05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can You Improve Your Taste Buds?

Dear Bon Appétit Foodist,

I often hear chefs on cooking shows and reality shows talking about a person's palate. "So-and-so has an exquisite palate," they say. What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?

Kathy Byrom, Homewood, Alabama

Dear Kathy,

When it comes to professional chefs, I think a "great palate" is the ability to create or refine dishes simply by instinct. I've seen some of the world's most talented chefs, having tasted a flawed or incomplete dish, suggest improvements in a flash--adding a pinch of salt here or a squeeze of lemon there--with amazing success. For professional eaters--and folks who simply love food--the term means something slightly different: It's the ability to identify flavors, ingredients, and even techniques in a particular dish.2010-03-01-images-marchfdst.jpg

But what really defines a great palate, I think, is taste memory. It has as much to do with your head as with your tongue. When I'm eating, say, a grilled cheese, I think about the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever tasted--the Platonic ideal of a grilled cheese, if you will--and compare the two. I remember the taste of that grilled cheese because as I was eating it, I thought about what made it so good: the nuttiness of the cheese, and the crispness of the bread. And after I ate it, I took notes. Also, a well-developed taste memory comes with experience and the willingness to try new flavors. Blue cheese, sea urchin, or chicken livers: You don't have to love them but you must eat them. So then, I advise you to think about what you are eating, and you will have a better chance of developing a great palate.

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