Culinary Sense

Adventures with Food and Life

Sensory Analysis: Taste Interaction

Hey Folks,

in today’s class, we are learning about taste interactions. In other words, we are learning about what happens when we have two or more tastes in a food.

As we’ve already learned, there are five tastes: bitter, sour, salt, sweet, umami. For homework, we were supposed to think about which two tastes are our favorite, and think of three examples of that combination. Mine were salty and sweet: like buttered, salted popcorn and chocolate, bacon with maple syrup, and Kaesespaetzle (spaetzle with alpine-style cheese and caramelized onions).

We get six little cups, and have to label them with the five tastes, and one with “mix”. We pour pure tastes into the cups – in other words, pure taste dissolved into water (there is no aroma attached to the taste). Citric acid in water, syrup, salty water… on their own are very strong. Bitter was terrible, and tasted like aspirin-water. Umami tasted kind of like a broth, but without salt.

Then came the interesting part. We poured mixes, i.e. half of one taste and half of another taste, to see what happened. The general rule is: when you pair a taste with the same taste, the taste gets stronger. If you add sugar to sugar, it gets sweeter!

To see if all the theory actually works, we made some foods to exemplify all the combinations of tastes.

We started with a virgin margarita. It’s sweet and sour, but mostly sour. We tasted just the liquid first, and tried to remember exactly the intensity of the sour and the sweet. Then, we licked some of the salt from the rim of the glass, and had another sip. Surprise! The salt makes  the margarita taste less sour!

Next we had fennel agro dulce, which was seared fennel braised in white balsamic and honey. The tastes are sweet and sour. We tasted it to see whether one taste was more intense than the other. Usually, sweet and sour play together well, and balance each other out.

Next up: broccoli rabe. Broccoli rabe’s main taste is bitter. We prepared it three different ways, although all were blanched in salty water (to preserve color and season): on the right, plain blanched (salt, bitter), the middle one is tossed in vinegar which corrupts the color (sour, bitter), and the one on the left is tossed in pancetta and olive oil (salt, bitter, and fat). So the first one we tasted was the plain one, and it tasted bitter and salty. The second one was sour and bitter (not a good combination), which made both the bitter and the sour less intense. The last one was the best: the fat makes the bitter less intense, and the added salt made it taste less bitter. Plus, the umami from the pancetta made it less bitter, too. The last was our favorite!

This is poached tilapia with lemon, to represent sour and an umami. Sour and umami together make each taste less intense. First, we tasted just the fish for the pure umami taste, and then we added some lemon juice to see what happens with the umami taste, and sure enough, it tastes less umami with the lemon added!

Here you can see sweet and salty nuts, and brown sugar bacon. The brown sugar bacon represents sweet, salt, and umami. The nuts were the best nuts I’ve ever had, so much so that I couldn’t stop eating them. Sweet and salty is my favorite! As for the bacon, sweet, salty, and umami are America’s favorite flavors! Think of a hamburger with ketchup, it’s the epitome of American fast food. It’s what we seek in our comfort foods.

This seared chicken is another example of sweet, salty, and umami (although there is less salt than in the bacon). The dipping sauce was a honey mustard sauce.

This is what I prepared for the class: sauteed mushrooms, grilled mushrooms, and grilled hanger steak. The dish contains salt. First, we tried the sauteed mushrooms (umami and slightly sweet), then the grilled mushrooms (bitter and umami), and then compared the mushroom-y taste. The sauteed mushrooms tasted more like mushroom (no bitter). Then, we tried the steak without salt and with salt. The salt really makes the steak taste more like steak. In other words, umami really needs salt to taste better, and more like itself.

For dessert, we not only had the nuts, but also strawberries dipped in chocolate. The strawberries represent sour and sweet, and the chocolate represents sweet and bitter. Without the chocolate, the strawberries taste sweet and sour, but with the chocolate, they taste more sour because the bitter in the chocolate and the sweet in the strawberry bring each other down. This kind of makes sense to me, because I never really liked strawberries with chocolate. Why you would want to make a strawberry taste less sweet is a mystery to me!

Overall, this was a really interesting class, and makes me think a lot more about which tastes go together, and which foods taste sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and umami. It’s just an exciting new world. Now I really pay attention to what I put in my mouth!

~ Carolynn





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