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Systematically educating your palate


Chris Hennes
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Over the years several discussions have cropped up here about the palate: see What's a palate?, A 'sophisticated' palate, and Acquired tastes, for example. In these threads it is frequently mentioned that it is, or at least may be, possible to "educate" one's palate. I'm not talking about acquiring tastes, here, but rather developing the ability to distinguish between tastes and to enunciate the difference, and, if such a consensus exists for a given food, evaluate it as "good," "bad," "indifferent," etc. For example, there are kits for developing an appreciation for the differences between wines (there is even an eGCI course on the topic). But with food in general, how does one go about systematically developing one's palate? Is it just a matter of eating different examples of the same substance over and over, for each individual food one wants to study, or is there a "tasting kit" for other things besides wine?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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There's the way Jeffrey Steingarten did it when he became the food critique of Vogue Magazine. I believe his dislikes were greek food of any kind, indian desserts, and several others.

He found information that said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that after 10 tastings one can enjoy almost anything. I.e. if you don't like something the first time, try it again. Something to do with our hunter/gather former ways to prevent us from being poisoned.

Babies/small children will not like something at first, but if you keep giving them tastes of it, eventually they will eat it without complaints.

I guess adults are the same way.

So if you have a list of foods or flavors you would like to extend your palate to enjoy, try them ten times, after that you will enjoy them!

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I'm not going to apply for a job as food critic any time soon then. Ten times to eat something icky? Eew. That's a lot of times to throw up just to learn to appreciate something that made you throw up ten times before.

But anyway, when I was at the World Pastry Forum Chef so & so did a palate testing thing. We had just eaten some of his desserts however so our palates were already skewed. Easily everything tasted like water to me. My understanding is that that suggestion should not have been offered to our brains before being tested. But still it was very cool and I'd like to try again under more favorable circumstances. He spoke about developing your palate. Was very cool. My score was somewhere between she'll be fine with the off brand box of macaroni & cheese and fois de fwhat?.

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It's interesting - eat or drink something that you may not originally enjoy, but grow to love like olives, stinky cheese (apologies for my 'Bourdainism' there!) or fine wine by trying them repeatedly then it is educating your palate. But the same argument is also used to explain why children become indoctrinated to fast and junk foods.

I think I have what is normally regarded as an 'educated' palate - I favour complex flavours and some ones which border on the bitter and get little pleasure from overly sweet foods - but why is this generally considered more refined? I wish I could get the pleasure other people obviously get from sweet foods.

My opinion is that people enjoy different flavours (Not suprising - people enjoy widely different experiences in other spheres). People with what are considered unsophisticated palates will probably not enjoy, or even distinguish between things like blue cheese, tannic wines and well hung meat, in the same way a lot of desserts taste the same to me, whereas I have friends who can talk at length about cakes and chocolate bars.

I love animals.

They are delicious.

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People with what are considered unsophisticated palates will probably not enjoy, or even distinguish between things like blue cheese, tannic wines and well hung meat, in the same way a lot of desserts taste the same to me, whereas I have friends who can talk at length about cakes and chocolate bars.

This is sort of what I'm getting at---I have no trouble at all developing a taste for new foods, and I think that's a good thing, expanding one's culinary horizons, etc. But what I lack is the ability to discern subtle variations between foods. For example, in a recent thread on Domino's Pizza, Fat Guy mentioned an "off" or "chemical" taste to their tomato sauce. Well, I wasn't picking up on that until he brought it up. What else am I missing until someone else points it out to me?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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This might not be good or helpful advice since it's kind of specific, but...

When I first started with craft beers, actually sitting and doing ratings was a good way to make myself think more and try and distinguish flavors/aromas. I'll be the first to admit I stopped rating because I feel now that it's a little too much of an interruption (at least for me), but it got me through that initial point of trying to think more about what I taste.

Something else that I've heard, related to beer, was relayed to me by my boyfriend from some article posted on Ratebeer.com. It's probably way more specific to beer also, but the author apparently suggested going through your kitchen cabinets and smelling everything, and taking a note of what each thing was. Maybe you shouldn't see what the chemicals smell like.. I'm sure you can distinguish those based on past experiences. :raz:

Interesting thing to note about smells... if you need to clear your nose with a neutral smell (especially when you're first trying to distinguish things), sniffing your shoulder or upper sleeve should provide that. Another beer tasting tip that's been passed along to me via the boyfriend.

"I know it's the bugs, that's what cheese is. Gone off milk with bugs and mould - that's why it tastes so good. Cows and bugs together have a good deal going down."

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I've noticed of late that I'm better able to pick out fruity notes in various coffees since I went from drinking one or two cups a day to nearly mainlining the stuff. I now understand why people prize Hawaiian Kona, Kenya AA and Jamaica Blue Mountain beans so much.

As for the person who didn't see the point about "trying something that made you throw up ten times before": I will grant that there are probably people out there who can't -- or perhaps more accurately, won't -- acquire a taste for things no matter how much they try (I think either Fabby's hubby or a participant on the Cheese thread has this problem with blue-veined cheeses), but the point was that in most cases, after the third or fourth try, you will stop throwing up, and by the tenth, you will find it palatable and maybe even enjoy it.

I refused to eat beets for years until I had pickled beets once. Now they're part of my menu rotation, albeit not a frequent part.

I still refuse to eat turnips or chitlins. In the case of the latter, I just can't get past the smell of them cooking. I suspect that somewhere out there, though, is a turnip recipe with my name on it.

Just about everything else I'll eat, most of it gladly, even German food.

Edited to add: One thing probably hinders me from being able to develop my palate fully for things like wine: My sense of smell is dull for some reason.

Edited by MarketStEl (log)

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

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When the kids got picky about a food, I would make them take three bites, and let them waste the rest if they wanted.

By the time they were five or six, they were unusually adventurous eaters for little kids.

I still can't eat beets, in any way, shape or form - and enjoy them. I don't know what it is about beets, and I can't put my finger on the flavor note that is turning me off. They are so pretty, the rest of the family enjoys them, and I love every other root veg I ever met, but I just can't get past that one. And I have tried way more than ten times.

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This is a great topic thanks for starting it Chris

I realized in my mid 30's that I could literally taste anything and have no real "kack" factor...even if I dont like whatever it is at all ..I can taste it appreciate it .....break down and discuss the flavors...I dont know if this was nature or nurture for me..maybe both ..there are foods I dont like that is for sure ..but I can still taste them and talk about them with objectivity ...that I feel is a gift...and I am so grateful to have it!

I know folks who identify what they will and will not eat very early in a friendship ..like "this is who I am and I will not eat this this and this" and dont even try to change them because they will not go there!.....mostly when I take the time to really investigate the bias it has to do with texture more than taste ...or the visual more than taste...or something that happened one time when tasting and they never looked back ..some folks cut whole catagories of food out because they tried it one time and did not like it ..."I hate mushrooms" is a great example of this ..they just "hate" them and can not swallow them at all ..I am so glad this does not happen to me ...

whenever I am trying something new I have three steps in the tasting ...now this is just how I do it and not what I am sure is the most effective, refined or professional way..but for me it is how I educate myself to a new food

1. Speedy first impression...quick look, smell and bite ..this first bite is in my mouth so fast the plate barely hits the table....I do my first taste quickly instead of slowly because I just want to see what the first overall impression is ..that snap judgement of the food with out really thinking about it ...

2. Time to linger a bit...the second bite I focus more on the visual of the dish food (with my first bite missing from the picture) ..the overall aroma.....how it feels and tastes in my mouth.....and am still going for the overall whole taste and its affect

3. Excitement tempered ...the third bite is the break down for me ...where I discern the various aromas, flavors ..textures and really decide if I like it or not ..or how good it is compared to previous experiences ..this is the point I really want to talk about and listen to the words that really describe the flavors, history, preparation whatever ..

I also will always try something at least three times in three different places or ways or preparation before I pass judgement say "I just do not care for this food"

I dont know if I have an "educated" pallet but I do know this is the best way for me to get the most out of any new food/drink ..or familiar food/drink prepared differently

all I can say is that I am very thankful to be able to just taste anything! even if I dont like it at all ..makes sense I hope this is what you wanted?

I don't really know how to gain this abililty ..other than to practice maybe? or compete with friends or yourself to break down flavors.....I know that my friends and family all have grown into this with me and really work at eating things they have not tried ..hesistate about ..or just do not care for... to kind of be more objective about food...we challenge each other to branch out and talk about it ...I challenge myself as well to really get in to the efforts or discerning flavors in foods more often than I already do ...instead of just eating

there is hope!!! my husband can break down a bowl of Pho for you to the minute detail of how much 5 spice was used. and who uses instant powdered broth ..this is huge ....he used to be a man who plowed through food and then asked "wow that was good what was it?"

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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...when I was at the World Pastry Forum Chef so & so did a palate testing thing. We had just eaten some of his desserts however so our palates were already skewed. Easily everything tasted like water to me. My understanding is that that suggestion should not have been offered to our brains before being tested. But still it was very cool and I'd like to try again under more favorable circumstances. He spoke about developing your palate. Was very cool. My score was somewhere between she'll be fine with the off brand box of macaroni & cheese and fois de fwhat?.

I was stunningly unclear about this. :biggrin:

This Food Sensory Science class was conducted by Chef Anil Rohira sponsored by Albert Uster Imports to define the taste sensations of sweet, salty, bitter, acidic or neutral. They went into great detail about all of the senses, temperature of the food, age of the person, gender etc. and how they affect taste. The places on your tongue that detect which taste, other factors like duration and surface area. It's easiest to taste foods between 68 and 95 degrees. Almost no taste under 32 degrees. There are two different kinds of thresholds for smell, sensation and recognition. Sensation says, 'it smells' recognition says, 'it smells like garlic'. The threshold of recognition is 50 times higher than the threshold of sensation. It was fascinating. I think you would really enjoy that depth of study in rating food sensations and intensities.

Over a period of time in that class we were given several different trays of little cups of clear liquid to taste and rate on a piece of paper. Our taste buds were already full of sweet dessert flavors which unfortunatly cancel out your ability to detect the other flavors. These are very slight variances so you need a clean palate to find them. We were told that maybe all you will taste is water. With that idea planted in my brain that was basically all I tasted 'cause we were happily sweeted out anyway.

They actually had a wheel that they used to plug in whatever flavors they were working with to see the profile between salty acidic sweet before they ever attempted to design a dessert. To see how the proposed flavor combination balanced. It was very scientific.

I have an acute sense of smell. So I think I would have a great palate if I worked at it. But I'm not exactly motivated in that direction. We were told in that class that over time you can definitely enhance your ability to taste.

So when a pastry chef is making a dessert, he is wise to hit a certain percentage into the known flavors and then add something new (strange/different). I learned in another class that they were trying to hit the right kind of strawberry flavor in a certain certain ice cream. A flavor that their Chef would approve. He rejected rejected rejected rejected. Remember Nestle Quick? Nestle's had a strawberry flavor powder to add to milk. They added that artificial strawberry flavor into thier chichi product and viola chef approved. So we are all cut from the same cloth, no? I've heard it over and over that even chef's need to be anchored to the tastes and flavors of their youth.

I like beets. But I cannot introduce new meats into my repertoire for some reason. If I haven't already had it I'll pass it up. I'm not an adventurous eater. And I hate mushrooms--the mouth feel--yuck squared. Think of alll the different kinds of mushrooms and alll those times ten that I'd have to throw up. No thanks anyway. :) Pass the chocolate, please.

How is it that some people do not 'like' chocolate?????!!!!!!!

<insert fainted dead away smiley face>

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I've noticed of late that I'm better able to pick out fruity notes in various coffees since I went from drinking one or two cups a day to nearly mainlining the stuff.  I now understand why people prize Hawaiian Kona, Kenya AA and Jamaica Blue Mountain beans so much.

Yes, I have definitely found that with foods that I eat all the time (for me it is single-malt Scotch :smile: ) I am now far better able to discern the subtleties than I was before. My hope in starting this thread is that there is a "shortcut" to developing one's palate for all foods, so that immediately upon tasting, even something new, one could identify various flavor components, and be able to talk intelligently about how something tastes. Something like the kits for tasting wines. That with some practice using various "benchmark" foods, one can learn to discern the subtleties of a broad range of foods, without resorting to eating a single type non-stop for a week.

I realized in my mid 30's that I could literally taste anything and have no real "kack" factor...even if I dont like whatever it is at all ..I can taste it  appreciate it .....break down and discuss the flavors...I dont know if this was nature or nurture for me..maybe both ..there are foods I dont like that is for sure ..but I can still taste them and talk about them with objectivity ...that I feel is a gift...and I am so grateful to have it!

This is a wonderful skill: I can eat almost anything, but I can rarely adequately describe the flavors. That is what I am really looking to learn how to do.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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"This is a wonderful skill: I can eat almost anything, but I can rarely adequately describe the flavors. That is what I am really looking to learn how to do. "

I say practice and compete with yourself or others...just think about it and "name that flavor" why is this variation different from that? make it a challenge

why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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  • 1 year later...

I've been thinking a lot about this subject over the past few years, and I wanted to bump up this topic and perhaps encourage some new discussion. I'm becoming fascinated with it.

A few random points:

Several years ago, I was struggling with some weight issues. (Still am, but on to a different phase of the battle.) I decided to approach food systematically, and came to some surprising (at the time) conclusions. Believe it or not, I realized that I do not like frozen diet dinners, and the reason I was leaving them in the fridge at work and going out for a Big Mac was because when I "dieted", I fell back into the frozen-diet-dinner rut because that's what I knew how to do. So I started cooking more; making my own soups, looking for sandwich ideas, etc. I also realized that I really loved homemade cookies and found them much more satisfying than anything storebought.

Yes, I know. You're thinking "What took you so long? And why was this a discovery, when a lot of other people have known it forever?"

Because that's the current American way of eating, that's why. It's what my family does and what my friends do.

So I cooked and I baked and I had some great lunches and dinners. Then one day, when I hadn't brought anything for lunch, I found myself at a convenience store, hungry, and grabbed an old stand-by: those little powdered sugar donuts :wub: that come six to a package.

Back at the office, having looked forward to them all morning, I unwrapped one end of the package, lifted one out, and took a bite out of it. Bleeeech! Absolutely nasty. I looked at the date on the package, and the package was well within date. So I offered one to a co-worker, just to test. She popped it in her mouth and the look of bliss was on her face. "Man, I love these things!"

That's when I realized my palate had changed. I had been eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and sweets that contained butter instead of whatever the prepackaged food manufacturers use.

Back to the beets mentioned in previous posts. My theory is that we all taste things differently, and that's why some people don't like beets. Or whatever. Several years ago, when working for a forensic pathologist, I was asked to smell a vial of cyanide. The pathologist was developing a list of which employees could smell it and which could not, so that if it was suspected to be an issue with a decedent, she would be able to use certain employees to help determine whether it was present. I could smell a mild chemical odor, but that's all. One employee thought it had a pleasant, bitter-almond smell. Another had a nearly violent reaction and headed down the hall, hand over mouth, into the restroom.

So I think that just as some of us smell chemicals others don't smell, some of us surely taste chemicals others don't taste. And that's why some people don't like beets and why I can't stand any Snapple beverage: it has a horrible aftertaste for me.

I think this is one of the key issues in getting people away from fast foods and chain restaurants, and into eating real food. The problem is, most of those folks don't understand they can make a conscious effort to change their palates. When I've told the donut story to people, they are certain that I had a "bad batch" and that there must have been something wrong with the product.

Comments?

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It's a complex question. I think there's a continuum, from the most primal taste tools needed for survival, to the highest of art forms. My palate changes daily, and so does my knowledge and experience.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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There are absolutely chemicals that some folks can not taste, for genetic reasons. Its a fairly common high school chemistry experiment.

I am sure the same happens from environmental causes too - illness, damage, things eaten earlier in the day, etc.

I recently learned I cant stand cheese after eating pinenuts (except in basil pesto. Not sure why the exception) - almost all cheese tastes strongly of ammonia to me, in that circumstance.

And as others have said, there is what you are used to. That first bite of cinnamon-flavored meat at a Greek restaurant is a real surprise to those of us raised in a different seasoning tradition.

I think there's no shortcut to learning to pull subtle flavors apart. Practice, contrast, practice.

But what could be more fun than the practicing?

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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I think there's no shortcut to learning to pull subtle flavors apart. Practice, contrast, practice.

But what could be more fun than the practicing?

That's actually the hard part - you need to be fully present to practice and I think most of us don't put that much total focus on our food when we are eating. It also may depend on the circumstances. Maybe part of the reason some meals are so much memorable than others over the years is because we are more focused on the moment, the surroundings, and the food than others.

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I just watched a NovaScience now episode about the science of taste. A study of elementary school children was done to see which kids could taste a certain bitter chemical found in broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower. Their mouths were swabbed, and the scientists tested their DNA, and determined which kids could taste bitter, which couldn't and which could taste it a little. They administered a clear liquid with the bitter extract in it, and the kids all reacted the way the scientists thought. Also discussed in the episode was why we eat so many simple carbs, and in turn become overweight. Simple carbs provide immense amounts of energy, and thousands of years ago, if we were to come across, say strawberries, we would eat all of them, and store the rest of the energy. Never knew when such an energy source would become available again. But fast food simple sugars are so plentiful and our bodies haven't evolved yet, so we continue to "need" them.

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And as others have said, there is what you are used to. That first bite of cinnamon-flavored meat at a Greek restaurant is a real surprise to those of us raised in a different seasoning tradition.

I think there's no shortcut to learning to pull subtle flavors apart. Practice, contrast, practice.

But what could be more fun than the practicing?

That cinnamon-flavored meat is a perfect example of being pulled out of my North American/European comfort zone. I remember thinking: "What the hell? I don't want meat that tastes like Christmas." But, of course, I ate on. And I got it. It will never be my favorite, but what the hey -- it got me thinking.

I've eaten long enough and widely enough to know that I don't love offal -- the exceptions being lamb kidneys and foie. But I've put in time and effort tasting liver and tripe and I've learned.

Just eat up. I give myself the rule I gave my daughter when she was little: try two bites, if you don't like it you don't have to eat it. And she grew up to have a madly adventurous palate and has eaten (and didn't mind) supershudder, dog.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I've had pretty good luck adapting my palate over the years. Many things I disliked, I now actually really like. Two things I've never managed to overcome are liver and chitlins. The "eat it 10 times" thing didn't work with the liver. The eat it 20 or 30 times hasn't worked either. I never made it past a couple attempts at the chitlins and I'm fine with that. I don't care that I don't eat them... but I really wanted to like liver.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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I think my issue qualifies: mussels. I really want to like them. When I was young and in Corsica with friends my age they swooned at the big bowls of moules. I cringed and ate alot of really decent bread. Just this weekend I once again prepped them in a delicious manner, loved the smell and the sauce, but the labrador got most of the actual mussels. I have trained myself on lots of texture items like tendon, cows foot, and konnyaku in its many incarnations. Since I love the flavor I will continue.

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My hope in starting this thread is that there is a "shortcut" to developing one's palate for all foods, so that immediately upon tasting, even something new, one could identify various flavor components, and be able to talk intelligently about how something tastes.

I've done a few things in this regard. They all fall into two categories:

1. Tasting ingredients. For example, one time I was at a farmer's market and noticed that at one particular stand they had every herb I'd ever heard of -- and then some. And the farmer was cooperative, so he allowed me to buy a very small amount of each. I then went back to my hotel room and tasted every herb repeatedly. This radically improved my ability to taste a dish and identify the herbs in it, even though I still get it wrong all the time (just as with wine tasting, where even after years of practice you get fooled in blind tastings all the time). You can do the same thing with spices, with condiments like fish sauce and soy sauce, etc. Just having a good grip on ingredients is a big step forward. Most people don't actually know what, say, thyme tastes like.

2. Tasting archetypal dishes. It's helpful to go to a restaurant where you know they're going to prepare the textbook version of a classic dish, so you establish a benchmark. Even though classical cooking is not directly important to most people these days, a lot of what we eat is still derived from the classics. So being familiar with how a correct Bordelaise or Mornay sauce should taste can be helpful. It's kind of like seeing all the old movies, so you can better grasp the influences on today's movies. (This is something that's harder to do if you live in the boonies, needless to say.)

At some point, it's not worth going overboard, because even if you're writing about food as a career, tasting food is a much more impressionistic endeavor than, say, professional wine tasting.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Most of us have a friend who has an experienced palate. Sometimes it's helpful to take them to dinner if you're exploring something new, and get their opinion on the dish, and on what they taste in it.

A second idea is to search out recipes for a particular dish, and make two or three versions that have slightly different ingredients, and do comparisons. Or take the ingredient lists to the restaurant, and try to identify individual flavors that might be present. The chef may be willing to discuss the presence or absence of certain ingredients if you're not sure whether you detect them. Likewise, you could gather a group of interested friends, and taste, for example, several varieties of tomatoes, and discuss the differences between them.

Personally, I think a major factor is getting as far away from chain restaurants and prepackaged food as possible. That means you're either going to have a substantial restaurant bill, or that you will be doing most of your own cooking. (Chris, I know you already do; that's aimed at others who may be reading the thread.) I really think that the sugar/salt/fat mix in chain restaurant food and prepackaged food, plus all the stabilizers, artificial flavors and preservatives, are palate-killers.

Lastly, I think participating in eGullet discussions, or at least reading them, and reading food literature can be helpful. I can't even name how many times someone has mentioned that they don't like, or especially like, a particular dish because of a specific ingredient, and I'd never noticed that flavor before. Just being able to articulate certain things can be a big help.

Jenny

P.S. Chris, since you started this thread well over a year ago, I'd be interested to hear about the progress you have/haven't made, and about any issues you've encountered.

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I don't get all the comments about "throwing up". I've never eaten a food and had that reaction. A time or two I may have "spit out" some very horrible food, or had a nausea reaction to a smell, but actually vomiting seems sort of infantile. Perhaps it's a visceral reaction with which I am not afflicted. If I ever had a such an episode I would never touch that food again.

There are foods I dislike and would rather not eat but there is usually a preparation or two featuring that food which I do like. The smell of peanut butter on hot toast is extremely offensive to me, and I would never eat plain peanuts. I usually avoid recipes using peanuts, yet I like peanut butter fudge, cupcakes and chocolate candy with peanuts in it. Some people think I'm very picky about my food, but it's more of "I like it how I like it" rather than "I don't eat that".

So is the sophisticated palate dependent upon recognizing flavors, or upon having a broad spectrum of food likes? Or, of liking foods/flavors are not in favor with the majority of people?

Ruth Dondanville aka "ruthcooks"

“Are you making a statement, or are you making dinner?” Mario Batali

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1. Tasting ingredients.

....

I then went back to my hotel room and tasted every herb repeatedly. This radically improved my ability to taste a dish and identify the herbs in it, even though I still get it wrong all the time (just as with wine tasting, where even after years of practice you get fooled in blind tastings all the time). You can do the same thing with spices, with condiments like fish sauce and soy sauce, etc. Just having a good grip on ingredients is a big step forward. Most people don't actually know what, say, thyme tastes like.

Recently I've started tasting individual ingredients as I cook and then repeating their names three times (out loud if I'm cooking alone, under my breath if my wife is around). My theory is that detecting flavors is as much about mental awareness as it is sensory perception. Hopefully my mind will make a strong connection between the flavor and the name.

Of course, there are limitation to this approach. Many raw items taste dramatically different when cooked.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit lately, as I'm doing research on two projects (an article on Khmer home cooking and a classic cocktail course) that require me to develop a keener sense of Chris's question:

I'm not talking about acquiring tastes, here, but rather developing the ability to distinguish between tastes and to enunciate the difference, and, if such a consensus exists for a given food, evaluate it as "good," "bad," "indifferent," etc.

I just finished the BarSmarts Wired course, and they approach this very systematically indeed. You're expected to line up a few examples of a given ingredient -- gin, say -- and taste each one to compare. Meanwhile, they give you a list of terms to use as you taste: flavor components (the big five -- sweet salt, sour, bitter, & umami -- plus specifics like vanilla, lemon, pepper, etc.), textures, and intangibles. Specific spirits have their own more detailed lists; for gin, it's

  • clean or dirty
  • dry or slightly sweet
  • smooth or aggressive
  • gentle or powerful
  • fruity, floral, vegetal, earthy and/or herbal
  • rich or thin
  • soft, sharp, or burning
  • light-, medium- or full-bodied
  • oily

The idea is to link sensory experiences that are often ineffable with the terms that break that input into components, terms with which quality cocktail professionals are expected to be familiar. Ultimately, those terms are to be used to talk with customers about preferences, to build new and better drinks, and to make adjustments based on what you think tastes good.

The nice thing about thinking through spirits is that you can't settle into a simplistic understanding of how things taste. Citrus is not merely sour; it can also be sweet, oily, floral, powerful, sharp... on and on. (I've been seeing that simplistic understanding in descriptions of Khmer ingredients: sdao is a lot more than "bitter," for example.) Sipping on Plymouth and Tanqueray in comparison and asking yourself these questions forces you to concentrate on those components and articulate what you taste to yourself.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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