The flavor perception of a product = taste + aroma + texture + the X factor
- Taste is what we perceive with our taste buds
- Aroma is what we smell
- Texture is what we perceive with our mouth other than the taste buds, is the mouthfeel
- The X factor, according to the The Flavor Bible, is what we perceive with the other senses, including the emotional filters we apply to the food we eat
Our taste buds can perceive or identify four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The essence of both cooking and baking or pastry is to create a balance between these tastes. It’s both easy and difficult at the same time! Mostly because humans, beyond the taste or flavor itself, have filters that they apply to their food all the time. Thus, emotions, feelings, memories, desires, pleasure are involved in the food we eat. This way, the success of a product becomes connected to these filters. De gustibus non disputandum, isn’t this how the saying goes?! According to the filter we apply, the food we eat will always be different and the feedback we give back or receive will never be the same from one person to another.
The flavor perception of a product is affected by a mix of factors, but let’s look at all of them and try to understand each one better.
Aroma is basically the smell that reaches our olfactory receptors through our nose or mouth. Aroma is basically chemical substances that go straight to the area of our brain that is responsible with creating memories. The receptors from our brain read these chemical substances and register them by smell, attaching them to emotions and the visual or auditory part that comes with them. The result is a set of strong memories connected to plenty of baked goods or cooked foods. The olfactory component is. therefore, an important part of the eating experience of both savory and sweet products.
Taste is what our taste buds perceive. There are four distinctive tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour plus the recently discovered umami taste. The taste buds respond not only to taste though, but also to warm, hot or cold or even pain. Every time a taste is detected, a set of signals are send to the brain, training our brain cells to differentiate taste and create patterns. Some of these patterns are simple, others are complex, but not all of us identify the tastes the same, depending on our past experiences and the patterns we previously created.
Sweet is the most pleasant taste of all and as a result the most sought after. But the less sweet we consume, the better we are able to identify it, even in products or foods that are not necessarily sweet or desserts. The sweet taste is most often enhanced by the other tastes through the contrast created. At the same time, this taste rarely exists on its own, being usually accompanied by a complexity of tastes. It also has the capacity of covering other tastes and flavors if there’s too much of it. Regarding desserts and pastry, sweet must be looked at just like salt is in savory. Sugar should be used only as a way to bring all the other flavors together, not as the main ingredient and taste.
Sour is considered the opposite of sweet and is usually found in acidic products, its intensity being variable. But most sour products contain a sweet component in varying degrees, thus balancing the final taste so the sour is not bothering the taste buds.
Salty is a taste that the chef adds to the food. Its intensity is always controlled by the person cooking the food. But apart from taste, salt has a few chemical roles in the food as well. For instance, in fermented doughs, salt regulates the fermentation and helps the gluten develop better.
Bitter is the least popular taste and it is often associated with alkaline products. As a warning, bitter is also connected to products that should not be consumed by the human beings, but in combination with the sweet taste, bitter can be extremely pleasant. Think of a grapefruit with a touch of sugar sprinkled on top. Or with a touch of salt, why not. Contrasts support each other! Bitter taste is considered by chefs as the taste that has the capacity of cleaning off the palate and taste buds, preparing them for a new batch of food and flavors.
Umami is the fifth taste, identified after 1996. Umami is not just a taste, but an experience on its own. It’s what makes us want more from a product, it’s the intesity of flavors and what creates the sensation of mouthfeel. It’s found in blue cheese, mushrooms or green tea.
Texture – is what you feel in your mouth as you eat a certain food. It can be creamy, crunchy, fine, smooth, onctuous, crumbly, sandy, airy. Texture depends on the ingredient itself, on the technique applied, temperature etc.
The X factor is what we perceive with the other senses, it’s the memory a certain food awakes in us, the emotions connected to it. The X factor is connected to our heart and memories. This explains why we love our grandmothers’ food or we long for a certain dish we used to it as children.
At the same time, keep in mind that humans eat not only for survival, but also for pleasure. And because we have enough boring experiences daily (same lunch at work, same snack at school etc), finding an interesting eating experience thrills us. Every time we are offered the chance to eat something that stands out or is different and yet familiar, we feel pleasure. The trend around the world right now is to try and find the X factor in the food we make, allowing people to dive into their memories and feel good again. Sounds easier than it actually is though as everyone has a different set of memories, a different filter and what applies to my taste buds may not be true to yours.
Flavor perception depends on a set of factors that need to be taken into consideration
- Temperature – warm products have the best flavor perception because heating ingredients releases volatile aromas and as we established before, aroma is an amazing component in food, opening the road to the olfactory path. Even desserts are never eaten straight from the freezer or fridge. 10-15 minutes at room temperature help improve the flavor and texture a lot.
- Consistency – the consistency of a product affects its flavor perception. Two products with the same taste, but different consistency will be perceived differently.
- Contrasting tastes – opposite tastes help each other, emphasize each other, balancing the taste we feel when eating them. Think of salted caramel for instance. A touch of salt brings out the caramel flavor, too much salt would destroy it, same as no salt added does.
- Fat – a lot of the flavor is developed in fats and as the fat melts in the mouth, flavor is dispersed towards the taste buds. Fat plays the role of a flavor carrier. Chocolate (cocoa butter), cream, butter and even the egg yolk have plenty of fat. Think of products using these fats – aren’t they better?!
Color – the color of a product affects the way it is perceived by the consumers way before they get to taste it. When the color or the look are off, the consumer finds the product unworthy of tasting. We eat with our eyes first, isn’t that how the saying goes?! The look of a pastry or dish creates a certain expectation. And when the expectations are fulfilled or surpassed, the product receives the best feedback.
When we are faced with an ingredient, the best route to take is asking ourselves what way of cooking or technique lets it shine best. Not to mention what color combinations emphasize it. At the end of the day, this choice shows respect for ingredients, but also for the people eating our products. A dessert that has the best flavor you can get from a certain ingredient will be a success with the right people. Also, take into consideration that certain ingredients are delicious on their own and their use in our pastries must be better than that to make sense. Think of fruits and their perfection – they are a dessert on their own. So when using them in your pastries, make sure to give them value!
Another important aspect is to know when to stop adding more flavors and textures. More doesn’t mean better in flavor perception! In fact, in pastry, more means diluting the flavors and quite possibly missing the point of the dessert. When you restrict yourself to one, two or three tastes, the chances to make it all work together will definitely be higher as balancing them will be easier.
The way to find the perfect taste however is knowing your ingredients first. Not only knowing their chemistry, but also knowing their taste. A dessert starts by imagining how some of the flavors would work together, but how can you imagine something if you don’t what it tastes like?!
The world of flavors is complex and not easy to manage, but at the same time is incredibly beautiful and the reason why I love pastry so much. Discovering new taste combos and new flavors is a real experience and so much fun! So go out there and explore, taste, try and have fun! That’s the way pastry is done!