This is Part One of Becky Selengut’s book How to Taste series. Read Part Two to learn about how to fix an under- or over-seasoned dish, and more!
Do you really know how to taste?
In Becky Selengut’s book How to Taste: The Curious Cook’s Handbook to Seasoning and Balance, from Umami to Acid and Beyond with Recipes, readers learn how to fix common problems with under- or over-seasoned foods, how to taste fat, acid, spice, and a bit about the science behind creating masterful dishes.
The scientific aspects of how molecules bind or don’t, how the papillae in taste buds react, and whether molecules are fat- or water-soluble, are interwoven with humorous anecdotes and light fun facts. Becky Selengut breaks down a complex topic and makes it easy to understand especially through what she calls “Experiment Time” recipes.
Where the book How to Taste differs from most other recipe and reference books on cooking and taste is in the delivery of recipes. There are “Experiment Time” recipes where you add each element, taste, think about what you are tasting, and then add the next element until the recipe is finished. With these recipes, you can put the theoretical knowledge into practice and truly value its importance to the final dish.
By completing these experiments, I realized the power of salt in enhancing a dish and I finally understood what so many recipes meant by “brightness.” Before reading this book and completing these experiments a few years ago, I barely salted meals at home. I had heard that salt was bad, like most of us, and was scared to use it properly. After making the Italian Salsa Verde, featured in the book, I was hooked. The amount of salt used in home cooking is negligible when compared to the salt in processed foods and most restaurant meals.
Are you a supertaster?
A supertaster is defined as a “person who has a higher density of taste buds and a more sensitive palate”. Typically supertasters are especially sensitive to bitter and earthy flavours and may be overwhelmed more easily by their food. Try the PROP (N-Propylthiouracil) test to see whether you are a supertaster! If you find the prop strip incredibly bitter when laid on your tongue, you are a supertaster. If you taste nothing, you are a tolerant taster. 50% of people are average tasters, while 25% are tolerant tasters. That leaves 25% of people as supertasters. While it isn’t incredibly rare, you are more likely to be an average taster.
All hope is not lost if you want to develop your palate. Learning to distinguish between taste and flavours can help you increase sensitivity and become a better taster.
What are the five tastes?
The five basic tastes are salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami (savoury). Taste and flavour are distinguishable, though they are often confused and used interchangeably. Taste is recognized by the tongue, while flavours are a combination of taste, aroma (smell), and memory in the brain. Most tastes make sense, though many have a hard time describing umami, which is the savoury taste, found in foods with protein like mushrooms, cheese, and meats. The way taste interacts with other tastes can either enhance or dampen a meal.
How does salt enhance food?
Salt is a flavor enhancer and makes the food taste and smell more like itself. Carrots become somehow more carrot-like, while onions are at once, sweeter and more onion-y. In baking, salt strengthens gluten. Salt can also speed up the cooking process, helping onions break down quicker or making beaten eggs creamier when scrambled. Salt suppresses bitterness and accentuates sweetness, which explains why onions and carrots taste better raw when eaten with a pinch of salt.
Is salt missing?
The first step in learning how to taste and cook without a recipe is recognizing when a component is missing. First, you’ll want to check the amount of salt. If the food is missing salt, the flavour will seemingly disappear when it reaches the middle of the tongue. If you can taste it at the tip, but it falls off, then it needs more salt. When there is enough salt, the flavour will last the whole way to the back of the tongue.
What is acidity and why is it needed?
Acidity is a key component in recipes, whether you realize it is there or not. It brings brightness, which shows up as a refreshing or lightly sour quality. Acid increases salivation, which the food binds to, allowing you to taste more effectively. Think of the mouth-puckering quality that lemonade has on a hot summer day. It wakes you up, increases saliva, and seemingly helps cool you down. If food is lacking acidity, it can taste greasy, dull, or syrupy.
A fried fish and chip dish wouldn’t taste as good without that squeeze of lemon or the tartness of tartar sauce with sour dill pickles. A burger would be too fatty tasting without a dill pickle or ketchup. Fat coats the tongue and inhibits the ability to taste.
Know that each foray into learning more about food through cooking at home and reading about it, through books or this blog, will only serve to deepen your curiosity and take the chore out of making a meal. Allow yourself to become curious, take the time to notice what you are tasting, and ask yourself how the dish can be better.
You can learn how to recognize taste, flavour, and what a dish is missing by conscious practice and experimenting. Stay tuned for How to Taste: Part Two where we dive deeper into sweet, fat, bitter, and how to fix an over or under seasoned dish.