Why You Should Learn to Develop Your Palate
If you only rely on recipes when you cook at home, then you don’t need to develop your palate. When you cook using someone else’s recipe, you are cooking how it tastes right to them, not to you. If you have tried someone else’s recipe and adjusted the sugar or amount of spice, you are perhaps unconsciously cooking to suit your own palate. Honing your tasting skills is the first step to learning how to cook without a recipe.
Even though we all have the same physiological structure for taste, we don’t agree on what tastes good
Before we talk about how to develop your palate, let’s dive into what a palate is and the history of taste. If you have already read the post on Gastrophysics, then you may be familiar with some aspects of the palate.
History of the Palate
Physically, the palate is the roof of the mouth, made up of the hard ridged palate nearing the front of the mouth and the soft fleshier palate towards the back of the mouth. The palate is also a synonym for taste, in the physical sense and the intellectual sense. But as you may know, we don’t just taste using our tongue and the tastebuds on it. Taste is a multi-sensory experience using the tastebuds, the nose, and the brain. To truly taste something, you need to first smell with your nose (olfactory), taste with your tastebuds, and then “smell” with the mouth (retronasal) before the signals move into your brain where you decide what you are eating is poisonous and if you like it.
There are five basic tastes the tongue can identify: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). Our sensitivity to bitter and sour tastes helped warn prehistoric humans of potentially poisonous or rotting foods (Food: The History of Taste). Sweetness and saltiness in fruits, plants, or meat generally meant a calorie-rich energy source which was important for sustaining life, especially before industrialization and in food-insecure countries.
In food secure countries, access to food is easy and abundant. The predilection towards sweet and salty foods has led to obesity, diabetes, and other health issues. By refining your palate, you won’t need the same amount of salt or sugar to feel satisfied, which will lead you to ultimately making better food choices and eating healthier. By developing your palate, you will notice subtleties in food that may not have been as obvious before. You are not just training your tongue or your nose, but your mind. This will help you as you age, since tastebuds begin to die off and your sense of taste diminishes.
Even though we all have the same physiological structure for taste, we don’t agree on what tastes good.
How to Develop Your Palate
To first become aware of what your current palate is telling you, notice which foods and drinks you are instinctively drawn to. Are you drawn to bitter tastes like dark chocolate or black coffee? Sweeter things like frosted cakes or ice cream? Close your eyes at the beginning of the next meal or snack you eat, smell what is on the plate or in the bowl, and then take a bite, taking care to move the food fully around your tongue and mouth. By doing this, you increase the breakdown of food molecules and introduce oxygen as you chew, which drifts up to your nose, making the flavors more intense. Noticing what you like and don’t like helps develop your palate by making you aware of which tastes you lean towards.
- Isolate Flavors
Learn to isolate tastes. By isolating whether you are tasting sour, sweet, or salty, you are building up a memory bank in your mind that will help you recognize subtleties in flavor later on. Acids (lemon juice or vinegar) will taste sour; cheese can taste salty (provided you don’t have a diet high in salt). Berries at the height of summer will taste sweet, while the same berries in the winter will be more sour. Raw kale, black coffee, or broccoli can be bitter. The umami (savory) taste is linked to rich broths, cooked meat, and mushrooms, with darker mushrooms the most savory.
- Educate Yourself
Don’t just take my word for it! Educate yourself on taste by reading about the history of it, talking to people of different cultures, and discuss your experiences with others. If your friends and family think you’re strange for wanting to develop your palate (like mine do), comment here or send me a message about your experience with developing your palate. We can talk! Some resources that have helped me open my eyes to the world of taste are How to Taste by Becky Selengut and Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman.
Last but certainly not least, practice. Taste smoked gouda on its own, then add a slice of green apple and see what happens. Try the same spread hot and cold, and see how temperature affects flavor. Cold reduces your ability to taste properly, which is why you should let your ice cream sit for a minute or so before eating, and why you should let your cheese and meat come to room temperature when you serve it on a board. Try food from different cultures and see how the spices affect the meal. A Thai stir fry dish will combine ingredients differently than a Chinese stir fry, or an Italian pasta dish. Explore, notice, experiment. See how your taste changes.
I would love to know how your taste journey is going and how you practice. Feel free to send me an email through the Contact page, leave a comment on this post, or hop on over to Instagram, and send me a message.