I’m going to let the links speak for themselves.
While I was in Norway, I bought a jar of rosehip jam, the spoils of my first round of supermarket roulette.* It was very tasty – bright, slightly acidic, and not quite like anything else – but I had some trouble enjoying it. The problem was that it looked just like ketchup. Intellectually, I knew that it was not ketchup. I knew that it tasted good. I knew that I liked it. But I still recoiled slightly every time I ate it.
This led me to think about how powerful visual perception can be to the experience of taste. It turns out that psychologists, food scientists, and marketers are very interested in this phenomenon, so there’s some improbable and fascinating research out there. A lot of this research focuses on color. One common test is to add fruit flavor and coloring to a drink, mixing and matching the flavor/color combinations. (Drinks work well because they are easy to flavor and color, and lack other cues – such as texture – that influence taste.)
*Supermarket roulette rules: go to a foreign market, buy something whose label you can’t read, and try it. This can work out very very well – see doce do abobora – or…less well. I do not recommend, for example, Russian Vitamin C-enhanced knock-off tootsie rolls.
flickr user Savannah Lewis
You’ve probably tried this neat taste experiment: hold your nose and chew on a piece of apple. It tastes sort of like an apple, but kind of indistinct too. While you’re chewing, let go of your nose. BAM! APPLE!
But what if you could do the inverse? Can you capture the taste of an apple using smell alone?
We all know what apples smell and taste like. There’s little excitement in smelling apples without being able to bite into one. But what about smells like “granite” or “musk” or “freshly-cut grass”? All these scents are used in perfumery, but it’s impossible to taste them.
Or is it?
We’ve got plenty of links this week! Check them out after the jump!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had what some might call an extremely good metabolism. Whether the result of the genetic lottery or simply a physiological adaptation to my food-filled environment, I’m not entirely sure.
This has had a few benefits – the most obvious being that I can eat quite a lot without suffering any long term impact to the aesthetic appeal of my body. Of course, the negatives have too been plentiful, ranging from my mother – horrified with the amounts I eat – threatening me with de-worming medicine meant for the dog, to the very same parent refusing to make the announcement of dinner, lest I arrive there first and eat what would have been sufficient for four people.
This meant that from a very young age, I was forced to become the osmological equivalent of Daredevil and rely on my sense of smell if I was to be able to have first pick of the food. The myriad of different aromas travelling from the kitchen up into my bedroom had to be perceived, differentiated and acted upon in a short space of time if I was to be able to bound down the stairs and get to the kitchen before being left with only the dregs of the pan.
After three or four failures of what I had prematurely termed my “super-sniffer”, I realised the importance of subtle differentiation in aroma. The sharp tone of caramel could be mistaken for the similar yet far less sweet smell of liver. The low, earthy smells of certain types of fish, when fried, could be easily taken for the herbs and spices used to garnish certain, tastier meats.
Humans, as with many other animals, take learned sensory cues in order to seek out the preferred concentration of nutrients in foods. The sensory reception is believed to trigger anticipatory responses because we learn to associate the sensory characteristics of a food with many of its properties, such as the estimated calorific value post-consumption.
It is these associations which we then psychologically link and allow to influence our expectations about the apparent effect a food will have on appetite, including how filling a food is likely to be (expected satiation) and the extent to which it will stave off hunger until the next meal.
It is all this that runs through the mind of a hungry man walking by a cafe in the middle of the day, the couple sitting in a restaurant deciding which meals they should pick or of a boy in the short window of opportunity that he has to make his mind up whether or not he should launch himself into the kitchen at breakneck speeds.
So how are odours perceived?
How can we teach kids to think like scientists in the kitchen?
Throughout the country, there’s a big push to get K-12 students interested in science and math. As part of this, I worked with a small to team at Harvard to create the first Science and Cooking for Kids program in the summer of 2012. Over two weeks, teams of scientists and chefs taught science lessons and recipes to a group of twenty 5th through 7th grade students.
Although there are already several great resources that use science to teach cooking, such as FoodMaster, The Science and Scientists Behind the Food, and the Science and Food site, I think the Science and Cooking for Kids program can fill a unique role. The collaborations between chefs and scientists give students a direct view into both the recipe development process and modern trends in cooking. I’m working to develop the curriculum for this summer’s version of the program, and my goal is to more strongly show the process of doing science, instead of just demonstrating the concepts. One overall objective is to encourage kids to pursue careers in science or technology, by making it more accessible.
To make the curriculum as broadly applicable as possible, I am using the standards from the Common Core (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (MS) for science and math. Specifically, I’m collecting examples of how cooking can provide tangible, familiar examples of each of these, with a focus on modern culinary techniques that aren’t covered in other lesson plans.
- Ratios (“CCSS.Math.Content.6.RP.A.3 Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems”): For a middle-school audience, scaling recipes can be a tangible example of working with ratios. This is especially easy using Baker’s percentages, as described on this Modernist Cuisine post. The trend towards measuring ingredients by mass, in metric units, makes the connection to scientific experiments more direct.
- Time and temperature (“MS-PS3-3: Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.”): Sous vide cooking is a recent development that is perfect for showing the effect of temperature on food, independent of the cooking time, such as those on the Cooking Issues charts. For the complementary view, students can experiment on their own with cooking eggs in simmering water for different lengths of time, to gain a more complete understanding of thermal energy transfer,
- Chemical reactions (“MS-PS1-2: Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred”): Nutrition is a gateway to talk about the molecules in food. Roasted cauliflower and seared Brussels sprouts are two simple examples of how to turn unpopular vegetables into something more appealing.
- Natural and synthetic materials (“MS-PS1-3. Gather and make sense of information to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society”): Nearly all modernist ingredients, such as agar, lecithin, and xanthan gum, come from natural surfaces. These ingredients are now easily accessible on-line, allowing students to make fruit gels, yogurt spheres, and other creations that were first popularized by Michelin-starred chefs.
If there’s enough interest, we would like to run a one-week version for multiple times each summer. This will allow us to test out the new lessons and to develop a curriculum that is more transferable. The current lessons are more about the physical sciences, but future versions could have more about microbiology, botany, or psychology. I’m still looking for more ideas, so I’d love to hear about your own culinary experiments, to see if they could be adapted into lessons for students.
Where do you see science crop up into your own cooking experiences?
There’s an old adage for cooking pasta- to cook your pasta correctly, the water you boil the pasta in should taste like the sea. To me, this phrase conjure images of 16th century Italians dipping their cooking pots into the Mediterranean to get water for boiling pasta. I mean, where else could this phrase have come from?
For those of us not living in the Italian Renaissance, this bit of kitchen wisdom means that we have to pour a ton of salt into our water when we boil pasta. Why? ’Cause that’s what our grandmas tell us to do. Or at least, that’s what my grandma always told me. (She told me lot’s of other things too- like how to make pasta sauce).
There would be a few times a year when my mom was allowed to cook the pasta dish for a meal rather than my grandma. These rare events usually occurred around holidays like Christmas, when my parents would host. On every such occasion, my grandma would take one bite of the pasta, and say to my mom “Non ti sale l’acqua” (You didn’t salt the water). And my mom would say “Yes I did!” And my grandma would say “Not enough.”
And so it was etched in my head that I would never undersalt my pasta like my mother, for fear of the disapproval of my very Italian grandma. Of course I never actually cooked pasta for my grandma, but the lesson was there seared into my brain, like an 11th commandment.
So we get to the topic of this month’s MOCA: Does pre-salting the water improve the taste of pasta? For most of my life, I’ve been afraid to do anything but salt the water, and I am sure that salt does improve the flavor, if not the texture. So we decided to put a little ScienceFare spin on the question: What if we just post-salt the pasta after boiling? Does presalting the water before cooking pasta do something that simply salting the pasta post-boiling won’t do on its own?
Thus, we have a three-part MOCA challenge for you pasta-lovers. We want you to make pasta three ways, unsalted, presalted, and post-salted. Make, eat, and tell us if there’s a difference!
Here are your steps:
- Fill two pots with water and bring to a boil.
- Salt one of the pots once it starts to boil. The rule of thumb is one tablespoon of salt for every gallon of water, which is probably about the amount of water you’d put into a big pot.
- Take a pound of pasta, and put half in one pot, half in the other, and boil ’til your desired consistency is reached.
- Drain the pasta from both pots. Split the unsalted pasta into two batches, and add a little bit of salt to one batch to taste. I’m not really sure what amount is appropriate here, something in the 1/8-1 tsp range is probably about right.
- You should have three batches of pasta now, one big batch of presalted pasta, a small batch of unsalted pasta, and a small batch of post-salted pasta.
- And, taste! If you can, recruit one or two spouses/friends/children as blind taste testers. After tasting, fill out your observations in this form.
- Optional bonus points: keep the pasta separate when you add the sauce, and see if you can still detect a difference between the three batches through the pasta sauce.
As usual, if you take any pictures, send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll use them in our writeup.
The deadline for submitting and having your results count for this MOCA is April 24th, with a summary post following the week after on May 1st. Any questions, post a comment here or shoot us an email at email@example.com. Happy April MOCAing!
Imagine slurping down raw Chinook salmon, cool and unctuous. The taste is sharp and clean and unmistakably savory, with a bit of mouth-filling fattiness. The fish is so fresh, it’s practically still thrashing.
Oh, wait, it is still thrashing. And you’re gulping it down whole, crunchy with bones and slick with fish skin. And maybe you can’t really taste it at all, even if you did chew. Slightly less appealing than in the first sentence, yes? Minimalist sushi is always on the menu for sea lions, dolphins, and other marine mammals, and knowing how they (and other carnivores) experience food tells us something about how the process of taste has evolved over millennia.
We are five geeks who experiment with our food. Read more about us.
For the Beginning Cook
Food Science Visualizations
Neurogastronomy and Taste Interactions
Education and Pedagogy
- Science and Cooking for Kids
- Moving past the hypothesis: how to pick and choose methods to suit a research question
- Questioning the hypothesis: how to improve teaching of the scientific method
- ScienceFare presents to the National Science Teachers Association
- Bringing Lessons from Alinea to Harvard
- Help Design the Future of Science and Cooking at Harvard
- Science of Cooking in the Bronx