Are you bored of eating the same four fucking meals? Wish you could be a more adventurous eater? Food is one of life’s greatest treats and every moment we get to eat amazing meals should be worth savoring. If you feel like you’re in a food rut with no way out, then we suggest training your palate.
Sharpening your ability to taste food, pick out the components, and understand spices and seasoning will not only improve your cooking but it’ll make everything that touches your tongue way more interesting. So this week we’re going over techniques to sharpen your palate so that you’re never bored by food again.
Remember when you were in school and saw that tongue diagram? It showed the 4 basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Well lots of shits changed since then and that diagram was all wrong from the jump. Turns out there are other tastes that humans hadn’t distinguished and named yet. Yes, we’re still getting software updates about our tongues and tastes, which is fucking rad.
Umami, the 5th taste, was first scientifically identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University. However, it wasn’t until 1985 that it was officially adopted as a scientific term, hence it not making it into our underfunded school curriculum, even by the 90s. Put plainly, umami is a pleasant savoriness in food, an almost meaty, deep flavor. Foods that are rich in umami are ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, soy sauce, and green tea to name a few. If something has a deep, complex taste that is very satisfying, that’s umami. Our brains process umami the same as MSG, the chemical basis for umami- which is equally delicious and safe but was given an undeserved reputation, which we don’t have time to get into today.
There’s an even more recent update to the pantheon of human taste: fat. We’ve always understood the role fat plays in the feel or texture of a dish, but it wasn’t until 2015 that scientists at Purdue University proved that in fact it has a basic taste all its own that humans can distinguish. Richard D Mattes who worked on the study put it like this:
"Fatty taste itself is not pleasant. When concentrations of fatty acids are high in a food it is typically rejected, as would be the case when a food is rancid. In this instance, the fat taste sensation is a warning to not eat the item. At the same time, low concentrations of fatty acids in food may add to their appeal just like unpleasant bitter chemicals can enhance the pleasantness of foods like chocolate, coffee and wine."
Makes sense, right? We can taste fat and when it does bad, we fucking know it. Think about something you’ve eaten that you could immediately tell was fried in old oil. You know the taste. Scientists have named the new taste oleogustus and are hoping that by identifying it we can evolve the food system and how we eat fat. Now that we’re all caught up on the basic tastes that our tongue can recognize we can get to the real work of improving our palates one bite at a time.
1. Stop inhaling your food and pay fucking attention
The first and easiest step. Next time you’re eating a meal, slow down and start trying to pick out which of the basic tastes are in the food. Is it bitter or salty or sour? Just identifying the basic tastes and how prominent or subtle they are is a huge step toward a more refined palate. When you’ve got that down, then start asking yourself if the meal could be improved by adding more of the basic tastes to the dish. A savory dish can often be taken to a whole new level by adding a sweet or sour element. People often think that adding ingredients that have similar flavor compounds to a dish is a great way to build flavor but science says otherwise. You don’t know better than science, right? The cuisine of the Indian subcontinent has long been lauded for its expert use of spices and command of flavors. Scientists have found that instead of building on similarities, many Indian and related cuisines use a multitude of flavorings with little overlap to create their craveable dishes. You can do the same damn thing with a sandwich. Imagine what some pickled onions or sweet potato chips could do tucked under that boring slice of bread. Once you start thinking like this, you will have begun a never ending flavor quest.
2. Taste at all stages of cooking
OK, now you’re paying attention and eating with your eyes wide open. Now you’ve gotta do the same while you’re cooking. Next time you cook, taste at every step of the recipe and sample what you’re adding to the dish before you throw it in. This is an easy way to build your taste library. Can’t decide whether to add basil or cilantro to your sauce? Taste ’em both individually then taste the sauce. Aren’t sure whether your soup needs more salt or spices? Taste after each addition and pay attention to how the flavors change. Taste your tomato sauce before you add a splash of wine and then you’ll be able to notice how the wine changed the taste of the tomatoes. When you taste as you cook, you learn that cooking isn’t just layering flavors. It’s also about how the flavors interact with each other and how your cooking shapes them. Only tasting as you go will really show you how all this shit comes together to create your favorite foods. Plus, you’ll learn what tastes are your favorite so you can make and order meals that are the best for you and your special little taste buds. You’re becoming an expert on your palate and no one else's.
3. Try new foods
Eventually you’re gonna have to branch out and try new foods. You are on a flavor quest after all. Try new restaurants from different cultures and countries and order whatever intrigues you. You can always just start small and get a little snack so you aren’t committed to a giant meal that you feel clueless about. Can’t afford to eat out right now? Grab some new spices from the market and look up recipes online to use them in. Or check out a cookbook (AHEM) from the library full of cuisines you’ve never eaten before and cook whatever looks good. Trying new flavors means your taste buds will catalog all the different combinations of ingredients and you’ll start understanding why certain foods taste so goddamn good together. If you don’t like something, sit there and ask yourself why. Just saying it’s icky is childish and goes against this whole growth thing we’re going for. Is it the texture? Too bitter? Are there multiple flavors blending in a way you don’t like? How could this dish be changed to better suit your palate? Even food you may not love is still a great learning experience. NO TASTE IS A WASTE. When you cook these new foods yourself, you really deepen your understanding of the flavors and you’ll notice all the similarities and differences between global cuisines. It’s fucking cool to see all the different ways humans make flatbreads, dumplings, soups, and desserts. We’re endlessly creative and your tongue deserves to taste all of it.
4. Deconstruct What You Eat
Once you’ve got a nice little flavor library built in your brain it's time to try this. Sit down with a meal you just cooked and try to pick out the taste of each of the components of the recipe. Can you taste the onions? How about the coriander? Lemon juice? Sometimes it helps to close your eyes, think of the flavor you’re trying to detect and then take a bite. If you can’t find the taste, it might be because the way you cooked it or spiced it changed the flavor profile. Try to taste that. It’s like how nutmeg is added to a majority of creamed greens. It brings out the verdant taste of the greens and compliments the cream but it’s not there to be the star. It’s added to accentuate the other tastes so picking it out is harder but will make your taste buds so much fucking sharper. You can do this in restaurants too. Go back and read the description of the dish you ordered and try to pick out the flavors they say are in there.
We cannot stress enough how much better food is when you start really tasting and paying attention to all the amazing flavors out in the world. It makes you more appreciative and less willing to eat boring, calorically reckless meals. Why would you eat another sad basket of wings in a world where you can eat bhel puri? It’s not about being snobby; it’s about wanting your food to bring some flavor entertainment to your damn taste buds. No more boring food, okay? OKAY?! Not at these prices.
And although it shouldn’t need to be said, if you’re embarking on this endless flavor quest, you’ve hafta avoid shit that ruins your ability to taste food. Smoking destroys your taste buds. Fast food ruins your palate by training to only like being blasted in the fucking face by salt and sugar. Treat your palate like the motherfucking gift it is and we promise it’ll spoil you right back.
Thanks for joining us here in The Broiler Room. For our paid supporters, we got a new recipe for our delicious Spring Asparagus Dumplings with a Sweet Chili Sauce. Fill your freezer with them and you’ll have a great homemade meal or snack no matter how tired you are when you get home. Future you is waiting, don’t let them down.
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Michelle and Matt