Flavor is one measure of food’s goodness. We want what we put in our mouths to sing and zing and make us happy. We sit down at the dinner table to experience both subtlety and boldness in our food, complex flavors that intrigue us, simple good tastes that remind us of moms and grandmas, flavor that plays on our tongues and fills our mouths and adds gusto to our lives. Herbs, spices, and other seasonings satisfy our senses with full, rich flavor while we go about the business of keeping ourselves healthy and energetic.
Over a lifetime, we catalog tastes and build up an inventory of likes and dislikes, favorite foods, tastes we seek out and those we avoid. Why do people react differently to the same taste? We’ve all seen one child spit out a food that another gobbles eagerly. Some people are passionate about cilantro while others wouldn’t serve it to a stray dog.
Detecting and reacting to flavor is a complex process that involves more than simply touching food to taste buds. We know flavor through taste, certainly, and also aroma, texture, and temperature. In fact, food can be a total sensory experience, involving even sight (it’s hard to imagine enjoying ugly food) and sound (just ask a potato-chip manufacturer). We also bring to the table our prejudices, habits, past experiences, and associations.
Open your mouth
Taste buds are barrel-shaped clusters of cells connected to sensory nerves that transmit taste to the brain’s thalamus and then on to an area in the cerebral cortex. Taste buds were discovered by a seventeenth-century physician—an Italian, wouldn’t you know it?—Marcello Malpighi, the founder of microscopic anatomy, who with his microscope was also the first to see red blood cells and other important little body parts.
We have on the order of 10,000 taste buds, each one lasting not much longer than a week before it is shed and regenerated. Taste buds are selective, detecting one or more of only four different flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. A map of the mouth would show that the taste buds sensitive to sweet tastes are concentrated on the tip of the tongue; sour, along the sides; bitter, at the back of the tongue and along the back of the roof of the mouth; and salt, distributed fairly evenly over the surface of the tongue. Licking an ice cream cone with the tip of your tongue makes it seem all the sweeter.
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter: these and combinations of these are the only flavors that a taste bud recognizes. Every other flavor that we know—the bite of a chile pepper, the cool menthol of a mint, the heady pineyness of rosemary, the pungency of garlic, or the warm spiciness of cinnamon, to name only a few—is perceived mainly through its aroma. The sense of taste is so intimately tied to the sense of smell as to be indistinguishable from it. Food doesn’t taste as good when you have a stuffed-up nose because you aren’t getting its full fragrance and all that that contributes to the flavor.
Taste buds can detect flavor only in a substance that is dissolved (saliva helps here); similarly, the nerve endings in the nose that transmit aromas to the brain perceive an aroma only when its molecules are volatilizing in the air—as when an herb is warmed by the sun or the stovetop. Because the nose is much more sensitive than taste buds, a fragrance doesn’t have to be as concentrated as a taste to be detectable. A whiff of onion frying or coffee brewing from another room can make us salivate.
Our taste buds are most discerning with foods that are at or slightly below body temperature; extremes, particularly cold, can dull taste sensitivities. Some medical conditions can affect the ability to taste or cause cravings for certain foods, and some people are born with the inability to taste certain flavors.
Most of us, however, whatever our genetic disposition, can improve our perceptions of flavor. Psychologists have demonstrated that reactions to flavors are largely learned behaviors and can be reshaped by conditioning. We can acquire new tastes and develop a more sophisticated sense of taste.
He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not, cannot be otherwise.
—Henry David Thoreau
We on The Herb Companion staff decided to test taste buds. We felt that many people may recognize a familiar taste but not be able to name the herb that produced it if they can’t see it. So we lined up colleagues here at Interweave Press as guinea pigs, blindfolded them, fed them herb-laced mashed potatoes, and played Name That Herb. We wanted to know their favorites and whether they could distinguish the fresh herb from a dried version. We also wanted to have fun.
Just for kicks, we also asked all our blind guinea pigs to describe the flavor they were tasting. If you’ve ever tried to do this, then you know how difficult a task that can be. A scientist can isolate the chemicals that contribute to a flavor and describe it in those terms, but the average person doesn’t have the right words. Most of us would rather eat than talk about eating.
The best way to taste-test an herb is to mix it into a bland food such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, or butter spread on bread. We chose mashed potatoes, mixing about 2 tablespoons of fresh herbs or 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried herbs into each 11/2 cups—larger quantities of herbs than you would normally use in cooking.
We tested five common favorites: chives, basil, Greek oregano, sage, and parsley. To obtain them, we went to the best sources we could find: our gardens. In a couple of cases in which we didn’t have a dried version, we got it from a local food co-op that sells good dried herbs in bulk.
We tested sixteen men and women before we ran out of time and mashed potatoes; they included some people who are fine cooks with a lot of herb savvy and others who aren’t. Although we found that mashed potatoes were a good medium for conveying herbal flavor, let’s face it—some herbs go better with mashed potatoes than others, which may have skewed our results a bit. We tested our volunteers two or three at a time and gave them different samples so that they wouldn’t be able to cue off each other for their answers.
While we found some surprising differences in individual perceptions, our overall results confirmed what we’ve learned about these herbs over the years: Everybody loves chives. Too much sage is overpowering and off-putting. Oregano is as good dried as it is fresh. Dried basil, chives, and parsley are worthless.
Here’s a breakdown by herb of our absolutely unscientific taste test.
ß Chives were the most identifiable herb we tested, with thirteen out of sixteen people recognizing the herb or at least the genus Allium. This was also the favorite of our group, and there was little disagreement that it should be eaten fresh, not dried. Comments on the fresh herb: “The flavor is hearty, alive, and exciting.” “It’s hot-sweet, clean, fresh, very pleasant.” “I can’t name it, but I sure do like it. It has almost a sweetness to it.” The dried was described as flavorless, even “dirty-tasting”.
ß Sweet basil was the runner-up as both favorite and most recognizable. Twelve people named it, and thirteen strongly favored the fresh over the dried herb; the latter was perceived as being very different, flatter, and unpleasant, whereas the fresh basil was sweet, spicy, peppery, minty, even fruity. Comments on fresh basil: “Complex, sweet, and delicious.” “I like it. It has almost a citrus aftertaste.” “Aromatic and fresh.”
ß Greek oregano was identified by half the panel, although its taste was familiar and comforting even to those who couldn’t name the herb. It was the only herb that most tasters (ten) preferred dried; five chose fresh, and one saw no difference. Comments: “This makes me think Italian.” “Robust, earthy, kind of deep and heavy and complex.” The words used most often to describe it were “pungent”, “peppery”, and “lingering”.
ß Sage stumped more people than any other herb we tested. Only five people identified it, and the panel split down the middle on which version they preferred, fresh or dried. Quite a few tasters found this flavor overwhelming and preferred dried because it wasn’t as strong. Comments: “The fresh is more complex, more resinous, while the dried is a simpler flavor.” “I didn’t like either one. This has an oily, bitter taste.” “Very aromatic, earthy, almost woodsy.” Five people tasted lemony or citrus overtones, two described it as bitter, and two said it tasted like dirt.
ß Parsley was recognized by nine of our tasters, and ten strongly preferred it fresh. Quite a few could detect no flavor at all in the dried herb. Comments: “The fresh has a tanginess, a sharpness, bite.” “A green taste.” “It’s barely there, whatever it is.” “Pleasant, light, refreshing.” “It sure goes well with mashed potatoes.”
Nearly all the participants enjoyed the challenge of our blind mashed-potato party, but one woman confessed later, “I panicked as soon as you put the blindfold on and couldn’t think of a single herb name.”
Kathleen Halloran is editor of The Herb Companion and chief of the mashed-potato squad. She tends an herb garden in Laporte, Colorado.