The Scent of a Kitchen

Kate at The Accidental Hedonist had a great post the other day on the subject of her favorite food aromas, and it got me to thinking.

Quite a few of the foods she listed as having her favorite aromas seemed pretty universal to me–freshly baked bread being one and coffee being another. I think that everyone loves those two scents–in fact, I think that if someone wanted to market a scent that would make Americans think of Mama and the comforts of home, it would combine freshly baked bread with coffee and perhaps vanilla.

I suspect that for Americans, sage has got to be a nearly universal favorite food smell because it is the scent that embodies one of our favorite food holidays: Thanksgiving.

Other aromas that she lists as favorites are less typically American and more personal to Kate. One is freshly popped kettle corn, which though I am sure many people love, is not necessarily a scent that everyone I know would recognize, and the other is fresh whiskey straight from the still–not nearly as many people I know have had the opportunities to smell that as Kate has. (Being as she is the author of a book on the subject of whiskey, and I know she traveled to many distilleries doing research, I suspect she is probably an expert on the olfactory experience of the water of life.)

Garlic and onions, which she lists together, have scents that I know for a fact polarizes people’s opinions, sometimes even within the same household. While I side with Kate and simply love walking into a home that is fragrant with the essence of what I consider to be good cooking, which is to say browned onions and golden garlic, many other people I know are quite simply offended at having such odors permeating a living space.

I remember the Pakistani-Bangladeshi Muslim couple I used to cook for were divided on the issue of cooking smells. The husband hated having his home smelling of the kitchen, while the wife felt that the scent of cooking made a house a home. So, she would ask me to use the vent hood when I browned onions and cooked garlic, but was less stringent in her request when I cooked fresh ginger and spices, since these odors did not bother her husband.

Many other people I know also operate their vent hoods or open windows before, during and after cooking onions and garlic, and while I realized that this desire for a home unscented with cooking alliums is a personal choice and thus I respect it, I cannot help but note that it makes me sad, because to me, the scent of onions and garlic IS home to me.

Any reader of this blog has to know that nearly everything I cook other than desserts, is liberally laced with large amounts of garlic, onions and ginger, so it is inevitable that my kitchen, and in fact, the entire lower floor of my house, smells of them. In fact, when I am stir-frying and thus using the vent hood to get the smoke and the heat out of the kitchen, not only do I spread allium smell all over my house, the odor is swept outside into our driveway and sometimes goes as far as the street. Many of my friends have joked that they need only stand downwind of my house and sniff the air to know what I am cooking for dinner.

Imagine a tall, slender red-haired man stepping out onto the deck of his log cabin three doors down the hill from my house. He raises his head and sniffs the air, his nostrils twitching as they catch the scent of browned onions, garlic and ginger mixed with….chilies, there they are, cumin, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon and–ah–there it is–lamb. He smiles and starts walking up the hill because he knows that his sister is cooking lamb curry for dinner and the door is always open to him. That would be Dan, who has literally said that he has smelled my cooking at least one house down the road from mine, so it is a slight exaggeration to have him smelling it from his porch, but not by much.

When I come downstairs in the morning after I have cooked a traditional Chinese or Indian meal, I love being able to smell the lingering odors from dinner. I have found that in addition to the holy trinity of my kitchen of garlic, onions and ginger, some odors linger lovingly longer than others. One is the comforting, woodsy scent of toasted sesame oil, and another is the nutty, creamy aroma of Shao Hsing rice wine. Cumin, cardamom and cloves linger lovingly in the air after I make curry, and the tang of fish sauce and lime juice blended with chilies tells me that the spirit of the Thai food I cooked the night before is still wafting through my home.

And the truth is I know that I would rather my kitchen and home smell like good, well-seasoned food than any cleaning potion ever invented by man–even Pine Sol. (That is a big admission because I adore the smell of Pine Sol–it reminds me of my childhood in a good way.) Whether the scent of my kitchen involves alliums, rising dough, freshly baked bread, pie straight from the oven, fish sauce in a hot wok or kimchi bubbling on my counter in its initial fermentation, (yes, Kate, I disagree with you on the kimchi–to me, fermenting cabbage smells good) it always smells deliciously of home to me, and brings myself and many other great joy.


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  1. To me, a scent composed of freshly baked bread, coffee and vanilla would be quite unpleasant. My parents disliked coffee, so they never had it in the house, and the only time anyone drank it was in dire asthmatic emergencies. (caffeine is one of the few asthma drugs that can be had over the counter) So the smell of coffee was quite unpleasant, and is only a little better these days.

    My favorite homey smell is the scent of one of my mother’s soup recipes. Doesn’t matter which one… they all smell like home to me.

    Comment by Emily — October 7, 2008 #

  2. Burnt or scorching coffee is an awful smell to me as well. My parents left the stuff on the stove far too long, and leaving the pot on until it scorches has happened so hideously often at offices where I work that I find it nauseating. I got stuck with cleaning out that stupid pot a lot as well, whic is dreadfully unjust, considering that I can’t drink coffee. It gives me migraines.

    To me, baking cookies of nearly any kind, simmering stock, and onions cooking in olive oil are homey scents.

    Comment by Mantelli — October 7, 2008 #

  3. I love the smell of sesame oil!
    And onions n’ garlic…

    I like the smell of liver cooking but hate eating it, while I love eating shrimp but cannot stand the smell.

    Comment by wwjudith — October 7, 2008 #

  4. I love the smell of crushed ginger and garlic together. That reminds me of home, especially Korea, and my grandmother. Those two smells make my mouth water, and my stomach growl, as they were the first things usually used in the morning for cooking breakfast. I love the smell of freshly brewed coffee and toast as it reminds me of the norwegian and swedish side of the family. *sigh* 🙂

    Comment by milgwimper — October 7, 2008 #

  5. I made chicken soup Sunday night, and I could still smell in in the house after lunch yesterday. Heaven!

    Comment by Kristi — October 7, 2008 #

  6. Bacon?
    No one mentioned bacon- whether you eat it or not it sure smells good.

    I fall into the “not wanting my house to smell like food after dinner” category

    Comment by Toni — October 7, 2008 #

  7. The advertisements for “air deodorizing” sprays always confuse me, because they show these graphic representations of Awful Food Smells that include garlic and onions. Fish guts, sure, I feel you on that, but garlic and onions? That spells delicious to me. What else is a kitchen supposed to smell like?

    When I lived in a house with lots of other people, I somehow developed a reputation as an awesome cook because “it always smells sooooo good.” I’m no slouch, to be sure, but that good smell was really just me frying garlic and onions — always a good start for a meal, but it doesn’t guarantee good results. 🙂

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 7, 2008 #

  8. I love the smell of onions and garlic; also ginger and curry spices, any baking pastry or bread smell, and (perhaps more uniquely) roasted peppers, which remind me of autumn growing up in New Mexico when all the chiles are roasting.

    I like the smell of coffee, but not in my kitchen. I don’t drink coffee at home.

    Comment by Alexis — October 7, 2008 #

  9. To me there is nothing like the smell of onions cooking on oil that has just popped some South Indian spices and curry leaves.

    It sets my heathen heart at ease.

    Comment by Moderndayhermit — October 7, 2008 #

  10. The coolest thing is when diced garlic is dropped into hot olive oil. For about 1 to 1.5 seconds, there is a very sweet smell. After, the smell quickly turns very sharp or sour or something. That is the best smell… the 1 second of garlic in the olive oil. Try it… you’ll see (I mean smell)!

    Comment by NL — October 7, 2008 #

  11. Thank you for this post! So uplifting.

    I love nearly all cooking smells. My only caveat would be that I wish they stayed in the kitchen–especially egg and meat smells–and that I wish all cooking smells would stay out of the bathroom. We live in a damp climate so scents hang around a lot longer.

    In the meantime, you’ve gotten me inspired to put on some (food friendly spice-derived) essential oils and get cooking!

    Comment by Sasha — October 7, 2008 #

  12. In our old location the cafe I work for had windows in the kitchen that opened to the street. We never had such foot traffic as when I was browning onions. I would make sure not to start them until my support staff had had their breaks, otherwise we’d be swamped with no help.

    My favorite smells in the kitchen are actually raw: citrus zest and fresh herbs, especially cilantro and basil. 🙂

    Comment by starrrie — October 7, 2008 #

  13. UM….Hello! COOKIES!

    Comment by Dawn Glassy — October 8, 2008 #

  14. The only thing that smells better than onions cooking in oil is onions cooking in butter!

    I also agree with any kind of baking smells being great. Especially yeasty bread.

    Coffee is a bit odd because I associate it emotionally with getting up early in the morning or pulling an all-nighter studying, so it smells, erm, stressful to me, if that makes any sense.

    I think beans cooking is a very comforting smell. Maybe not the nicest smell in the world, but my mom would always make a big pot of pinto beans and some corn muffins when it first got cold.

    Smell is the sense most closely associated with emotion, so that would color people’s favorite smells quite a bit.

    Comment by Neohippie — October 8, 2008 #

  15. Agreeing with the garlic and onions, bacon, and freshly baked bread.

    For me, however, there is a sound that gives me a little shiver of delight.. that little “cloinkPING” from the lid of a jar of fresh preserves as they cool. Always makes me smile 🙂

    Comment by Stuart — October 9, 2008 #

  16. It’s an interesting topic, Barbara. In France I found that people universally hated cooking smells, which is odd for a nation with such a reputation for good food! In fact, open plan kitchens are known as “American kitchens” and you’ll only find them in cheap, small apartments where there isn’t really room for a kitchen in the first place, just a corner of the living room with a bar to separate it from the rest of the room. Even my lovely neighbor, who lived in the US and Hong Kong for 20+ years and was very cosmopolitan in other ways would religiously take the deep fat fryer out onto the terrace when she wanted to cook with it, for fear that the house would smell of food!

    As for me, I’m with you: smells make the home. I don’t believe anyone has mentioned roasted chicken, but that one surely does it for me: sage, garlic, onion and delicious meat. Yum.

    And rosemary. I love how I can smell my rosemary plant whenever I brush past it in the garden.

    Comment by Meg — October 9, 2008 #

  17. One of the reasons I love baking bread is because it perfumes the whole house -you can even smell it when you’re in the garage!

    Comment by Sara — October 10, 2008 #

  18. Grant Achatz may have had problems with losing his sense of taste, but if I couldn’t smell my food I’d definitely give up cooking. Did you know that some restaurants extract the kitchen smells out into the street at the front deliberately to attract customers?

    Comment by Trig — October 11, 2008 #

  19. Ah, cooking smells. Lovely things. I dearly love the smell of garlic and onions cooking in olive oil. And anything chocolate baking. And of course bread. I once decided that heaven would smell of freshly-baked bread. Another magnificent smell is meat grilling, particularly beef. I adore the smell of fresh herbs, all kinds, except cilantro, and oh, the smell of coffee, particularly when you walk by or step into a coffee shop. Someone mentioned citrus zest–that’s wonderful, too. After I’ve zested an orange, lime, or grapefruit, I love to have the smell remain on my hands.

    Comment by Christy — October 14, 2008 #

  20. cooking smells… I can go on forever. garlic, ginger and onions sauteing for sure… freshly ground garam masala and after that citrus smells. Have been catching up on all the news on your blog. Happy birthday (belated) to Zak and Kat (she looks all grown up). And good to hear that you are all recovered from the ER trip.

    Comment by mandira — October 15, 2008 #

  21. I absolutely love the smell of garlic and onions cooking…and really, the only smell I don’t like in my house is fish. I consider the gorgeous smells are a part of the eating experience!

    Comment by Portland Foodie — October 18, 2008 #

  22. Your brother is so lucky to be just down the hill a bit from you! Scents are such a personal thing. I agree with you that cooking scents are what makes a home a home, but I don’t like the smell of deep-fried fish or fries, but love the smell of garlic and onions. Thanks for a great taste-filled post!

    Comment by Shari — October 19, 2008 #

  23. i think if my husband did not love the smell of garlic sauteeing in olive oil as much as i do, we would not still be married. it’s THAT important.

    Comment by michelle @ TNS — October 22, 2008 #

  24. I just noticed that it’s been a while since you posted, and I just wondered whether everything’s okay.

    Comment by Mary Ann Dimand — October 23, 2008 #

  25. You are such a word muse with your choice of words. I love it!

    Melina xx

    Comment by melina — October 24, 2008 #

  26. it’s quiet … too quiet. hope all is well.

    Comment by nancy — October 31, 2008 #

  27. Just hoping all is well over here. Best wishes.

    Comment by Christine — November 2, 2008 #

  28. Hope you’re doing ok, too. Post soon, ok?

    My house has smelled like bacon all day today. Yum!

    Comment by donna — November 2, 2008 #

  29. Hoping all is well in your corner of the world. It does always take me longer then expected to get back into the swing of things after a vacation (especially a road trip)

    Looking forward to hearing from you,


    Comment by KCatGU — November 4, 2008 #

  30. It’s been a long while since you posted — is everything alright?

    Comment by Kyrias — November 5, 2008 #

  31. I hope you’re okay Barbara — we miss your posts!

    Comment by Andrea — November 5, 2008 #

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