Feast for the senses: Cooking with all five senses
Even dish color can influence flavor. In one study, diners served a strawberry dessert on a white plate found it sweeter than the same treat on a black plate. (Fotolia.com / February 6, 2013)
It is just one recently documented reaction that points to a singular truth: There's a lot more to flavor than taste alone. Anything from your choice of cutlery to the music you listen to while eating can directly affect your appreciation of a meal, with sometimes surprising intensity. Restaurateurs have already begun to augment their craft with these insights, but so can we all. Appeal to more than just your guests' taste buds, and you too can become a multisensory master chef.
We've known for a while that flavor doesn't just happen on the tongue. As far back as the 1820s, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin proposed that "smell and taste are in fact but a single sense, whose laboratory is in the mouth and whose chimney is in the nose." But over the past decade, we've begun to realize just how mixed up our senses are. What began with curious observations, such as people hearing better when they put their glasses on, soon migrated to questions of taste, says Charles Spence, a psychologist at the University of Oxford.
TAKE VISUAL CUES
Color and taste are known to be intimately associated in our minds -- red, for example, means sweet-tasting food, while green is associated with sour. This could be an evolutionarily conditioned response to fruits tending to redden as they ripen, but something similar extends even to the accessories on which food is presented.
When last year, Spence served up identical strawberry mousses on black and white plates, his sensory guinea pigs rated the mousse on the white plate 10 percent sweeter and 15 percent more intense than the mousse on the black plate. One explanation, Spence says, is that a white plate increases the color contrast with the strawberry mousse, making it look redder and therefore taste sweeter. He's now working with the renowned French chef Paul Bocuse to test the effect of plate color on the taste of other desserts.
The white-plate trick is one to remember when attempting to impress your dinner guests, but it might be worth investing in some cool-colored glasses, too. In 2003, Nicolas Gueguen, at the University of Southern Brittany in France, found participants in his study rated the same soft drink more refreshing when they drank from a glass that was a cool color like blue, and less thirst-quenching when it was presented in a yellow glass.
Shape might also play a part. David Gal of Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., found that tasters rate cheese as slightly sharper when shown a series of angular shapes beforehand. Food served on a star-shaped plate is rated as more bitter than food served on a round plate.
Spence says it's hard to pin down what exactly causes these kinds of cross-sensory associations. But it seems we transfer many of the physical properties of the receptacles from which we eat and drink onto their contents. Spence's colleague Betina Piqueras-Fiszman has found that people eating yogurt from a bowl rate it as denser, more expensive and more intense the heavier the bowl is. Heavier bowls even made people feel more full. Similarly, people are more likely to describe water as tasting "cheap" when they use a plastic cup to drink it.
Perhaps the most unexpected sensory weapon, however, is sound. Spence has been documenting aural crossover effects since 2004. He started by asking people to munch their way through nearly 200 potato chips each, rating their crispness and freshness one by one. At the same time, real-time audio of their own chewing was played to them through headphones, but with the volume and frequency of the crunching sounds randomly modified. The participants rated the chips crisper and fresher when the volume was turned up and the frequency was high (Sensory Studies).
That prompted Spence to team up with star chef Heston Blumenthal at his Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, UK. They conducted a small experiment in which people tasted two oysters, one while listening to sounds of the sea and one accompanied by farmyard noises.
The volunteers rated the sea-sound oyster as being significantly tastier -- and the idea for one of Blumenthal's signature dishes, "Sound of the Sea," was born. It's composed of a plate of delicate seafood which guests eat as they listen to ocean sounds, including crashing waves and sea gulls, using headphones connected to an iPod tucked into a sea shell. Tears were an extreme reaction, but according to diners the aural accompaniment caused the food to taste more authentic, more intense and more "seafoody."
Headphones are not particularly sociable at a dinner party, but applying a little science to our choice of background music might allow us all to harness sound as a seasoning. No matter their culture of origin, people tend to associate larger objects with lower pitched sounds, and the same seems to be true of flavors.
When in a recent experiment musicians were asked to compose music for the different basic tastes, they came up with the same types of tunes: Sour was high-pitched and dissonant, sweet was softer, bitter was low-pitched, and salty was staccato. In another study, bitter tastes were predominantly matched with brass instruments, and sweet tastes with the piano.
These soundtracks might even change our perception of taste. In 2011, staff at the Fat Duck dished up cinder toffee, which has both bitter and sweet tastes, while Spence served up one of two musical accompaniments: one "sweet" and violin-based, and one "bitter" and predominantly trombone-based. Listening to the sweet music made the toffee taste sweeter, while listening to the bitter music accentuated its bitter notes.
As you prepare to wow your dinner guests with these multi-sensory delights, the best bit is most of us remain blissfully ignorant of how much more there is to flavor than just taste.
"Often I think we don't have any awareness at all," says Spence. "We always think we are really tasting the food or judging the wine."
So, if the table is set and the music is playing, there's just one more thing to do before the first unsuspecting guest rings the doorbell: make sure this magazine is well out of sight.
(Catherine de Lange is a writer based in London.)
You can manipulate all five senses to influence the flavor of your food, but there's a much simpler way to enhance the meals you dish up: season them with the right tableware.
As Zoe Laughlin, a materials scientist at University College London, surmised, spoons made of different metals induce different tastes. Indeed, she showed in blind taste tests that chow taken with copper and zinc spoons tasted stronger, more metallic and more bitter than food eaten with gold and chrome spoons, which tasted the most pleasant. The more reactive the metal, the stronger the taste it imparted.
But the results were sometimes unexpected. Volunteers who used the different spoons to taste cream -- salty, bitter, sweet, sour and plain -- reported that zinc and copper spoons accentuated their different taste attributes.
"When you start to pair it with food," Laughlin says, "(the spoon) can make it taste better."
Carefully selecting the right type of spoon might enhance the flavors of certain dishes, says Laughlin. She is now developing a set of spoons, which come with tasting notes, to do exactly that.