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How to Evaluate Your Food

How to Evaluate Your Food

Image of plate of pasta with text "How to Evaluate Your Food"

Do you know how to evaluate your food? Did you know that “taste” and “flavor” are not the same? Taste is one of the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste), so it is physical and quantifiable within the five different taste categories. That’s right–there are now FIVE taste categories: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. While humanity has known about umami for thousands of years, the scientific community has been slow to add it to the official taste list because the receptors on the tongue for this particular taste were not discovered until the year 2000!

Flavor, on the other hand, is immeasurable and subjective. It is taste PLUS everything else that’s going on when we eat or drink something. Flavor is post sensory; it is what you experience AFTER (post) you taste (sensory) something.

Let’s begin by exploring the five taste categories.

Image of woman biting into a chocolate bar with nuts

Taste #1: Sweet

Sweet is the perception of sugars in food. This one is easy to describe and simple to experience–just eat sugar. Almost everyone on the planet enjoys sweet tastes to some degree.

Image of a woman biting into a chalupa

Taste #2: Salty

Salty is the taste of sodium and chloride (salt crystals) and the mineral salts potassium and magnesium. Salty is also easy to experience–just eat a little salt. How much salt people find pleasant is extremely subjective. The amount of salt you’re used to highly influences how much salt you enjoy. But that being said, almost everyone enjoys some level of saltiness as it balances other tastes and brings flavors to life.

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Taste #3: Bitter

Bitter is the taste of 35 different plant proteins. Some of them, such as ricin in the castor bean plant, can be toxic. This may explain why the bitter taste is offensive to so many people, especially at younger ages. We may be hardwired to avoid bitter flavors for safety reasons, and our tastes mature past this instinct with age. Bitter is fairly easy to experience–just drink black coffee.

Image of woman biting a lemon

Taste #4: Sour

Sour is the perception of acids in foods. This taste isn’t hard to describe or experience–just suck on a lemon. While most of us don’t enjoy a straight up sour taste, it balances well with other tastes (especially sweet) and can cut some flavors like fat, helping you to enjoy more of those kinds of food.

Image of man holding a hamburger

Taste #5: Umami/Savory

The umami (or savory) taste comes from protein building blocks (amino acids) that occur naturally in protein-rich foods like meats and cheese. Umami is the one taste of the five that can be hard to describe or even know for sure when you’re experiencing. To imagine an umami flavor, think about the taste of a ripe beefsteak tomato, a rich chicken stock, or parmesan cheese. Umami has a “synergistic” effect, meaning that when you combine more than one food with differing umami flavor compounds, you get a 1 + 1 = 8 experience. Also, cooking method has a huge effect on the umami flavor; foods that are dried, cured, or fermented have a concentrated umami flavor.

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Flavor

Flavor has to do with taste, of course, but texture, color, temperature, juiciness, aroma, mouthfeel, and more affect flavor, as well. You could say that flavor involves all the senses: taste (one or more of the five previously mentioned tastes), smell (aroma of the food), sight (appearance of the food), sound (does the food crunch, sizzle, pop, slurp, fizz, crackle, etc.), and touch (how the food feels in the mouth, or “mouthfeel”). Our genetics, our culture, our life experiences, our age, our mood, and our food familiarities all affect the way we experience flavor. Pain even has a role in flavor, as we experience when eating spicy peppers. We can intentionally change our own perceptions of certain flavors by training ourselves to like them, much like “exposure therapy.” Conversely, overexposure to a food can cause us to dislike a flavor we previously enjoyed. Basically, flavor is super complicated.

With all that in mind, when you evaluate the flavor of your food, there are several things to consider.

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Individual Ingredients

The flavor impact of individual ingredients in the recipe. You know what salmon, rice, avocado, caviar, etc. are supposed to taste like, so what the dish is made from will (obviously) affect its flavor and your expectations of that flavor.

Image of meat on a grill with flames

Cooking Method

The cooking and preparation method has a big impact on a food’s flavor. For example, a smoked chicken breast will have a drastically different flavor profile than a boiled chicken breast. Braising, broiling, poaching, roasting, frying, smoking, searing, stewing, grilling, pressure cooking, sautéing, stir frying, steaming, etc. all yield extremely different results, even if the basic ingredients are the same.

Image of a variety of spices, whole and ground, on a background of whitewashed boards

Spices & Seasonings

The spices and seasonings used in food preparation will have a major impact on the flavor profile of the dish. Spices can change a food’s aroma, color, flavor, and even texture. Each seasoning has a unique chemical compound, thereby allowing it to make a unique impact on a food. Start combining spices and seasonings, and the flavor possibilities are endless. As you focus on evaluating the flavor of a well-seasoned dish, you may use words like cooling, earthy, floral, fruity, herbaceous, hot, nutty, piney, pungent, spicy, sulfur-y, woody, etc. There are lots of fun gadgets on the market to help store spices and use different seasonings effectively in your cooking.

Following is a list of spices and their descriptive flavors. You’ll notice several of the same spices listed under different flavors, which helps prove the point that flavor is a complex, subjective description:

Bitter: bay leaves, clove, cumin, horseradish, lavender, mace, marjoram, oregano, star anise, turmeric, thyme

Cooling: spearmint, dill, anise, fennel, sweet basil

Earthy: cumin, saffron

Floral: coriander, lemongrass, rose petals, saffron, sweet basil, thyme, lavender

Fruity: anise, fennel

Herbaceous: dill, lavender, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme

Hot: black pepper, chilis, horseradish, mustard, wasabi, white pepper

Nutty: coriander seed, mustard seed, poppy seed, sesame seed

Piney: bay leaf, rosemary, thyme

Pungent: allspice, garlic, ginger, horseradish, marjoram, mustard, onion, paprika, spearmint, wasabi, dill seeds

Sulfury: chives, garlic, onion

Woody: cardamom, cloves, lavender, rosemary

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Sauces

The sauces served with the food(s) will be a total flavor game changer. Salmon has a unique and identifiable flavor, but cover it in a beurre blanc sauce and you’ve got a whole new taste sensation. Culturally we have sauces that we expect with certain foods: catsup with fries, tartar sauce with fish, barbecue sauce on smoked meat, alfredo on fettuccini, etc. Setting the table with sauces displayed attractively can enhance their appeal. When evaluating your food, be sure to consider the sauce(s).

Image of a woman holding a pan of food that a man is smelling

Aroma

Our sense of taste is linked to our sense of smell, so a food’s aroma affects its taste. Smell it before you taste it (this is smelling it on the “front end”). You’ll also want to experience the food’s aroma by “aspiration.” Hold it in your mouth, take air in, swallow, and let the air out to experience the aroma on the “back end.”

Image of a bowl of bacon-topped macaroni and cheese

Texture

Also known as mouthfeel, texture is a major influencer in a taster’s experience of a food. Have you ever heard someone describe a food they don’t like by saying, “It’s a texture issue?” The same flavor with a different texture, or balanced with a different texture (like topping creamy macaroni and cheese with crispy bread crumbs or bacon) can drastically affect the impression of the food.

Image of steam coming off dumplings in a steam basket next to bowls of dipping sauces

Temperature

Temperature has an actual affect on many flavors; for example, most spices taste richer when heated. Plus, culture has trained most of us to expect certain foods at different temperatures. Americans like their potato salad cold, while Germans eat it hot. So what our palates expect the temperature to be affects our eating experience. A good food thermometer can help you get the temperature just right when cooking at home.

Learning how to evaluate your food will improve your cooking and your appreciation of going to restaurants, as well. It can even help you lose weight! Slow down, truly savor your food, and learn to derive your mealtime enjoyment by engaging all your senses. Don’t just wolf down calories to get that “stuffed” feeling. Take the time to set the atmosphere for your food. Eat outside when the weather is nice. Light a candle. Play relaxing music. Invite your favorite people to join you. Make time in your schedule to enjoy meals, not just cross them off your to-do list. Be mindful and present while eating; it’s good for your physical and mental health! If you’re interested in learning how to evaluate beer like you just learned how to evaluate food, check out our blog post: “How to Evaluate Your Beer.” And if you’d like to enjoy your food even further by pairing it will beer, read: “How to Pair the Right Beer with the Right Food.”

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