How the Basic Tastes Cancel Out-and a special personal request

Taste Buds and the Tongue

I have a confession to make.

Over the past year, I have not been putting 100% into this blog. I’ve been working on a book, equal parts science and DIY-hack-foolery. In the course of that year, I spoke to dozens of people who helped me understand some of the most fundamental basics about how we perceive food. The book is called Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science. I think the book is totally awesome, but I don’t want you to buy it! (Scroll all the way down to see why)

In the meantime…

Why cocktails? Because to really understand food and taste perception, I wanted to go back to the basics. And what’s more basic than a simple mixture of liquids?

With that in mind, consider this question: a question that chefs and mixologists share an interest in-

How do the basic tastes interact with one another?

In 2010, Barry Green and four of his colleagues and students at the Yale-affiliated John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven, CT set out to systematically test every possible combination of the basic tastes. They recruited 35 participants from the Yale campus and subjected each person to two series of experiments.

Before conducting their experiments, the researchers did some preliminary runs to produce four taste samples of roughly equal intensity.  Here are their results:

  1. Sweet: 0.56M Sucrose
  2. Salty: 0.32M Table Salt
  3. Sour: 10mM Citric Acid
  4. Bitter: 0.18mM Quinine Sulfate

Consider how this looks visually; notice how much more powerful quinine sulfate (bitter) is than sucrose (sweet).:

concentrations

Basically, a bitterness is 3000 times more intense than sweetness. Interesting…

THEN, the researchers gave every possible mixture of these equalized solutions to their subjects. Check out the results, below. The graph will take a few minutes to understand, but once you get it, really interesting stuff starts popping out.

charts

Original source Green et al, Taste mixture interactions: Suppression, additivity, and the predominance of sweetness. Image used with permission.

What does this all mean?

Here are some of the takeaways I got from this work:

  • Sugar dominates. Sweetness is the most difficult taste to suppress. Saltiness is the easiest.
  • 1+1<2. Notice how the intensities decrease from left to right as new tastes are mixed in. This means that mixing the basic tastes generally has a suppressive, not an additive effect—which is totally contradictory to common sense.
  • Synergy. To balance an overly sour cocktail, adding sugar helps, but sugar and salt together have a much larger effect.
  • Cocktail bitters “round out” a drink. Consider that a tiny amount of quinine was evaluated to be equivalent in intensity to a moderate sucrose solution (0.56M sucrose vs. 0.18mM QSO4, a difference of over 3000 times!). Since the experimental evidence shows that bitterness can suppress all the other tastes, it’s reasonable to suppose a “dash” of bitters helps to “round out” an otherwise harsh cocktail.

Now, here’s one more interesting chart from the same paper:

salt

This chart shows…

  • Salt = magical fairy dust. When you add sourness or bitterness to a sweet solution, the components suppress each other. That is, the result mixture tastes less sweet and less bitter or sour than the tastes would alone. But add salt to the mix and the sour or bitter flavors are suppressed significantly, while sweetness decreases only slightly. At the same time, saltiness is only barely detectable. Combine these results with other published papers on salt and suppression of bitterness* and the takeaway is that a undetectable amount of salt can be used to suppress bitter and sour flavors and essentially amplify sweetness.

*Breslin and Beauchamp, Salt enhances flavour by suppressing bitterness (1997).

Also check out our own Julie Stewart’s post on using salt to make oranges sweeter: Salty Sweet

Want to learn more about the basic tastes? See below…

And now, for a very special request

Kevin drinking a bangkok daiquiri

If you guys enjoyed the above post or our popular posts on The Weird Science of Ice or How to Build a DIY Cold-Smoker, please help me out (Hi, I’m Kevin Liu – that’s me up there drinking a very nice daiquiri).

You see, I wrote a book about the science of cocktails full of the type of writing found on this blog. The above post is adapted from about 2 pages of the book. The full version is 250 pages long and contains 65 recipes.

If you read this blog (as apparently about 1000 people a day too – cool, huh??!!), I seriously think you’ll like the book. But I also really don’t want you to pay for it.

SO:

  • I would really really really really really really really really x a million billion appreciate it if you would download a free copy of the book between Thursday, February 28th and Saturday, March 2nd 2013 and write a 2-3 sentence review (positive or negative!) on Amazon.
  • I will personally read every review, answer any questions raised, and take the time to fix any errors or omissions you might find.

Thank you guys so much!!! – Kevin

P.S. The book will ONLY be free on Kindle Thursday through Saturday. The normal price is $3.99. You can always buy the book for $3.99 at Amazon right now, or get the paperback version for about $9, but free is good, right?

P.P.S. Due to the magic of the internet, Amazon reviews will give me superpowers and allow to write more books. No, but seriously: Amazon reviews really help a book get a foothold online, so even a few critical words would actually be very helpful.

P.P.P.S. You can see the full table of contents and a few preview chapters here.

About Kevin Liu

Kevin Liu is a hopeless food geek obsessed with bacon, kale, and cocktails (but not usually all at once). You can follow him at @kevinkliu. Kevin is an editor at Science Fare.

3 Responses to How the Basic Tastes Cancel Out-and a special personal request

  1. Colin Gore February 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your magnum opus. I plan to give a thorough review.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Cocktail Science: 8 Tips and Tricks For Getting the Most Out of Citrus | Dessert Recipe Wall - July 1, 2013

    [...] *I stored my juices in a small mason jar at refrigerator temperature after juicing. I had my roommate serve me the juices in random order so the test was blind, but the conclusions were subjective to my palate. Give it a try and see what’s true for you. **Harold McGee cites oxidation as the culprit, but Arielle Johnson’s gas chromatograph analysis of 4 to 20-hour-old lime juice showed very little oxidation. She did find that volatile aromatics as a whole in the juice decreased, and this can change the perception of quality, but it isn’t yet clear how. I’ve also tested pH (it doesn’t change significantly over the times we’re concerned about). So of all the known possibilities, the effect of increasing bitterness seems to be most important. For more on the science, see here. ***This may be one reason why a dash or two of bitters helps to “round out” a drink. I’ve written a bit more about the science here. [...]

  2. Cocktail Science: 8 Tips and Tricks For Getting the Most Out of Citrus | Recipes Pinboard - July 1, 2013

    [...] *I stored my juices in a small mason jar at refrigerator temperature after juicing. I had my roommate serve me the juices in random order so the test was blind, but the conclusions were subjective to my palate. Give it a try and see what’s true for you. **Harold McGee cites oxidation as the culprit, but Arielle Johnson’s gas chromatograph analysis of 4 to 20-hour-old lime juice showed very little oxidation. She did find that volatile aromatics as a whole in the juice decreased, and this can change the perception of quality, but it isn’t yet clear how. I’ve also tested pH (it doesn’t change significantly over the times we’re concerned about). So of all the known possibilities, the effect of increasing bitterness seems to be most important. For more on the science, see here. ***This may be one reason why a dash or two of bitters helps to “round out” a drink. I’ve written a bit more about the science here. [...]

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