A student of writing learns early on to avoid using the same word too many times in a paragraph. Thus when writing about food, we look for various words to describe taste.
For example, I could write, “The strawberries I picked yesterday at Berringer farm tasted exactly like I remember them.”
The second sentence would avoid saying, “After one bite the strawberries’ taste transported me……” Instead I might write, “After one bite the red berries flavor transported me to childhood, and I was ten again following my grandmother through row after row.” To avoid sounding clumsy, I would substitute red berry for strawberry, and change taste to flavor.
Having written about cooking and food here for tasting menu, and before that Phatduck, my old blog, for nearly 4 years, I used taste and flavor interchangeably to avoid this clumsy repetition in my writing. I did this without a thought to the true meaning of these two words. But the more I talk about food, and most importantly, listen to people more educated than me about food, I hear these words used with more exacting definition. It may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s important to understand the fundamental difference between taste and flavor.
Taste is physical. Taste is one of our 5 senses. It is a sensory function, in which receptors, or taste buds, found mostly on our tongue receive chemical information. This chemical stimuli received by our taste buds is transduced into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Once in the brain these electric signals are interpreted into information which we use to gain perception.
We can only taste 5 things; bitter, sour, salty, sweet, umami.
Flavor however, is the combined perception of food using all information received from all five of our senses. During the process of eating, we use all five of our senses to receive physical information from food. Once in our brain, this information becomes the perception. Thus flavor is cognitive, meaning that the recognition of flavor happens post-sensory.
It would be logical, that because we put food in our mouth, the sensory receptor for taste, that taste is the sense we use the most in perceiving flavor. But instead we rely most heavily on our sense of smell. While our sense of taste can only give us 5 pieces of information about a food, our sense of smell can give us a seemingly limitless amount of information.
Both taste and smell receptors receive chemical information. Our sense of touch receives pressure, which is detected by nerve endings in our skin that respond to variations in pressure. The sense of sound is received by a membrane in our ears that vibrates in reaction to sound waves (our ear drum.) Our sense of sight depends on our eyes to detect electromagnetic waves of light, which is transduced into information that we use to interpret images.
Taste is a mere 5 pieces of information, but flavor is infinite. Taste is chemical, while flavor is a mental construct that doesn’t exist outside our mind.
We can grow as cooks if we think beyond taste and recognize how influenced flavor is by the stimulation of all five of the senses. We can remember this not only when creating a dish, but when reproducing it on the line night after night. If a crisp element becomes soggy from improper storage, aural sensation will be diminished, and the crunch that makes the dish exciting will be missing. Without the increased stimulation of our sense of sound, the flavor of that particular dish isn’t as exciting. The diner may never know that they were missing this crunchy stimuli, but they will recognize better flavor, which we know we can manipulate by understanding how food stimulates all five senses.
Likewise, hot food tends to release more aroma, increasing the amount of odor compounds our nose detects, thus increasing the perception of flavor. So taking the proper steps to ensure that the food arives at the table hot, not just warm, will ensure that we excite the nose as well as we can.
When we practice our craft as cooks, particularly working on a line, it’s easy to become isolated from fact that the process of cooking is only half of an equation. Another person, a seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting body awaits our product, prepared to begin their own individual process of flavor perception.