5 Tricks for Tasting Food Like a Master Chef

02/01/2013 12:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013
Flickr: NicoleAbalde

The following is an excerpt from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Any Skill, and Living the Good Life

"Is this basil?" "No."

"This is . . . basil?" "No."

"What is this?"

"C'mon, you know this." "No, I don't."

"It's basil."

Basil. I must have asked my girlfriend 20 times on 20 occasions if the herb I was eating was basil. I just couldn't remember the goddamn plant. Smell it, taste it, draw it-- nothing worked. She found it rather amusing, cute even, kinda like that kid in Jerry Maguire. "Did you know the human head weighs eight poundthz?!" Ha.

I found it infuriating.

Like many people, I'd watched the Food Network for 1-2 hours a night after work to unwind, but I'd never made a single dish. If I was going to be using ingredients, I needed to be able to recall them like song lyrics. I needed a working vocabulary.


I started with the most basic of basics, which, I'll admit, I had to look up.

Herbs? Herbs are from the leaves and stems of plants.

Spices, on the other hand, are from the root, bark, and seeds.

Looking for data to soothe my ego, I found out that I wasn't alone. Flavor illiterates are everywhere. In 1986, National Geographic sent out scratch-and-sniff samples to subscribers, asking them to categorize six common odors, and 1.4 million people responded. The best performers -- young adults -- averaged barely over 50 percent correct. Women scored slightly higher than men, but everyone was piss poor.

What Worked For Me

Out of dozens of approaches I tried, there were only a few that actually helped me learn flavors. I suggest the following in order, but feel free to dabble:

1. Smell food like a dog.
2. Literally deconstruct your food.
3. Leverage non-tongue taste.
4. Isolate the basics.
5. Try unusual food combinations.

1. Smell Food Like A Dog
Let's try an experiment. Get a few jelly beans of different flavors: cherry, root beer, coffee, whatever. Avoid anything with strong sour or hot characteristics. Now close your eyes, pinch your nose shut, and eat them one at a time. Try to guess the flavors.

If you prefer, get two glasses of wine, one white and one red, and repeat the drill.

Either way, it will be very, very hard.

As scientists at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery put it in 2000:

Although there is disagreement on the exact number of taste qualities, everyone acknowledges that the number is small. The usual list includes sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (Physiology and Behavior, 1991). So, if taste were synonymous with flavor, the number of flavor experiences would be limited as well. Beef would be interchangeable with lamb.

In terms of taste alone, raspberry, mango, grape, and peach would all be sweet, tart, and difficult to distinguish from one another. It is the odor component that makes their flavors unique and gives a seemingly endless variety of flavor experiences.

Flavor is, counter-intuitively, less than 10 percent taste and more than 90 percent smell. The numbers tell the story:

Taste qualities = five (sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami)
Scents = 10,000 +

Of the taste qualities, you might not recognize umami, sometimes called savory or brothy. Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University isolated umami as glutamic acid while studying kombu, giant Japanese sea kelp. He commercialized this finding as monosodium glutamate (MSG), but you need not eat headache powder to taste the wonder (and healthfulness, when organic) of umami. Tomatoes, parmesan, and chicken broth all have high glutamate content. There are also mimics: shiitake mushrooms have umami-like nucleotides that allow them to impart a similar taste.

But back to scents:

1. Before you scarf down your food like a hyena, pause and sniff a few inches above each item on your plate. For bonus points, open your mouth slightly as you do so to engage the retronasal pathway. Smell each forkful, if you prefer, but I find that the face-in-the-plate approach provides more clarity.

2. If you tend to have a stuffed nose or chronic sinus infections, as I did for years, start using a ceramic neti pot before bed and upon waking.


Even if you never cook, smelling your food before eating it will radically change how you experience flavor.

2. Literally Deconstruct Your Food
I used to collect comic books. Perhaps you collected baseball cards or stamps. Now you need to start collecting flavors. The problem: dishes do not isolate flavors.

The solution is to break them down.

I did this for the first time at ABC Kitchen in NYC. After perusing the menu and asking the server, as I always do, "What have you had for lunch the last three days?" I chose a few appetizers based on her responses. Next --a nd this was the new part --I asked her to bring out a small amount, even a single leaf, of any unfamiliar ingredients, to taste alone before having them in complete dishes.

This is what she brought:

• Anise hyssop (from a dish of raw diver scallops with chiles and lime).
• Sage (from a chicken liver dish -- fried in soy and salt, I later learned).
• Chervil (from the beet and yogurt salad).
• Nasturtium, an edible flower (from a vinaigrette used with steamed hake -- a dish I didn't order, but after polite pleading the server kindly brought me the flower).

Each pinch arrived on a small, circular bread plate. It was no sweat for the kitchen, but it signified a huge leap forward for me. Then, I layered my tasting of each dish. This is a critical concept. For instance, I tasted the chicken liver in a progression of increasing complexity, in this order:

• Sage leaf by itself (as it was my highest- priority flavor to isolate).
• A small dab of chicken liver pâté by itself.
• Chicken liver on a small piece of the bread.
• All of it together.
• Salt alone, pepper alone, then salt and pepper added to the above. (Never salt your food before tasting it.)

Though it reads like a lot, it took place within a square foot and required less than two minutes. If you can't identify a mysterious flavor, as I couldn't with the soy coating on the sage, ask your server. They like people who care.

Deconstructing in this fashion was like pressing fast-forward on developing a palate.

Suddenly, the vague blend of flotsam and jetsam that I'd enjoyed as "meals" in the past, perhaps as "chicken cacciatore" or a similar label, became combinations of line items.

For each target flavor (usually an herb), I collected an anchor dish. I couldn't really remember an herb in isolation (e.g., This is the flavor of rosemary), but I could perfectly remember the flavor of the herb if I associated it in my mind with a single representative dish (e.g., This is rosemary, the flavor you had with rack of lamb). Cilantro? Vietnamese pho noodles. Chives? Sour-cream-and-chive potato chips. Cloves? Christmas tea. And so on.

Despite my great success with deconstruction, there were really tough items, like basil, that required one more technique: non- tongue taste.

3. Leverage Non-Tongue Taste
This epiphany took place at the Oberoi Grand, in Kolkata, India.

I had taken a Bengali cooking class the day before, and I was having an existential crisis over my iced tea. Why the hell couldn't I isolate and remember a few key ingredients, like turmeric, cardamom, and cumin?

I asked the waiter if he could bring out a side dish with two pinches of each; I'd try deconstruction again.

It didn't work. To escape this frustration, I went to my e-mail in-box, where I found a note from researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, who'd been introduced to me by my friend and fellow experimenter A.J. Jacobs. Leslie Stein, PhD, and Marcia Pelchat, PhD, had once again proven invaluable. In their message, I found a few choice lines:

"Not all taste buds are located on the tongue. Some are found on the roof of the mouth and in the throat. ... Taste receptors are also found in the lining of the intestine, suggesting that our concept of the sense of taste should include these chemical-sensing systems."

This is when the lightbulb went on. Jumping online, I started digging and found more: There are taste cells and receptors in the small intestine. And in 2006, glutamate receptors were identified in the stomach.

Maybe doing what I had been doing -- rolling herbs in my fingers, smelling them, moving them around my mouth -- was akin to listening to your favorite song with one ear and no bass. Perhaps I wasn't flavor-deaf. Perhaps I wasn't using enough of my body.

So I waved down a waiter to help me test Plan B:

• I asked for one cup of hot water for tea, and three extra cups.
• I cut or smashed the target herbs and spices into little bits, keeping them separate.
• I put each small pile in its own cup.
• I started with the usual: roll in the fingers, smell, taste on tongue.
• Then I poured a little hot water (about ¼ c) into each cup and swirled it around. I let things steep for a few minutes.
• Last, I took small sips of each, swishing it around my mouth like fine wine, even aerating it (that annoying air-sucking sound wine drinkers make), and finally swallowing it.

It worked like a charm. For the first time, I "got" a few spices on their own. The volume is turned down with water, but you hit more areas -- like stereo sound versus mono -- so I found the resolution higher.

If you are tackling a tough flavor, throw your whole body into tasting. The tongue is just one part of the equation.

4. Isolate the Basics: Tastes, Senstations, Flavor Profiles

Combine one cup of water with each of the below, and sip to better identify the different taste qualities:

Sweet -- Table sugar or other sweetener.
Sour -- Ideally, "sour salt" (citric acid), as it's odorless, but lemon juice or vinegar will do the job.
Bitter -- Tonic water (quinine).
Salty -- Various types of salt: table salt, kosher salt, sea salt.
Umami -- Human breast milk.

What's that? You don't have human breast milk on hand? A little MSG will work. Barring that, try dashi (or its constituent parts, kombu seaweed or bonito flakes), mush- rooms, or the little white crystals on good ol' Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Astringency -- Think of this, for now, as synonymous with "tannins." It's the cotton- mouth feeling you know. Try sipping over- brewed black tea (two packets steeping for 15 minutes) or eating underripe persimmons.
Hotness -- Try Anaheim peppers or, if you're macho, jalapeño. If you're straight-up masochistic, chomp habañero.

I was once invited to a rather fancy cocktail party in San Francisco, held at a billionaire's house. The front walkway was flanked by an Aston Martin and an Audi S5 with a modified Lamborghini engine inside. I rolled up to the valet in my supa' fly 2004 Volkswagen Golf and bounced out with a bottle of pickled vegetables under one arm and a carrot in my mouth (I was starving and had bought them en route). "Hello, gents!" I said to the line-backer-like security guards, who, after much confusion, led me inside.

Now among three-piece suits, I mingled and had a jolly ol' time, wine in one hand, pickled veggies in the other. Then, mid-conversation, I felt a little funny. Suddenly, I felt a lot funny. Looking down at my hand, I saw a half-eaten habañero, which I'd chomped and swallowed without looking. "I gotta go," I said to my unnamed drinking partner, and made a beeline through the kitchen doors. As I barged in, the caterers stood bewildered, staring at me. Tears were streaming out of my eyes. "I . . . need . . . whole milk! Please!!!" I stammered, dropping the habañero on the counter as evidence. Then, without a word, I pulled open the fridge and started chugging 2 percent milk. The mouthful of cream I drank next sealed the deal and got me back to normal within five minutes.

All that is to say: use fat, not water, to counter hotness. Capsaicin is fat-soluble.

Flavor profiles:
Last, play with, which is based on the Volatile Compounds in Food (VCF) database. The objective is to start thinking about how to mix and match foods based on similar characteristics.

Don't have saffron? On their site, you'll learn that you can replace it with, oddly enough, tarragon. Ran out of sage? No problem; use rosemary instead. Both contain eucalyptol, so your dish should turn out similarly. Wondering what the hell will go with the leftover cucumber and grapes? Try the various cucumber soup recipes they have links to. Ran out of lemongrass, or don't want to bother buying it in the first place? Type it in and you'll learn that you can combine a little lemon peel, ginger, and basil to reconstruct the basic lemongrass flavor. Pretty damn cool.

5. Try Unusual Food Combinations. Ask "Why Does It Work?"

There's a concept in Zen Buddhism called "beginner eyes," which means to look at some- thing as if you're seeing it for the first time. No matter how many times you've eaten meatloaf or sweet-and-sour chicken, picking out the specifics takes practice. Does it need more salt? A little acid? What?

You'll have to start asking, "Why does this work?" or "Why doesn't this work?" a lot.
I found this hard to do with dishes I'd eaten dozens of times. My taste buds were too close to the problem. It was a lot easier with combos I had no reference point for. This became clear when an Indian friend suggested mango with cayenne pepper. It sounded disgusting until she walked me through it (this progression should look familiar):

"Try the mango alone." (Delicious.) "Shake on some cayenne powder and try again." (Wow, even more delicious.)

"Now put on some sea salt." (Incredible and by far the best.)

This sharpened my perception of hotness as it contrasted with sweetness, and the use of salt to bring out flavors. I needed something weird to get me there. The oddness also made this anchor meal nearly impossible to forget.

Here are some unusual combos to start with. Why do they work?

• Cinnamon and chile powder on vanilla ice cream.
• Olive oil on chocolate ice cream (bonus point: put an olive oil-fried sage leaf on top).
• Cinnamon on bacon.
• Almond butter on hamburger.
• Black pepper on watermelon.
• Mustard on black-eyed peas.
• Cinnamon on grilled pineapple (a favorite in churrascaria, grilled meat restaurants in Brazil).

Once you've tested the odd, you can introduce traditional taste pairings, like beef and horseradish or orange and fennel.

This article is an excerpt from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Any Skill, and Living the Good Life