A Matter of Taste
March 24th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
We all eat — but what makes some foods taste better than others? Can we use that to help us make better food choices? As Top Chef winner and chef/owner of Sbraga Restaurant, Kevin Sbraga has a highly developed sense of taste. He explains how he approaches this sensory experience while Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste What You Are Missing," says with a little knowledge about the science of taste everyone can get more enjoyment out of food and make every bite count.
“The first thing is I have to smell it. Especially when food is hot steam captures the aroma — then I go taste it.”
That’s what Kevin Sbraga, winner of TV’s seventh season of the popular reality show Top Chef says. As chef/owner of Sbraga restaurant here in Philadelphia, he is constantly evaluating the flavors of a dish.
In addition to our five basic tastes Sbraga says, “I even consider spicy a taste a lot of people don't, but I do, because it is something that happens on my palate. Some refer to as a pain sensation but to me it’s a taste.”
Sbraga is clearly in the major leagues of food. In other words, he’s developed his palate so that he can taste the same way a hitter can see a ninety mile an hour pitch.
But can we enhance our taste skills? Barb Stuckey says “yes” in her book, “Taste What You Are Missing.” And that sensory understanding can help us eat more healthfully.
“There are only five things that humans can experience using their taste organ alone —taste organ, of course, being the tongue,” says Stuckey. “Those five things are sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami and each one of them is important to us for a reason.”
Stuckey notes that our taste is rooted in our biological beginnings when food was scarce… sweet signals calories, sour shows spoilage (think milk) and bitter identifies toxicity. In a real throw back to Mother Nature, we crave salt, a necessary mineral, because we can’t store it in our bodies. So our desire was evolution’s way of protecting us —-maybe not so helpful now with sodium in everything!
And what was that … umami taste?
“Umami,” says Stuckey, “represents the taste of foods that are savory, and they signal free glutamates in a food a smaller molecule that is more flavorful than a large protein molecule.”
Yeah, yeah…. what that really means is it tastes good! Beyond the chemistry, this full taste can help us when we want to eat less.
Stuckey advises, “Parmesan cheese to me is a secret weapon when you are trying to cut calories and the reason is it is very concentrated in umami, so you eat less of it and it goes further so a small amount of Parmesan cheese on top of a bowl of tomato soup, for example, will just explode with flavor.”
Our other senses also play in our enjoyment of food. A dish that looks good makes it appetizing, but touch and hearing play a part, too.
“Texture is extremely important it’s one of those things that we often forget about,” says Chef Sbraga. “There are three primary textures that I'm looking for— something chewy like a piece of meat, something creamy like mashed potatoes, something crunch like a crouton.”
He adds, “When you have those three things happening in your mouth at once or in succession they make food exciting as well.”
Back to those Top Chefs …what did Sbraga think of the judges’ palates?
“Without a doubt the judges on Top Chef knew how to taste,” says Sbraga. “I learned a lot by watching them. They took their time, they thoroughly chewed and paid attention to what was happening.”
Slowing down and paying attention to our food is something we can use to our nutritional advantage as well says Barb Stuckey.
“Even a simple plate of lettuce can be an extraordinary experience. All of these things are there for us to take it’s on our plate… we just have to wring more pleasure out of our food.”
A quick guide to becoming a passionate eater…
- Chew Well
- Pay Attention
- Avoid Sensory-Specific Satiety
- Practice Food Appreciation at Home
- Be a Star Taster
- Don't Accept That Aging Means Less Enjoyment from Food
- Know Which Medicine and Medical Procedures Can Affect Taste and Smell
- Protect Your Head
- Be Adventurous but Patient
- Taste at the Right Temp
- Hydrate and Breathe
- Taste First Thing in the Morning
- Quit Smoking
- Use Common Sense with the Scents
- If It Doesn't Taste Delicious….
Find out more from Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good by Barb Stuckey