Taste vs. Flavor, Or, In Praise of Our Noses

I was reading somewhere on the net, a thread of conversation about food, foodies, and what makes a foodie a foodie. In the middle of this wide-ranging discussion, one commenter postulated that most foodies were supertasters who have tongues which can discriminate between the most subtle nuances of flavor between different foods.

Except, as another poster pointed out, supertasters, which are people who have a much higher than average number of taste buds on their tongues, don’t tend to like highly flavored foods, because what they taste is so intense that they are nauseated or disgusted by it.

It is more likely for a supertaster to become an extremely fussy or picky eater than it is for them to become a foodie.

Most food lovers probably only have an average number of tastebuds on their tongues. Which may make some folks sad, because everyone wants to be above-average in something, and having a very sensitive tongue–well, it sounds kind of sexy, doesn’t it?

But I don’t think what our tongues are up to in our mouths that make us food-lovers–it is what goes on in our noses that matters.

Why do I say this?

Because there are only five tastes which are registered on the tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami--which is that meaty, savory taste that makes myriad foods such as mushrooms, meat and fermented soy products so darned, well, tasty. (Hot as in chile heat is not a taste–it is a sensation. It is the feeling of our mouths receiving a slight chemical burn–which doesn’t sound appetizing, but for myself and others like me, it is.)

If we could only discern those five tastes, then our food would only be made of a combination between those five tastes. And we would not have most spices, wine would either be bitter, sweet or sour, or some combination of the three, and our cuisines would be much more boring.

Instead, humans experience a myriad of flavors, all built from a combination of tastes and fragrances. We have hundreds, if not thousands of herbs and spices which build complex flavor patterns in our cuisines, and we talk about the “nose” of wine, or its “bouquet” in terms referring to its floral, fruity, woody or spicy qualities. We are thus able to proclaim not only the difference in flavor between a cherry and an apple, but also discern distinct differences in flavor between the hundreds of varieties of apples.

But the truth is–we do not only experience taste, we also experience flavor, and because of that, gastronomy is endlessly diverse, fascinating and fun.

What is the difference between taste and flavor?

Taste is discerned by the taste buds on the tongue.

Flavor is sensed in combination between our taste buds and our noses–with our noses, frankly, doing most of the work. It is the fragrance and aroma of food that make it most interesting, and I am firmly of the belief that most foodies boast sensitive noses, not sensitive tongues. (If you don’t believe me, think back to the last time you had a cold and had a nose so stopped up that you had to breathe through your mouth. Remember how weird food tasted–or rather, didn’t taste? That is because your blocked-up nose was unable to deliver its part of the sense of taste to your brain, and so every flavor was dulled down or erased completely.)

In my case, I have found over the years that I can smell the different individual spices of the melange used in an Indian dish, before I even taste it. Now, this ability to disentangle the rich spice mixtures of India by smell is not something I was born with; I learned to do it.

Well, not quite–I mean, I always had a good sense of smell. I could detect the difference of a single bay leaf between my Aunt Nancy’s lentil soup and my mother’s–otherwise, the recipe was exactly the same. But, to me–that bay leaf aroma was very present, and it made the two soups as different as night and day.

But sniffing out a bay leaf in a cauldron of soup at twenty paces is one thing; parsing out the identity of the spices dancing together in a curry is quite a different beastie altogether.

I had to train my nose, and my palate to do that.

How did I do this?

I will tell you. I used to, as I collected my Indian spices over time, take a small bit of each one and sniff it, then write down my impressions of it. Then, I would taste a bit of it on its own–and write down my further impressions. Finally, I would toast a bit of it in a dry skillet, and in a second skillet, would cook another bit of it in oil. Once again, I would write down what I thought of the flavor of the spice in cooked form.

When I taught Indian and Chinese cooking in Maryland, I used to put my students through their paces and urged them to keep a spice notebook to keep track of what all the spices, aromatics, herbs and condiments used in these cuisines tasted like, so they could refer back to their notes if they ever got stumped on the origin of a particular scent, flavor or taste. It seems that the act of writing down your impressions helps to burn the association of the flavor with the spice or herb in the mind; it essentially helps create what is called a “taste memory,” which is the ability to recall the specific flavor or taste of any given ingredient, mixture or dish.

Most chefs, myself included, have excellent taste memories. Some of them were born with an exquisitely sensitive palate, while others develop theirs through study and training over time. Most of us, I think, started out with good senses of taste and smell, and the ability to recall foods from memory, but then, this memory is strengthened by regular practice in using these senses critically and intentionally, by articulating what it is we are tasting.

The ability to recognize and parse out different tastes and flavors is a great skill for anyone to have, whether one is a chef, a serious home cook or just a serious eater, because not only does it allow us to understand and enjoy food to its fullest extent, it also allows a chef or cook to recreate dishes which we may have only tasted once, perhaps twice, without having to rely on a recipe.

Having a good nose and a memory for flavors is fun, I must say, because I enjoy being able to go out to most restaurants, eat something great and then be able to skip off home and after the passage of weeks or months, or sometimes, even years, hie myself into the kitchen to recreate the recipe on my own.

(I call that particular activity “food hacking,” and no, I do not do “Top Secret Restaurant Recipes.” I mean, why would anyone want to make a Big Mac at home? But, food hacking is a fun hobby.)

Just remember, that without our sense of smell, food would be much more boring than it is. We’d be lacking the very green, somewhat pine-resin flavor of rosemary, and the sweet, somewhat citrus, floral delight that is cardamom. We’d be bereft of the tingling warmth and spiny spark of black pepper and the delectable red burst of the first strawberry of the season.

Without our noses, our meals would be poorer indeed.

So what is the upshot of all of this blather?

It is this–if you want to be a better cook, a more discerning eater or just learn more about food, don’t worry about how many tastebuds are sitting on the surface of your tongue.

Instead, follow your nose.

14 Comments

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I am not a supertaster in the slightest and I have always believed that is what leads my husband and myself to our love of really bold, strong flavors. I guess I may never get white sauce but I get curry and that is foodie enough for me. :)

    PS It’s funny, I never thought about it much, but every time I use a spice I have my 2.5 yr old daughter smell it. A foodie in training? :)

    Comment by Laura — January 8, 2008 #

  2. Hmmm. I have chronic sinus problems. Maybe I’m doomed, food-wise? :)

    Comment by Karyn — January 8, 2008 #

  3. This sounds kind of like the culinary version of having perfect pitch.

    Comment by Neohippie — January 8, 2008 #

  4. I had a housemate who was impossible to cook for because he had no sense of smell on account of chronic sinus problems so the only things that tasted good to him were very salty. I usually ended up cooking for the rest of us and then handing him a salt shaker. It lacked elegance but it kept the rest of us out of high blood pressure.

    Comment by Jenna — January 8, 2008 #

  5. I have to agree about the noses of foodies. I’ve learned over time to identify aromas, though my nose has really gotten sensitive in the last few years. It’s great for cooking, but boy the smell of my sourdough starter sometimes gets to me! :-)

    Comment by Andrea — January 9, 2008 #

  6. It’s funny; I’ve always thought I had a horrible sense of smell, but I love food anyway! I cannot get enough of it and am beginning to build my spice collection.
    What a great essay you’ve written! I’ve never thought about taste memory before or how useful it can be. Thanks for making me think! I love your blog.

    Comment by Ruby Red Vegan — January 10, 2008 #

  7. I have to agree. I have a pretty educated palate, but I also have pretty bad allergies, and without the nose my skills are impaired. My solution is to keep a jar of prepared horseradish around. It clears the nose while not interfering with smell or taste. (The horseradish aroma dissipates quickly.)

    Comment by Scotty Harris — January 10, 2008 #

  8. I love “food hacking” — very evocative description!

    I am somewhat amateur at these sorts of things but I do have a good sense of smell. Give me a big bouquet of basil and I’m in heaven. On the other hand it can make daily life a bit annoying because smells that other people hardly notice are annoying to me.

    Comment by Alexis — January 10, 2008 #

  9. Karyn, what I didn’t mention in the post is that I have had sinus problems my entire life. Yet, I still have a very strong sense of smell–it is possible that I just have a lot of olfactory sensors in my nose–I don’t know. But I have been lucky that my sinus issues have not ruined my sense of smell. It does with some people, like Jenna’s housemate.

    Scotty–horseradish works wonders for the stuffy nose.

    Alexis–me, too. When I was pregnant, some smells were just overwhelming and made my nine months of nausea and food avoidance (imagine writing a food blog when most food made you sick–it sucked) even more awful.

    So, a good nose is both a blessing and a curse.

    Comment by Barbara — January 10, 2008 #

  10. The fact that smell is the critical component of taste is true – I’ve seen people in blind tests who were made to hold their noses while sipping coke and fanta confuse the two! Re. food hacking – finally outed a secret sauce recipe from a little restaurant in the Marais, after five years!

    Comment by Birdseyeview — January 11, 2008 #

  11. And the fact that a brief whiff of something can bring back increcibly strong memories of a place and time just further proves your point. In my mind I can still smell the stale kitchen odors from the neighbor that I was afraid of as a little girl… (No reason, just childish silliness)

    Comment by Katie — January 11, 2008 #

  12. Neohippie–that was a great analogy–perfect pitch for cooks!

    Birdseye–You can often get someone to confuse a soft, not too acidic red wine vinegar with a young, acidic red wine if you close off their noses. Let them use their noses and they can catch it right off–but without the noses–it is amazing to see folks sip vinegar like it is wine.

    Katie–There is a certain cookie that I ate at my Gram’s house, that if I smell it, I am suddenly back in her living room, and I can smell the carpet, the heater (she had an open gas heater in the front room fireplace) and the other mingled smells of that little house. It is amazing to me. The smell of fresh, ripe, sunwarmed strawberries makes me think of picking them with Grandma, and the way the sunwarmed dirt under our feet felt and smelled.

    Comment by Barbara — January 13, 2008 #

  13. Dear Ms. Fisher,

    I am posting a comment on your blog because my attempts to contact you have proved failures.

    This concerns a project I am working on for my Biology class. We were assigned research papers, as well as accompanying experiments, and mine is to discover if scent is truly employed more often in the connection of food to pleasure, or if it is taste which overrules in the art of distinguishing flavors. Upon finding your website, I discovered that it contained a plethora of information, which will benefit me greatly in my research, and I thank you profusely for providing that to the public (myself included)!

    However, I am contacting you now because I need some of your expertise culinary advice. For my experiment itself, I have decided to test people of the same “supertasting abilities” with food of similar texture (so that wouldn’t be a dead giveaway in the mouth), but which varies in one particular characteristic, such as a slight difference in smell or taste (to contrast the two senses isolated in my experiment). However, being as I am not exactly the chef in my family, I have no idea where to start when searching for foods of similar taste but differing smell, or vice versa! Do you think you could possibly help me, by perhaps leading my in the right direction or placing me on the right track?

    The information provided on your blog is already certainly more than enough, and I thank you again for providing it. However, it would be a great help if you could offer me suggestions on my experiment.

    Again, thank you so much, just for reading this comment!

    Your Amateur Experimenter,
    Chelsea

    Comment by Chelsea — March 13, 2008 #

  14. Chelsea–I am sorry I forgot to answer your email–I had a death in the family and everything has been turned upside down. The funeral was today, so things are finally slowing down to almost normal.

    Similar texture but different aromas? The taste of both apple sauce and pear sauce is the same–sweet. It is the aroma that is different and that tells the difference between them. They also have the same basic texture–and color, for that matter.

    You might try cheeses–you might try a strong aged cheddar vs. mild cheddar. It is the smell that is different–the basic taste is the same. Lightly sweet with a bit of salt. Again, colorwise–you can get them exactly the same.

    Olive oil is another good one where aroma is king. You can have them taste it on a neutral piece of baguette–just use the same loaf for each test piece! And just use the interior of the bread, not the crust–it has too much flavor and will change the taste of the oil.

    Some oils are very mild and buttery, because they are mild in taste, and have a very gentle aroma.

    Some are spicy and “grassy” tasting because they have a stronger smell.

    I hope that these suggestions help you out–they are the simplest ideas I could come up with.

    For the applesauce and pear sauce, what you want to do is make it from scratch, using little to no sugar at first.

    Then, you want to taste them both and adjust sweetness so that they have the same basic level of sweetness–don’t just put the same amount of sugar in each one and think it will work. They will vary in how much natural sugar each one has.

    Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

    Comment by Barbara — March 13, 2008 #

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