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The Foundations of Flavor

There is more to flavor than what your tastebuds tell you. What we call flavor is a complex combination of aroma, taste, and texture. To enjoy the fullest flavor of food, all three of these sensations work in harmony. Here's a little Q&A to answer some of the more interesting questions about flavor.

How many flavors are there?
Old scientific studies say that there are but four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These are the basic flavors that our tastebuds most easily recognize. In fact, these four flavors are so basic that they can be identified without the assistance of aroma. And the foods we enjoy most are a combination of several or all of these basic four flavors. But studies have found that at least four more categories of flavor sensation must be added to the list:

Pungent: Spicy-hot ingredients such as chili peppers and black peppercorns enrage and excite the tastebuds. They are neither sweet, sour, salty, nor bitter. They are pungent.

Astringent: Tannin, found in chocolate, tea, unripe fruit, and spinach, causes a contraction of tissues within the mouth. This flavor is best described as astringent.

Cooling: Menthol, found in mint, has a cooling, refreshing effect in the mouth, and a certain numbing sensation. This flavor is not captured by any of the basic four categories.

Umami: Named by the Japanese, umami could also be described as flavor enhancing. This category includes mushrooms and monosodium glutamate, or MSG, ingredients which tend to deepen the savory flavor of foods.

What are tastebuds?
These are tiny receptors - about 10,000 in all - at the nerve endings of our tongues. Even with thousands of tastebuds, only 10 percent of any flavor is tasted by tastebuds. We taste 90 percent of flavor because of aroma. Our sense of smell is much more efficient that our tastebuds. That's why food doesn't taste so good when you have a cold.

Why do some flavors linger longer than others?
The flavors of any food will last longer when fat is present. Food with a creamy consistency often tastes "better" because its fat content helps prolong the release of the food's flavor. In this sense, fat is a flavor carries. Ice cream tastes so good because the butterfat in it coats the mouth and prolongs the release of flavors.

Does the temperature of food affect flavor?
Yes, the melting point of certain foods such as chocolate, butter, and gelatin pleasantly prolongs the release of flavor. This is why some foods taste richer than others. Many foods, such as cheese, are best at room temperature. Others, such as baked goods, are better warm.

Why do some foods taste better than others?
When foods contain a wide range of aromas, flavors, and textures in balance, more senses are excited and the food tends to taste better than any simpler flavor. Of course, taste is also very personal, and often, our emotions and taste memories come into play. One person might think that a can of tomato soup is the best flavor imaginable, while another might find it totally unpalatable.

Can you add too much flavor?
Yes, balance is crucial. Big flavors are very popular, but more is not necessarily better. Two or more unusual flavors combined can actually cancel out one another, resulting in an unpleasant taste.

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