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Friday, January 20, 2012

In Good Taste (part two)

                I wanted to elaborate a little on the previous post about our sense of taste.  Since I’ve never read somebody’s own methods of tasting and analysis, I will tell you the exact process that I go through each time I evaluate something I am cooking.

                First, I look at context.  I ask myself: “self, what’s the overall theme of this dish?”.  Is it a hot summer dish?  Or a late fall dinner that should be comforting and filling?  I give myself parameters to fit into so that I know what the end result should be.  Next, I always use my eyes.  Is this something appealing looking or is it unappetizing?  If I am preparing this component of a dish in accordance with a specific ethnicity or culture, does it look like something I’ve seen in this style before?  Next, I smell long and deep.  Anything off?   I do this because it helps to prime my taste buds by way of the retro nasal passage at the back of my mouth.  It should immediately make me want to take the next step to tasting.  If the texture of my creation is pleasing, I immediately look for balance among the four main tastes (sour, sweet, salty, bitter ) and if I am looking for one of these to stand out, is it achieving that goal.  Should there be heat (spiciness) in this particular part of the dish?  If so, is it at the tip of the tongue and very sharp, or is it at the back of the throat with a long finish?  I look for layers of flavors that develop on my tongue as I roll the mixture around in my mouth and if any overly bitter compounds or flavor holes develop in the structure of the sensation.  Finally, is this component going to perform on the plate the way I want it to with the other ingredients?  Will it compliment, contrast, or enhance the other parts to make a superlative whole? 

                Now is the time to make adjustments conservatively and judiciously—you can always add, but you can never take out.  I am very careful while adjusting so as not to dull my palate.  If I taste something twenty times my senses are waxed over and not as accurate as they were during my first impression of the item.  I then have someone else taste it and hope that I have not wasted my time. 
                This is how I do it all day, every day, and every time. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Good Taste (part one)

               Our sense of taste is soaked in memories.  One whiff of Pot-pie or a taste of salty, crumbly, biscuit is all that is needed to transport us back to grandma’s kitchen.  Time, place, and our approximate age all come flooding back to us as our brains interpret the signatures of just a few wandering molecules.  If all of our mouths are this sensitive to taste, then why do Chef’s palates seem so capable of identifying particular flavors than that of the average cook?  How do they use this measuring device to its full potential?


                Humans tongues all taste the same things the same 5 ways.  Every delicious morsel of food and drink is a combination of Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and Umami (we’ll get to umami in another blog). Through constantly thinking about what you taste and the different layers of flavors you experience in each mouthful, evaluation becomes easier.  Try to break down what you taste in the chronological order that it hits your taste buds.  What flavors came first middle and last?  What seemed to be the dominant flavor?  Is there something that seems out of place?  You may not be able to identify what something is “missing” but realizing that things are out of balance is a huge step in the right direction to proper adjustment. 

The reason that a Chef’s palate is so finely tuned is because of the sheer volume and variety of foodstuffs that pass through his mouth each day.  Being able to taste so many different items and analyzing them each time is what builds up our “taste bank”.  Right now you can think about what garlic tastes like, you can almost feel it on your palate and you definitely know when something has too much of it.  Every flavor has its own signature; some subtle and some obvious.  With careful, analytical focus on each mouthful of food that you eat—taking into account sweet, sour, bitter, and salty—you’ll begin to see how flavors build and complement each other.