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Systematically educating your palate


Chris Hennes
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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.

It's interesting that this topic should pop back up right now: this summer I had the opportunity to dine with a number of people who are very knowledgeable about food, and have considerably more advanced palates than mine. I was wholly outclassed at these meals in my feeble attempts to speak intelligently about the food, typically reduced to mostly incoherent ramblings. This experience has convinced me more than anything else had that I really do need to come up with a system for developing my palate.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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How does the systematic education a palate differ between food and drink?

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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Texture would feature more prominently, along with a broader range of salty and savory flavors. But I'd think that many of the basic principles would be similar.

I think so. After the swallow, it's all beyond the palate. I like the idea of classic purées because it's all about the flavour -- the cutting and chewing is already done for you. Drinks are a bit like that.

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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I think when you look at food v. drink you've got a breadth v. depth issue. Food in an incredibly broad category, and it's many times broader today than at any time in the past. Drink is more a question of a few specific products (e.g., wine, beer) with astonishing depth. So when people study critical tasting of wine they learn a whole language to describe that one product, and subtle distinctions among samples are all-important. Food is much less focused. And from a critical perspective, even if you managed to develop a whole vocabulary for evaluation of, say, cucumbers, nobody would be interested in reading that sort of analysis. "The cucumbers were really crisp" is about all anybody has patience for.

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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I haven't seen many examples of literature about butter and steak that's anywhere near comparable to the literature about wine. There's certainly some depth possible with those products, but at orders of magnitude less than with wine. The technical writing about chocolate is a little more beverage-like, and there are a handful of people out there who can talk about chocolate the way wine people talk about wine, but the total number of chocolate variants in the world is probably somewhere near the diversity of wine offerings in one small district of France.

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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I think that we are in general agreement: on the whole, drink (especially wine and beer) has a more developed literature of description than food, and the few food outliers that approach the level of depth used to describe cabernet are in no way indicative of the broader sweep of food vocabulary.

But people do have specific, deep comparative vocabularies to describe say, corn-fed, dry-aged beef relative to grass-fed, wet-aged beef. Even if the literature on beef, compared to wine, is peanuts, it's more complex than that for, say, peanuts. I think it's worth learning those vocabularies if one wants an educated palate in the manner Chris H describes.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Developing your palate can be very hard. But there are things that can help. I think that first and foremost, a person needs to concentrate on one thing at a time. It is a process. So rather than concentrating on flavours in dishes per se, you should be taking individual products of various varieties and set up tastings. I think that one becomes more aware of the subtleties when you can directly compare the differences.

So you could do this with cheese. A nice variety of cheeses without condiments can be compared with regards to texture, firmness, flavour, and milk origin. Make sure to close your eyes and remove all other distractions when tasting. You could take this further and compare only one kind cheese. For instance, you could try different types of parmesan. Domestic, Reggiano, Padano, and Bella Lodi. There are differences, and I think that in order to define those differences, you need a direct comparison.

You can do this with wine as well, chocolate, proteins, fruit, vegetables.....the options are limitless. But it obviously will take time. If you have someone or two people with you to discuss the differences, it makes things even more interesting. Have a weekly tasting night. In 52 weeks you will have covered 52 items.

It could be that your sense of smell may need developing as well. Smell is 70% of your taste, and that alone could affect your perception of things. Practice smelling things before you taste them. Do it with your eyes closed! Try to identify the smells first. Think about something that you can relate that smell to.

Another exercise I do with my apprentices is a seasoning exercise. You cook four pieces of chicken per person (or any other meat or fish, but it has to be four pieces of the same thing) without any seasoning. Then you put the four pieces in a line on a plate. You have a glass of wine ready and available. You also have salt, pepper, and a wedge of lemon available for every person. The first piece of protein is consumed plain. I ask them to think about the flavour of that first piece and then to take a drink of the wine. I get them to write down the flavours or sensations that they encounter. For the second piece of protein, I get them to season it very lightly with salt and pepper before tasting it. And again, they taste the wine. Write down observations. For the third piece of protein, I ask them to season it with salt and pepper and add a couple drops of lemon juice. Taste. Think. Drink Wine. Write Observations. For the final piece, they are asked to eat it plain again. Think. Drink Wine. Write Observations. The differences are very pronounced. People always look at me with wonder when I get them to do it. It teaches a lot about balance in dishes. Once you understand that balance, it is easier to critique a dish as a whole.

As for vocabulary......I think that that will come with time.....but I don't think that a great vocabulary of descriptors necessarily denotes an educated palate.

Have fun with it. I don't think that it should be a tedious process. What's tedious about tasting many different things?

Edited by Irishgirl (log)
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Another exercise I do with my apprentices is a seasoning exercise.  You cook four pieces of chicken per person (or any other meat or fish, but it has to be four pieces of the same thing) without any seasoning. Then you put the four pieces in a line on a plate.  You have a glass of wine ready and available.  You also have salt, pepper, and a wedge of lemon available for every person.  The first piece of protein is consumed plain.  I ask them to think about the flavour of that first piece and then to take a drink of the wine.  I get them to write down the flavours or sensations that they encounter.  For the second piece of protein, I get them to season it very lightly with salt and pepper before tasting it.  And again, they taste the wine.  Write down observations.  For the third piece of protein, I ask them to season it with salt and pepper and add a couple drops of lemon juice. Taste.  Think.  Drink Wine.  Write Observations.  For the final piece, they are asked to eat it plain again.  Think.  Drink Wine.  Write Observations.  The differences are very pronounced.  People always look at me with wonder when I get them to do it.  It teaches a lot about balance in dishes.  Once you understand that balance, it is easier to critique a dish as a whole.

What a great, simple exercise -- which any cook could do at home whenever he or she makes any given item. In addition to wine, salt, pepper lemon, you could have cayenne, sugar, vinegar, a few drops of olive oil... the list is practically endless.

Janet has some similar experiments in her terrific eGCI course on taste, and David Thompson introduces the concept of balance in his seminal Thai Food with a step-by-step layering experiment.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Another exercise I do with my apprentices is a seasoning exercise.  You cook four pieces of chicken per person (or any other meat or fish, but it has to be four pieces of the same thing) without any seasoning. Then you put the four pieces in a line on a plate.  You have a glass of wine ready and available.  You also have salt, pepper, and a wedge of lemon available for every person.  The first piece of protein is consumed plain.  I ask them to think about the flavour of that first piece and then to take a drink of the wine.  I get them to write down the flavours or sensations that they encounter.  For the second piece of protein, I get them to season it very lightly with salt and pepper before tasting it.  And again, they taste the wine.  Write down observations.  For the third piece of protein, I ask them to season it with salt and pepper and add a couple drops of lemon juice. Taste.  Think.  Drink Wine.  Write Observations.  For the final piece, they are asked to eat it plain again.  Think.  Drink Wine.  Write Observations.  The differences are very pronounced.  People always look at me with wonder when I get them to do it.  It teaches a lot about balance in dishes.  Once you understand that balance, it is easier to critique a dish as a whole.

What a great, simple exercise -- which any cook could do at home whenever he or she makes any given item. In addition to wine, salt, pepper lemon, you could have cayenne, sugar, vinegar, a few drops of olive oil... the list is practically endless.

Janet has some similar experiments in her terrific eGCI course on taste, and David Thompson introduces the concept of balance in his seminal Thai Food with a step-by-step layering experiment.

Agreed. The list could be endless. For my purposes, I was using it as a lesson in making sure that the cook understood proper seasoning and how proper seasoning affects the taste of wine and food. If the food is not seasoned properly, the wine tastes terrible! But it is also an exercise in balance and understanding that balance. So you could take it into further realms and go into hot, sour, salty and sweet, but using different chilies or spices, different souring agents, and different salty and sweet components. The point is to document and discuss the results.

Another thing that comes to mind is a section in Ruth Reichl's book, Garlic and Sapphires. She tells a story about having a date with a stranger who very obviously considers himself a connoisseur. He tells her about a wine filing system that he has from memory in which he relates the flavours of each wine to certain images and scenes in his head. He describes them to her, and she pictures them too. It is an interesting trick, and may help with articulating the various subtleties that Chris is thinking about.

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Different people in this thread seem to be using "developing your palate" to mean different things. Are you asking for the ability to talk more knowledgeably about food? The ability to appreciate better what your eating? The ability to discern two closely related flavors?

Here are some random tips I've culled over the years:

Tasting blind is a sucker's game: Occasionally, I'll be tasting a sauce or marinade or something and be asked how it was made and I usually have no clue. I might pick up some soy, maybe some sweetness. But on reality tv shows where they have blind taste competitions, even professional chefs do embarrasingly low (on the order of 20% for simple foods). Don't be ashamed if you can't pick out flavors blind, it's more of a party trick than anything else. Instead, know what flavors you're tasting beforehand and try to pick those out.

Try and find the "DNA" of the dish: For classic dishes, there's a reason why they became popular. Some combinations just work well together. When your tasting, try and hone in on the platonic ideal of the dish. What is this dish trying to express & how well is it doing it. Take chicken fried steak to pick an example completely out of the air. The goal is to start with a tough piece of meat and make it palatable. At the same time, it also wants to provide a crust that gives a satisfing crunch. Once you understand these two things about CFS, you can approach a dish with context.

Approach food from a critical angle: For every plate you eat, ask the question: How would this dish taste better. Start from the basics and work progressively up in requirements: Is the dish properly seasoned? Is the acid/sweet ratio correct? Are the things meant to be crisp & the things meant to be soft, soft? Does any one flavor dominate and overwhelm the dish? Are the temperatures correct? Is it coaxing the maximum amount of flavor from each ingredient? Do the flavor combinations work harmoniously or are they in conflict? Is it presented correctly?

Do adhoc, sloppy-blind taste tests. Even avid foodies don't test nearly as much as makes sense. Buy an organic pineapple and a conventional pineapple, taste them side by side, can you tell a difference? How does cheap supermarket chicken compare to the free range kind in a chicken pot pie? The idea is not to demand absolute scientific purity, just that you get in the mindset of testing your assumptions when convenient. I don't think I have an especially poor palate but for some dishes in which foodies swear a high quality ingredient makes a difference, I couldn't tell if you held a gun to my head. My general rule is that unless something makes up over 30% of the flavor of a dish, you can generally afford to go one or two levels down and not notice a huge difference.

Taste as you cook: I've never been much of a restaurant person so educating my palate usually involves me making the thing from scratch. The first time I make something, I'll usually pull it apart and do a long winded, technical version. That allows me to understand the progression of a dish as it cooks. Once I'm familiar with what I'm making, I can streamline the recipe and only taste at much longer intervals.

Bullshit with confidence: Nobody knows how anyone else tastes things so even people with admittedly much better palates than me harbor a deep seated insecurity that maybe they're missing something crucial. As long as you're willing to wield your confidence when you discuss food, people will usually agree with you for fear of looking stupid.

PS: I am a guy.

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