our goal was to have a discussion and get everyone to understand their own sensitivities to tasting. The results were always interesting – sometimes even comical with face expressions. People were tasting the same mix but with vastly different outcomes…and obviously, this has a substantial impact on how the food and wine pairing went.

Creating Balanced Tastes
The experience of learning a method to analyze food and wine pairing was a revelation to me as a chef. I was now able to finally put a method in place to create a balanced sensation in my mouth when creating a dish. I understood that if something tasted flat in my mouth – perhaps slightly sweet and massively persistent on my palate – then a good splash of lemon juice would help. I knew if something appeared a bit bitter, then I could add something salty to dish and this would be pleasing.

Now I can comfortably tell any student how to create balanced tastes:

Sour and sweet (fat is perceived as sweet) offset each other. Acid wipes away the sensation of fat just like dishwashing soap, and fats balance an acidic experience – adding a bit more oil to a vinaigrette balances the sharpness of the vinegar. In the same way, salt and bitter work as counters. Put a touch of salt on a bitter green like kale and massage it into the green, and you will be amazed at the taste transformation. And what if you added too much salt while cooking – well, unfortunately, there is no balance for too much salt.

We all…more or less, taste the same because these are molecules having a physical reaction in our mouth. Flavor is all about the brain and complicated psychology and sociology stuff.


Recipe to Explore: Moroccan Beetroot Salad


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