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Using Our Senses

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    Using Our Senses

    Click image for larger version  Name:	taste_and_olfactory.jpg Views:	1 Size:	23.2 KB ID:	644448
    "The culinary arts employ all of the senses, more than any other art form." Meathead

    Imagine for a moment that you are a couch potato and never get up from watching TV. But your TV gets only five channels: NBC, FOX, CNN, ESPN, and MTV. Everything you know about the world is what comes into your brain through those five channels. But you spend most of your time watching ESPN and MTV. So really, everything you know about the world comes only through those two channels. Well that’s us. Most of us go through life with only two channels, seeing and hearing.
    That's how we handicap ourselves. We have five senses and our entire understanding of the world comes to our brain through them. Seeing, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Yet most of what we know about our world comes only through our senses of sight and hearing.

    The good news is that we are well educated visually. We know colors and how they work together and we put that to work in the mornings when we get dressed. We watch movies and know great photography when we see it.

    We are fairly well educated about sound. We have a radio in every room and music on our smartphone and we know how to adjust treble and bass. We know rock from blues, we know tuba from trombone. We know a friend's voice in an instant on the phone and our dog's bark half a block away.

    But we know so little about smell, taste, and touch. That’s partially we don’t need them all the time and we have not trained them well. Even with training our senses of smell and taste are poor measuring devices. Believe it or not, research has shown that on smell alone, most of us cannot tell red wine from white, or oregano from thyme, or cinnamon from nutmeg. When it comes to taste, most of us would have difficulty telling chicken from pork if we were blindfolded. When it comes to tactile sensations, blindfolded, most of us can't tell silk from satin, fake fur from real fur, or metal from glass, and if you think you can, try it.

    Neuroscientists tell us that some of this is genetics. We all perceive taste differently. That’s why some of us hate cilantro or coffee or kale while others adore it. Some of it is cultural. That’s why some people love anchovies others gag on them. That’s why Italians love aged meats with rancid fats like soppresata. Some of it is training. That’s why a Master Sommelier can tell you the grape and the valley and the year, perhaps even the vineyard from whence a wine cometh. All this accounts for our likes and dislikes and why one spouse can’t get enough Thai food and the other can’t get near it.

    The brain plays a huge role. It has to respond to the data from what we see, smell, taste, touch on the tongue, and what we hear as we chew, all coming in at the same time, and its ability to process all this can be influenced by age, experience, and practice. All our sensual abilities fades with age.

    Food is the antenna that helps us tune into the missing channels. Food is the best way to learn about smell, taste, and touch. The culinary arts employ more of the senses than any other art form. Food is the way to grow as humans and expand our worlds. It is the doorway to becoming fulfilled. A good cook must be a good taster and should try to know his ingredients by sight, smell, taste, and texture. And when creating a dish, when improvising, try to trip all the senses. Make it look great, smell great, taste great, and have great texture.

    "Taste" and "flavor" are among the most widely used words in these pages. We often use them interchangeably because they are our reactions to chemicals in foods and they work so closely together, but actually they are separate functions. Technically, taste is what you sense with tastebuds, mostly on the tongue, although there are tastebuds in the roof of your mouth and throat.

    Our genes are partially responsible for the way we smell and taste foods. For example, cilantro contains a compound that makes it taste soapy to some people. Julia Child was one. She hated the stuff. Some people love bitter flavors like hopsy IPA beers, most of us can take only a little. Some go straight for the four alarm chiles, some break down in tears when their teeth merely puncture the skins. That's why taste is a matter of taste and one person's trash is another's treasure. That’s why one of the most important parts of cooking is to be constantly tasting as you go.


    If I was to design a perfume, it would smell like fatty pork ribs robed in a spice rub like my famous Meathead’s Memphis Dust (see page ???) bathed in fruitwood smoke. When heated the sugars evoke childhood memories of roasted marshmallows, the garlic and onion are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, kindred spirits that go straight to the hangry center, if there was such a thang. And roasted meat smells awaken memories of Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July all at once. Now there’s a pheromone capable of attracting men and women who love to eat. Yes, smell is that powerful.

    It is estimated that 80% of what we call flavor or taste is really smell. The popular jellybean test illustrates this. Pinch your nose and eat a flavored jellybean. All you can taste is the sweetness and maybe some tartness. Then let go of your nostrils and you can taste the fruitiness. That’s because chewing releases volatile compounds that mix with air and they flow to the back of the mouth and upward into the nasal cavity and onward upward to make contact with the olfactory bulb where about 400 smell receptors are waiting. There the receptors send the news to the brain.

    To lose the sense of smell is a significant handicap; we no longer perceive the different qualities of food and we cannot detect warning signals, for example smoke from a fire.

    Flavor is more about what we smelland flavors come in waves, like music. Aromatic compounds that evaporate from the food rise into the nostrils before they enter the mouth. These are called "orthonasal" smells. Then, while in the mouth, the warmth volatilizes other compounds that enter the nasal cavity through a passage at the back of the mouth. This sneaking in the back door to the brain is called "retronasal" smells. Once inside the nasal cavity they make contact with the moist surface of the olfactory nerve center with is connected directly to the brain. In the brain, these aromas mingle with sensations from the tastebuds, creating a complex panoply of sensations.

    Because of the fact that the olfactory nerve center sits at the top of the nasal cavity it is for all practical purposes an exposed part of the brain. Because it is closely associated with the memory centers of the brain, smell can often trigger memory. Everyone has had the experience of a scent transporting them to the past, the smell of salt air as you approach the beach might take you back to a fishing trip with Dad, or a horse to transports you to the first time you went riding with Mom, or a pot of pasta sauce might put you back in Grandma's kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. It is called the "Proust phenomenon" or "involuntary memory" after a character in Marcel Proust’s novel "In Search of Lost Time" has a detailed flashback to childhood after he tastes a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea.

    Smell also kicks off anticipation. The scent of smoke and roasting pork with a spice rub is practically a pheromone, guaranteed to bring the neighbors into your back yard when you are doing pulled pork. It gets saliva flowing, and saliva contains enzymes that break down the compounds in food creating more flavors.

    Alas, we often lack the vocabulary to discuss the sensations of smell and taste. If I say "red" we visualize a color that is in the red wavelength range, but many of us are visualizing slightly different shades. If I say "middle C" a musician can hum the exact note or draw the note on a piece of paper (a note on the first ledger line below the treble clef on the grand staff). A physicist knows it is exactly 261.625565 hertz. If I say something smells "earthy" chances are we each are imagining a wide range of sensations. Even "sweet" is relative. Something that is sweet to you might not be sweet to me. And just what is the proper term for the sensation of eating a truffle? If you've never tasted one, I doubt I could describe it to you.

    The best way to describe scents is to say that it reminds you of something. That’s why wine lovers often describe wines as redolent of raspberries, bell peppers, cheeses, barnyard, cat pee, all fragrances caused by chemicals that also appear in wine and other foods. We call these descriptors.

    Here’s a fun experiment: Blindfold yourself and have a friend go to the spice rack and pull off the bottles of six of common herbs and spices. Have your friend take the lid off the bottles and hand them to you one at a time. Try to name them. You will almost certainly recognize all of them but it is exceedingly difficult to associate the names with the smells. Then have your friend tell you their names in random order. Once you know who the players are you will have little difficulty in naming most of them. This is why blind tasting wine and guessing its name is such a difficult task.

    Finally, we need to learn the word anosmia. This is the technical term for the tragic loss of smell, either at birth or due to sickness or a brain injury. We are all familiar with the difficulties of being blind or deaf, at least in passing. If you want to learn about anosmia, read Molly Birnbaum’s remarkable tale "Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way."

    Basic Aromas And Flavors

    Here is a list of the basic aroma and flavor groups as I see them. Wine tasters have a slightly different list, as do perfumers. I think this list should work for most cooks.

    Animal. Wet dog, steers, leather.

    Burnt. Smoke, carbon, charcoal, burning wood or paper.

    Fruity. All fruits other than citrus: Apples, peaches, pineapple, pear.

    Citrus/pine/mint. Caused by a group of compounds called turpenes as in turpentine. Lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit. Also peppermint, eucalyptus, woodsy.

    Vegetal. Bell peppers, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower.

    Herbal. Thyme, oregano, basil, cut lawn, hay.

    Brown spices. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, pumpkin pie.

    Pungent. Blue cheese, cigar smoke, onion.

    Chemical. Bleach, ammonia, gasoline, propane.

    Savory/Maillard. Roasted meat, bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheddar, many other cheeses.

    Toasted/nutty/buttery. Toast, peanut butter, popcorn.

    Sweet. Chocolate, vanilla, caramel.

    Ocean. Fish, seaweed, prosciutto.

    Floral. Flowers, many perfumes.

    Spoiled/rancid/funky. Rotting meat, spoiled milk, kimchi.


    Papillae are little bumps on the tongue that contain taste buds. In this picture you can see papillae already formed on the tongue of an infant.

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    Taste buds are fairly limited in their capabilities. Normal people have about 4,000 taste buds, mostly on our tongues, but there are some on the roof of our mouth and in our throat. Each bud contains about 50 to 100 receptor cells that are sensitive to at least six stimuli: Sweet, sour, salt, bitter, fat, and umami. There may be others such as metallic tastes.

    So-called "supertasters" have more taste buds than normal people so the more receptors you have the stronger the signals that will come through.Wine experts and foodies have been saying that people who can taste the chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were "supertasters". But apparently there are other compounds you need to be able to taste to be a supertaster.

    Saliva is an enzyme laden solvent and dissolves the meal and transports it to all parts of the mouth in order to trip the greatest number of sensors.Often overlooked, the role of saliva is crucial. It dilutes the flavor compounds, and how much depends on how much your mouth produces. As a result, the taste impressions two people perceive can be vastly different. Saliva also contains enzymes that almost immediately go to work on the food creating new compounds that weren’t there when you put the food in your mouth.

    Most taste buds operate on what is called the lock and key model meaning that the buds are like a lock with a specific receptor shape, and the compounds that make the sensations of sweet, bitter, fat, and umami have specific molecular shapes that fit only locks designed for them. When they latch onto the receptor surfaces, a signal is sent to the brain. Salt and acid work a bit differently. Apparently they have channels that allow them to enter into sensor cells directly and they then send a howdy message to the brain.

    Sweet.Sweet detectors sense sugars and sometimes their cousins, carbohydrates. We like sweet. Since the time we were barefoot gatherers in the jungle, we have been drawn to sweet things because we need energy from the sugars in foods, especially ripe fruits.

    Sour (a.k.a.acdity, tartness). Sourness alerts us when something is not ripe. Fruits, for example, gain sugar and lose acidity as they ripen. When something is really sour it is usually an indicator that it needs more time in the sun.

    Salt. We need salt to keep our electrical/nerve systems running and since our body does not make salt so we need to ingest it. Without salt all our sense and brain functions falter. Salt also expands taste buds making other tastes more pronounced.

    Bitter. Plants can't run from predators so they produce chemical and physical deterrents such as bitterness or capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers, an irritant and your mouth feels like it is on fire. Many poisons are bitter so we developed a detection system.

    Fat. This one doesn't show up in any of the textbooks yet, but in 2015 researchers made a good case for it to be included among the basic taste sensations because there are taste buds sensitive to fat. We need fat because it is also a source of energy.

    Umami.This Japanese word that means "deliciousness" is a puzzlement to many people because it is not as easy to identify as the others. It is created by amino acids called glutamates, common in meats, mushrooms, cheese, and other protein laden foods as well as fermented foods such as soy sauce. Most proteins contain some glutamic acid, including human muscles, and it is estimated that we consume more than 10 grams per day on the average. It appears as a rich, resonant, low sensation, like the bass fiddle in a jazz band.

    For modern chefs ratcheting up umami is a holy grail. Helen Rosner of The New Yorkercalls it "rocket fuel". Ac'cent and Ajinomoto are powdered monosodium glutamate (MSG) that can be added to food to amp up umami. They are simply glutamic acid with a sodium ion attached to stabilize it. The sodium breaks loose when it hits saliva and the remaining glutamic acid rapidly signals the brain that we are eating something rich and savory. Doritos and just about anything with cheese powder have MSG. It is a popular additive in many foods.

    Some people believe that MSG can cause headaches, but scientists have had no luck proving the connection in definitive peer reviewed scientific controlled lab studies on the subject. Many people report they react to MSG in restaurants, but in lab tests, not so much. The eminent food writer Jeffrey Steingarten considers this "Chinese restaurant syndrome" to be a myth and debunked it in a famous essay "Why Doesn't Everyone in China Have a Headache?" When you hear somebody say they get headaches from Chinese food, discuss it with them over a bag of Doritos.

    Metallic and others.Dr. Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia says that ongoing research into just what sensory recptors can do indicates that metallic salts and other compounds may be tastable. "The academic dust has not yet settled on what constitutes a true taste quality but I agree that the preponderance of the current evidence suggests it is." Sure seems to my tongue it is.


    In addition to the tastebuds, the tongue has sensors for tactile sensations called mouthfeel. Among them are:

    Texture.The tongue can also sense granular and other textures. For many of us, myself included, texture is pretty important. I love crunch. But I also love the sliminess of raw oysters.

    Fat.In addition to tasting fat, our tongue can feet the slippery oiliness of lipids. This often leads to a sense of well-being, perhaps because our ancestors knew that eating fat might mean the difference between death and survival during a long cold winter.
    Temperature.The tongue is like Goldilocks, it can tell us when food is hot or cold or just right.

    Spicy hot.This is the hot sensation caused by capsaicin in chile peppers, and there are special receptors on the tongue for the job. They are more of a tactile sensation than a taste. They can be cumulative and even painful.

    Juiciness andviscosity.These are complicated sensations caused by water, collagen, melted fats, and even saliva.

    Tenderness.Our tongue can tell us when foods are soft and need little chewing or dense and need serious mastication.

    Astringency.This is the dry, dusty, puckery sensation found in tea, young red wines, and under ripe bananas that comes from compounds called tannins, the same ones used to tan animal hides. They glom onto the protein in our saliva and on our tongue and the sensation can build.


    We don’t think of sound as important to tasting, and although its role is minor, it cannot be ignored.

    Charles Spence of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University says "Sound is undoubtedly the forgotten flavour sense… Indeed, the sounds that are generated while biting into or chewing food provide a rich source of information about the textural properties of that which is being consumed."

    Sound plays a roll in every step of making the meal. In Parma, Italy, cheesemakers and government inspectors check the quality of the huge 86 pound wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano by thwacking them all over with a small metal hammer. They can tell by the sound if it is cracked or if there is an air bubble. If there is a defect, the wheel is stripped of the official markings and usually sold to factories for grinding. A savvy farmer can tell the ripeness of a melon by thumping it. The crackle of a potato chip bag cleverly tells shoppers what to expect inside (they used to come in boxes until a smart marketer realized the importance of sound). When we are cooking, saliva starts in anticipation when the steak hits the hot metal, different from the hiss of fish, and the perk of coffee. The popping of bacon is almost as bewitching as the scent. The great Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley has a simple technique for glazing carrots by taking them for a swim in a watery emulsion of sugar and butter and knows as they approach doneness from across the room by the sound change as they move from simmer to sizzle when the water evaporates. In Spain, the paella master knows when the crunchy socarrat begins to form the same way by the sound of frying as the water evaporates. In fried chicken restaurants experienced cooks know when the meat is approaching done by the sound of the bubbles.

    The sounds of mastication from the hinge of the jawbone right beneath the ear tell us a lot about the meal. We crave textural variety, especially crunch. Think of the crunch of an apple, where the loudness is a clue to freshness, the crackle of a potato chip, the fizz of champagne or beer, the gurgle of pouring wine, the snap of chocolate, the squeak of a squash, the resistance of the exterior of a French fry as it makes way to the yielding creaminess of the interior, the music of the shattering crust of fried chicken, and the disgusting sound of a teenager chewing with his mouth open.
    Researchers know that the ambient sound in a restaurant, the music, the rattle of dishes and clink of glassware, the hum of the conversations, and the choice of music all alter our perception of the meal.

    Most astonishingly, scientists have discovered that some scent receptors in the olfactory tubercle, a buttonlike lobe behind the olfactory nerve center, respond to both smell and sound, so they have dubbed the sensation called smound.


    Everyone knows the old saw that you eat first with your eyes, and certainly a beautiful presentation can make a meal feel more special, so let’s talk a bit about appearances and the art of presentation. The famous chef, Aaron Sanchez says presentation is "as important as flavor. The way something looks is your first impression of a dish. If something looks beautiful, it really enhances the overall experience of that meal. Presentation is also a great place to express creativity and to showcase the different elements or ingredients. Always garnish, this is a very easy way to elevate a dish."

    Plating food has a lot in common with painting, and a little with sculpture, so let’s take a look at what art students learn and see how we might apply it to our presentations.


    In the same way food has its components, and an orchestra has instruments, the visual arts have what are called the "elements of art" and "principles of design". Understanding them can help see your plates in a new light. I have described them below and illustrated them with some of my photos.

    Hue. This is the name of the color on the color wheel. The color of our food can convey subtle messages and meanings. Colors carry emotions and meanings. In the same way that we work to create flavor combinations, compliments, or contrasts, artists from Leonardo da Vinci to scientists like Isaac Newton have searched for a formula for producing color harmonies, a difficult proposition since, as with food, taste is a matter of taste and individuals have color preferences and aversions.

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    Our eyes can see only a small portion of the full gamut of colors in the electromagnetic spectrum around us. White light is a combination of all visible colors. A prism can separate white light into discrete colors. Painters as far back as Leonardo da Vinci in 1490 have tried to develop theories for how colors work and how they mix.

    The color wheel concept has been around for centuries and is taught in all Art 101 classes. There are several variations. The most common one shows red, green, and blue (RGB) as the "primary colors" spaced at the tips of an equilateral triangle with cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY) as the complementary colors at the tips of another triangle. The retina of the human eye has RGB sensors and RGB pixels in your computer monitor and television are mixed with black pixels (K) to make all the colors you see on the screen. RGBK is the system of choice for backlit "transmissive" color. CMYK dots are the colors printers use to make all the colors for "reflective" systems.

    Colors that lie side by side on the color wheel tend to work together harmoniously. Those opposite each other tend to clash. Colors on the red half of the wheel are called warm colors, those on the blue half are considered cool. In designing plates, we are usually limited by the natural colors of the raw materials although we now can select from a wide variety of colors of carrots, potatoes, peppers, etc.

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    Words to describe color are extremely confusing. Just what is seafoam or mauve? What is brightness? Let’s use the latest, more precise terminology adapted from technologies such as Photoshop: Color is made up of hue, saturation, and value (HSV). HSV can be describe by numbers to get a precise color. Hue is numbered from 0 to 360, the number of degrees in the color wheel, while S and V are on a scale of 10 to 100. If I tell a designer in Japan that I want a red hat, will her vision of red match mine? But if I tell her that the color I want is HSL 0, 100, 40, she will be able to match it perfectly.

    Saturation. The intensity or purity of the color ranging from pure and intense to faded or pale depending on the amount of white in the blend.

    Value. Sometimes called lightness or luminosity, value is the amount of black in the color ranging from pure and intense to very dark depending on the amount of black in the blend.

    Line. A one dimensional point moving through space.

    Shape. Two dimensional objects with height and width formed by lines.

    Form. Three dimensional objects formed by shapes of varying height, width, and depth.

    Space.How the sense of depth is shown.

    Texture.The way it feels, real or implied.


    The principles of design are how the elements of art are organized.

    Rhythm. Repetition of elements forming a pattern.

    Contrast. The way elements that are very different are used.

    Emphasis.Used to draw the eye by standing out.

    Proportion. How elements of different size relate to each other.

    Variety. A diversity of shapes, sizes, and/or colors.

    Movement. The feeling of action.

    Balance. Distribution of weights, symmetrical or asymmetrical.

    Harmony.A feeling when the elements work together.

    I am not finished with this section yet.
    Attached Files

    Fantastic, much thanks.

    Oh, and then there is garlic!


      I teach 2D Design and painting. One thing I tell my students is that warm and cool are associations that we have with color. For instance, we associate warmth with blood, fire, the sun, so yellow, orange, and red are associated with warmth. Water, plants, we associate with coolness, so blues and greens we call cool colors. HOWEVER!... red moving in the direction of red-violet is a cool red, and red moving towards red-orange is a warm red. Blue moving towards violet is a warm blue, and blue moving towards blue-green is cool. Yellow is cool when it is yellow-green. So I like to teach my students to understand the associations we have with color temperature (heat, culture, emotional as well), but then to also understand that a hue can break warm or color regardless of our association. This understanding helps us use these colors better.



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