The Future of Flavor

Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense - Bob Holmes 2017

The Future of Flavor

The science of flavor is burgeoning. Every month, researchers publish new studies about our flavor senses, the psychology and neuroscience of flavor perception, and techniques to enhance flavor in industrial food labs, on the farm, and in the kitchen. We know more about flavor than ever before, and new vistas are opening all the time.

That bright outlook, full of promise for the future, is true for flavor’s standing in our everyday lives, as well. Case in point: Recently, my wife and I spent a few days driving through the mountains of eastern British Columbia, Canada. It’s a pretty remote place, a good day’s drive from the major cities of Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. Yet almost everywhere we went—in towns of ten thousand to forty thousand people—we drank excellent local craft beer. The only exception, a town of just four thousand, had big beer plans, too, but we were a few months too early for their microbrewery’s opening.

Nor is eastern British Columbia an exception here. The number of breweries in the United States has risen from a nadir of fewer than ninety in 1978 to more than four thousand today, and almost all of them are small craft brewers. The boom continues, with the number of craft breweries increasing by nearly 20 percent every year. After decades of mostly boring, mass-market beers, anyone interested in distinctive, flavorful beer suddenly has more options than they can keep track of. Big breweries have taken note and are introducing their own “craft beers” under different labels. Even the United Kingdom, which has long treasured its local brews, is in the midst of an expansion, with the number of breweries more than doubling since 2000.

You can see this flavor renaissance in other foods, too. Just walk down the aisles of any midsized grocery store and look at all the flavors offered that our parents and grandparents never knew. Sriracha and other hot sauces share the shelves with ketchup. Instead of just rice, we have basmati, jasmine, and arborio, not to mention red rice, black rice, sticky rice, and more. The produce section has habanero chilis, fennel, and arugula—and often dragon fruit, bitter melon, and curry leaves as well. The spice shelves offer not just parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, but also star anise, garam masala, and smoked paprika. If you’re willing to step outside the convenience of the supermarket, you’ll find an even wider range of tasty choices at ethnic markets, greengrocers, and the plethora of farmers’ markets that have sprung up in the last decade or two.

Eating out tonight? Especially if you’re in a large city—but often even if you’re not—you can choose among sushi bars, noodle shops, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants, northern or southern Indian places. Feel like Chinese? Take your pick of Cantonese, Szechuan, Beijing, Shanghai, or Hunan cuisines, plus Fukien, Hakka, or some other regional specialty if you’re lucky. You can find food from the Middle East, from Northern Africa, and from Mexico, Spain, Italy, and France. With a little effort, you can eat Afghan, Russian, Brazilian, or Peruvian food. Truly, this is the golden age of flavor.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the middle of the twentieth century, much of the English-speaking world was mired in a dark age of flavor. Readers who are old enough may recall such dishes as canned green beans topped with canned cream-of-mushroom soup, JELL-O salad with canned fruit cocktail and nondairy whipped topping, and TV dinners. Restaurant options midcentury usually included little more than roadside diners, generic Chinese, or stuffy French or “Continental” restaurants, followed by a tidal wave of fast-food burgers and french fries in the 1950s and 1960s.

The culprit in much of this was a push for efficiency, in the name of modernization. Early in the twentieth century, the domestic science movement sought to base household management—including cooking—on scientific principles, delivering calories and nutrients with a minimum of fuss and effort. The movement brought such horrors as Crisco white sauce: Crisco shortening, flour, and milk, cooked up into a flavorless paste of empty calories. As refrigerated transport became more common, growers began to select varieties that shipped well and looked good in the market, rather than the most flavorful ones. This preference gave us iceberg lettuce, Red Delicious apples, and, as we’ve seen, the supermarket tomato.

Beginning in the 1950s, advertising by the growing food-processing industry began pushing the notion that their convenient products were the solution to kitchen drudgery. Home cooks increasingly turned to canned soups, TV dinners, and other shortcuts, with help from books like The Can-Opener Cookbook. When even that was too much work, fast food was always an option. As more and more families had both parents working, these options became increasingly attractive—and flavor ended up the loser in the deal.

But even as the culinary mainstream turned blander, the first seeds of today’s flavor renaissance were beginning to germinate. Soldiers returning from the Second World War brought home their experiences of new, foreign, delicious foods, and the rise of international air travel in the 1950s and 1960s helped more people expand their flavor worlds. Starting in the 1960s, liberalized immigration laws opened borders to a flood of new, non-European arrivals, who brought their traditional foods with them and became part of an expanding food culture. Consider, as one example, the fact that we take for granted today that almost everyone can eat with chopsticks, a skill that was the height of multicultural sophistication not too many decades ago.

The nascent food culture slowly gathered momentum. Beginning in the late 1960s, the counterculture movement emphasized healthy, homemade foods (albeit often earnestly stodgy ones). Pioneering restaurants like Chez Panisse in the San Francisco Bay Area (and counterparts elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Britain and Australia) focused attention on fresh, high-quality ingredients—where possible, locally grown, and including unfamiliar, rich flavors such as wild mushrooms and fresh herbs. Both restaurant chefs and home cooks began to seek out farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, often finding a wider range of more flavorful varieties than those available in the grocery store. The number of farmers’ markets in America rose from just one hundred in 1960 to more than eight thousand in 2014, and new markets open every year.

Cookbooks, too, began to reflect a growing interest in food. Instead of “boring basics” tomes, cookbook buyers sought out more adventurous guides to more exciting, flavorful food. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, is of course the most famous example, but my shelves are full of others, too: Time-Life’s Foods of the World series, published between 1968 and 1972, Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico (1972), Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book (1973, and its several successors), and Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’s The Silver Palate Cookbook (1979). More recently, the Food Network and other televised outlets have turned food and flavor into a competitive sport, with chefs competing to make the most delicious and innovative dishes right in front of the cameras.

The Slow Food movement is also helping to bring flavor to the fore. Founded in 1986 by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini in reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome, Slow Food now claims over 100,000 members in 1,500 local groups around the world. One of their key initiatives is the Ark of Taste, an effort to identify and preserve local food traditions that are in danger of disappearing. As of this writing, for example, the Ark’s 3,277 entries include 321 from the United States—everything from the “old-type” Rhode Island Red chicken (bred for eating as well as laying, unlike the modern laying-only variety) to the yellow watermelons grown by the Tohono O’odham people of southern Arizona. The United Kingdom has 98 entries, including artisanal Cheddar from Somerset, the Gloucester Old Spot pig, and Wessex Einkorn wheat. Every one of the Ark’s entries represents a unique flavor experience—and thanks to the spotlight Slow Food is shining on them, they are experiences that are now a little less likely to vanish.

Flavor has never been more important in our culture, and it’s a fair bet that its star will continue to rise in the future. (Why would anyone who learns to appreciate flavor ever turn the clock back?) But exactly where we’re going is anyone’s guess. Flavor preferences alter over time as the culture changes. If I served you a meal from medieval England today, you’d probably find its extravagant sweetness and overbearing use of cinnamon and cloves just as strange as Chaucerian English. A few generations from now, the way we cook will no doubt seem as peculiar, in retrospect, to our own descendants.

In the short term, though, we can feel confident about a few predictions. As societies become more multicultural, we’ll see increasing fusion of culinary traditions. When I visited the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, for example, I had coffee with culinary anthropologist Willa Zhen in the Apple Pie Bakery Café, a classic American breakfast/lunch spot with pastries, sandwiches, soups, and salads. In addition to her anthropological schooling, Zhen also trained as a traditional Chinese chef, so she’s well attuned to cross-cultural influences. She pointed out one of the day’s specials, chicken noodle soup. Sounds pretty standard—but this one was made with Japanese udon noodles, Chinese cabbage, cilantro, and scallions. “This place is called the Apple Pie Café, and it’s supposed to be as American as apple pie,” she said, “and yet, we have Asian chicken noodle soup on the menu.”

We can also predict that as our population ages, cooks will have to tinker with their seasonings to compensate for our declining flavor senses. Some obvious possibilities include using more salt and MSG, and perhaps more spicy-hot peppers to stimulate our dulling palates. But the changes may be more precise than that. Bob Sobel, vice president of research at the flavor company FONA, says they’re working to understand whether certain classes of flavor molecules get harder to detect than others. If they should find that aging makes us more sensitive to sulfury thiols but less sensitive to fruity esters, for example, then elder-directed seasonings might play up the esters and back off the thiols. “It’s not turning the volume up, it’s adjusting the graphic equalizer,” notes Sobel.

Finally, we can expect to see new flavors enter our repertoires as new ingredients take the stage. There’s already a buzz going about insects as a tasty, inexpensive, sustainable protein source, and as the world’s population grows, we’re likely to see more insects on our menus. That may not sound appetizing to most of us today, but it’s worth remembering that the tomato was viewed with at least as much suspicion when it first came to Renaissance Italy from the New World. Look where that ended up. If insects—which are already eaten with gusto in places like Mexico and Thailand—move into the mainstream, I’ll bet they take their first steps through pairing with familiar seasoning flavors that help ease the shock of the new.

Wherever we’re going, almost all of us can learn to get more from our everyday flavor experiences. Most of us never pay much attention to developing our flavor skills, so we make do with a vague and fuzzy flavor sense. Sure, we can tell a good chocolate cake from a bad one, or we might recognize that the peach we’re eating in July is much more flavorful than the one we had back in January. But we can deepen that experience by recognizing that the July peach carries hints of coconut aromas, and that its intense sweetness was balanced by greater acidity, less astringency, and a juicier texture.

At this point you might protest that you don’t have what it takes to pick out coconut notes in your peach or a barnyard aroma in your glass of wine. It’s easy to think that the people who can do that sort of thing are blessed with exceptional palates that the rest of us can’t hope to match.

But if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take away from this book, it’s that almost anyone can get better at appreciating flavor. It doesn’t matter if you have trouble articulating precisely what you’re tasting. As I’ve noted, we’re all terrible at putting names to flavors unless we have prompts to fall back on. But if you’re aware that one glass of wine tastes different from another, or that a Gala apple tastes different from a Red Delicious, or a raspberry from a strawberry, then don’t worry. You’ve got the basic sensory abilities. All the rest is practice and attention.

Some cultures already do better at this than most of the English-speaking world does. For French schoolchildren, lunch is a subject like any other, where they learn how to appreciate traditional foods properly. The Slow Food movement aims to bring similar “taste education” to other cultures, including our own. Such training, they hope, can give anyone a better appreciation of flavor.

Even the pros don’t necessarily start out with exceptional palates. Prominent wine critics don’t tend to volunteer to have their sensory abilities tested. Who, after all, would take the risk that they might be branded a substandard taster? The little bit of information that is available, however, suggests that they’re nothing special. Researchers in New Zealand, for example, measured olfactory thresholds of eleven wine professionals—winemakers, wine sellers, wine judges, and even wine researchers—and eleven ordinary people, and found no difference between the two groups. (Wine experts are slightly more likely than ordinary folks to report the intense bitter perceptions that mark supertasters, but it’s not clear why that’s a professional advantage.) High-fidelity wine tasters, in other words, are made, not born.

The same is true for professional flavorists. “It’s a matter of learning and passion,” one longtime professional flavorist told me about his trade. “I wouldn’t say I’m a top 1 percent taster. I don’t think that’s the most important criterion. You don’t have to be in the top 1 percent to be successful.” That’s good news for all of us ordinary amateurs who’d like to improve their flavor perception.

If you’re one of that group, the way forward is simply to begin. Try this: Next time you eat an apple, don’t just munch as you read this book or check your e-mail. Concentrate, instead, on your flavor experience. Give it your full attention. Try to articulate what you’re tasting. How sweet is the apple? How tart? Do you get any bitterness from the skin? Is it rich or poor in that fruity, appley fragrance? Finally—and most important—ask yourself how well you like this apple. You may even find it helps to assign numbers to your sensations: score each quality from zero to ten, say. There’s no better way to crystallize your perceptions than to force yourself to quantify them.

It will seem a little strange at first, all this pondering and scoring. You might feel self-conscious and a little pretentious, and you’ll almost certainly struggle to put your flavor experience into words, even inside your own head. That’s how I felt. But it gets easier with practice, and soon you’ll find you’re noticing subtler shades of sweetness, or comparing the aromatic fruitiness of a Macintosh to the gentle sweetness of a Fuji. After a while, you may find that you notice subtler flavor notes: a hint of banana in one, a touch of pear in another.

You can apply the same analytic skills you’re developing with the apples to any other food. Whatever you’re eating, slow down and pay close attention to the balance of flavors. See if you can pick out the herbs and spices in the stew, and whether the cook browned the onions before adding the liquid. Even if you’ve just grabbed a Big Mac on the run, try to pause for a moment and savor it. Many highly trained flavorists labored long and hard over that special sauce, and someone decided exactly how much sesame seed should be on that bun. See if you agree with their choices.

I don’t eat like this all the time, of course. Sometimes I forget. Other times I’m distracted and wolf down my meal without really noticing, just like I usually did before. But I’m trying to pay attention and eat mindfully more often, and I’m slowly building my flavor chops. The more I do it, the easier it is to identify subtler elements of my flavor experience, and the more I build my flavor vocabulary, the better to describe what I’m tasting.

For professional flavorists, of course, paying attention has become second nature. When I visited Givaudan, the world’s largest flavor company, several of the people I talked to noted that most of their flavorists stop and sniff everything before they put it in their mouths. Occasionally, the habit makes for a slightly awkward moment at a dinner party. “People ask me, ’Is something wrong with the food?’” one flavorist told me a bit sheepishly. (Maybe, in light of that, you want to think twice about flavor experiments in certain social settings.)

Practice is exactly how people come to grips with the complex flavors of wine, too. You can learn the basic dimensions of wine description—color, body, astringency, acidity, sweetness—from any number of books. For the more subtle elements of the flavor—the hint of anise, or blackberry, or tobacco—feel free to play around. Buy some cheap red wine and divide it into a half-dozen jars. Mash a few raspberries in one, a slice of plum in the next, a few blackberries in another, and so on, to make aroma standards. Then pick a jar at random and see whether you can identify the addition just by smelling the wine. (The guy at my local wine shop was amused when I asked him to recommend the least flavorful, most nondescript wine on his shelves for this exercise.) This is exactly the method that the wine mavens at UC Davis use when training tasting panels to recognize wine aromas.

It also helps immensely to fall back on a flavor wheel or other crib sheet. These days you can find flavor wheels online for everything from wine, beer, and Scotch whisky to cheese, chocolate, and coffee. (I found one for apples, too!) Look around to see what you can find for some of your own favorite foods. Having a list of potential flavors to choose from avoids the tip-of-your-tongue problem, when you know what a flavor is but can’t call up a name.

I now carry in my wallet a folded wine-aroma crib sheet that I can pull out when I’m at a loss for words (although I do temper my geekiness when I’m with friends). Just last week, for example, I found an odd but familiar aroma in a glass of California Zinfandel. I couldn’t immediately name it, but I recognized it as soon as I saw it on my crib sheet: horse sweat (it tasted much better than it sounds, actually). I was surprised to identify it; I’d never tasted that in a wine before, but the crib sheet made me confident in my call.

Of course, my confidence could be misplaced, but I try not to let that hold me back. Remember, even expert perfumers and flavorists can’t accurately identify more than three or four aromas from a mixture. In something as complex as wine, that means the experts’ flavor identifications miss the mark pretty often. (You can easily verify that by comparing two critics’ reviews of the same wine and noting their lack of overlap.) The bottom line is that accuracy doesn’t matter. What’s important is that coming up with a description forces me to pay attention, and paying attention enriches my flavor experience. It slows me down, so that meals become a time for dining, not merely for eating.

There’s a world of flavor out there waiting, and it’s ours to enjoy.