Flavors and Ingredients - Tastes: Bitter, Salty, Sour, Sweet, Umami, Others (part 3)

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6. Others

In addition to the primary sensations of taste, our taste buds also respond to oral irritation brought about by hot peppers (typically from the chemical capsaicin), cooling sensations (typically menthol from plants like peppermint), and carbonation. The reaction to hot peppers is governed by a neurotransmitter called substance P (P is for pain; go figure). In one of nature’s more subtle moves, substance P can be depleted slowly and takes time—many days, possibly weeks—to replenish, meaning that if you eat hot foods often, you literally build up a tolerance for hotter and hotter foods as your ability to detect their presence goes down. Because of this, asking someone else if a dish is spicy won’t always tell you if it’s safe to jump in. Carbonation in soft drinks also irritates the taste buds, but in a different way that stimulates the somatosensory system. Carbonation also interacts with an enzyme (carbonic anhydrase 4) to trigger our sour taste receptors, but for now it’s unclear as to why it doesn’t actually taste sour to us.

Our mouths also capture data for a few chemical families present in some foods, along with noticing texture and “mouthfeel.” Some of the sensations picked up by our mouths include pungency, astringency, and cooling. Pungency is commonly described as being like some strong, stinky French cheeses: a sharp, caustic quality. Astringency results when certain compounds literally bind to taste receptors and causes a drying, puckering reaction. Astringent foods include persimmon, some teas, and lower-quality pomegranate juices (the bark and pulp are astringent). Cooling is the easiest to understand: the chemical menthol, which occurs naturally in mint oils from plants such as peppermint, triggers the same nerve pathways as cold. Menthol is commonly used in chewing gum and mint candies.

Different cultures give different weights to some of the sensations listed here. Ayurvedic practices on the Indian subcontinent include food recommendations as part of their prescriptions, defining six types of taste: sweet, sour, salty, warm (like “hot” but not the same kind of kick), bitter, and astringent. No umami, but two additional variables: warm and astringent. Thai cooking also defines hot as a primary taste. For most European cuisines, these additional variables are of lesser importance, possibly due to genetic differences in taste receptors related to supertasting between Europeans and Asians.

Taste Aversions

Your reaction to a particular taste is based in part on your prior experiences with similar flavors. Have prior exposures been pleasant, or revolting? Taste aversions—a strong dislike for a food, but not one based on an innate biological preference—typically stem from prior bad experiences with food. Sometimes only a single exposure that results in foodborne illness (and usually an unpleasant night near the bathroom) is all that it takes for your brain to create the negative association.

The food that triggers the illness is correctly identified only part of the time. Typically, the blame is pinned on the most unfamiliar thing in a meal (this is known as sauce béarnaise syndrome). Sometimes the illness isn’t even food-related, but a negative association is still learned and becomes tied to the suspected culprit. This type of conditioned taste aversion is known as “the Garcia Effect.” As further proof that we’re at the mercy of our subconscious, consider this: even when we know we’ve misidentified the cause of an illness (“It couldn’t be Tim’s mayonnaise salad, because everyone else had it and they’re fine!”), an incorrectly associated food aversion will still stick.

One of the cleverest examinations of taste aversion was done by Carl Gustavson as a grad student stuck at the ABD (all but dissertation) point of his PhD. Reasoning that taste aversion could be artificially induced, he trained free-ranging coyotes to avoid sheep by leaving (nonlethally) poisoned chunks of lamb around for the coyotes to eat. They soon learned that the meat made them ill, and thus “learned” to avoid the sheep. I don’t recommend this method for kicking a junk food habit or keeping your coworkers from stealing unmarked food from the company fridge, as tempting as it might be.

7. Combinations of Tastes and Smells

Most dishes involve a combination of ingredients that contain at least two different primary tastes, because the combination brings balance and adds depth and complexity. Whether the dish is a French classic or a simple item of produce, the taste will be simple (“one note”) unless it’s paired with at least one other.

To alter the flavor of fresh fruit, you can sprinkle it with sugar (try this on strawberries) or salt (on grapefruit), wet it with lime juice (papaya, watermelon, peaches with honey), or combine it with an ingredient from another taste family (sweet watermelon and salty feta cheese). If you can find fresh papaya, try slicing it and sprinkling a bit of cayenne pepper and salt on top of the pieces for a salty/sweet/hot combination. Try replacing the papaya with other tropical fruits and the cayenne pepper with other hot items. Guava and chili pepper? Mango salad with jalapeños and cilantro? Strawberries and black pepper?


Black pepper has no capsaicin (the chemical that gives cayenne pepper and jalapeños their heat) but is still pungent due to another chemical, piperine.

For another twist, try mixing foods high in fats with hot ingredients. They should pair well with ingredients that contain capsaicin, because capsaicin is fat soluble. Experiment with avocado and sriracha sauce, commonly known as rooster sauce for the drawing on the bottle of one popular brand.


Rooster sauce (sriracha sauce—Thai hot sauce), it has been said, can improve the taste of any dorm food, but beware, it’s spicy. As one friend quipped to me, it’ll hit you like a freight train and then leave like a freight train.

For you visual thinkers, here’s a diagram of the combinations of the four basic flavors, with a few foods labeled for each combination. Ask yourself: what other foods have these combinations? When cooking, think about which tastes your dish emphasizes and in which direction you want it to go.

Many foods are combinations of three or more primary tastes. Ketchup, for example, is surprisingly complex, with tastes of umami (tomatoes), sourness (vinegar), sweetness (sugar), and saltiness (salt).

Taste combinations are equally important in drinks. The hallmark of a well-mixed cocktail is the balance between bitter (bitters) and sweet (sugar). Likewise, unless you’ve learned to enjoy bitterness, coffee and tea (slightly bitter) are commonly combined with sweeteners (milk, sugar, honey) or acidifiers (lemon juice, orange juice) to balance out the tastes.

In some cases, the combination of different primary tastes is achieved by serving two separate components together, pairing one dish with a second on the basis that the two will complement each other. In Indian food, for example, the salty sweetness of a yogurt lassi balances out the spicy hotness of curries. Consider the following combinations of primary flavors. With the exception of bitter/salty, every pair of primary tastes is a common combination.

Combination Single-ingredient example Combination example
Salty + sour Pickles Preserved lemon peel Salad dressings
Salty + sweet Seaweed (slightly sweet via mannitol) Watermelon and feta cheese

Banana with sharp cheddar cheese

Cantaloupe and prosciutto

Chocolate-covered pretzels
Sour + sweet Oranges Lemon juice and sugar (e.g., lemonade) Grilled corn with lime juice
Bitter + sour Cranberries Grapefruit (sour via citric acid; bitter via naringin) Negroni (cocktail with gin, vermouth, Campari)
Bitter + sweet Bitter parsley Granny Smith apples Bittersweet chocolate Coffee/tea with sugar/honey
Bitter + salty (N/A) Sautéed kale with salt Mustard greens with bacon

Watermelon and Feta Cheese Salad

If it’s summertime and you’re able to get good watermelon, try this simple salad to experience the contrast in flavors between the salt in feta cheese and the sweetness of watermelon.

In a bowl, toss to coat:

2 cups (300g) watermelon, cubed or scooped

½ cup (120g) feta cheese, cut into small pieces

¼ cup (40g) red onion, sliced super thin, soaked and drained

1 tablespoon (14g) olive oil (extra virgin because it imparts flavor)

½ teaspoon (3g) balsamic vinegar


Try using a teaspoon or two of lime juice, instead of vinegar, as the source of acidity. Alternatively, play with the tastes by adding black olives (salty), mint leaves (cooling), or red pepper flakes (hot), thinking about how each variation pushes the tastes in different directions.

There is some evidence that suggests our taste receptors can interact with the capsaicin in hot peppers (for you bio geeks, via TRPM5) and possibly menthol in mint (via TRPM8), but these interactions are not yet well understood in the science domain, let alone the culinary world.

  • Always soak onions that will be served raw. When cut, an enzyme (allinase) reacts with sulfoxides from the onion’s cells to produce sulfenic acid, which stabilizes into a sulfuric gas (syn-propanethial-S-oxide) that can react with water to produce sulfuric acid. This is why we cry when cutting onions: the sulfuric gas interacts with the water in our eyes (the lacrimal fluid) to generate sulfuric acid, which triggers our eyes to tear up to flush the sulfuric acid. Because sulfides are water soluble, soaking the cut onions removes most of the undesirable odors. You can soak them in water, or try vinegar to impart a bit of additional flavor. Also, cutting onions in a wet environment provides liquid for the sulfur compounds to dissolve into. Try pulling off the onion skin under water and then cutting with a wet blade on a rinsed-but-not-dried cutting board. Another method to reduce tearing is to chill the onion, because this makes the cell structures firmer and reduces the amount of intra-cellular fluid available for the allinases to react with.

  • If you’re lazy, skip cubing the watermelon and feta and instead serve a slice of watermelon alongside a slice of feta, and alternate back and forth. You can also make appetizers by skewering a cube of watermelon and a cube of feta with a toothpick.

Dicing a watermelon is easier and faster than using a melon baller. Using a knife, make a series of parallel slices in one direction, and then repeat for the other two axes.

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