Chef's Blog

April 12, 2018

Is Aroma More Important than Flavor?

from Chef George Sideras

One of my roles at Minor’s is to help chefs think and taste like food scientists, with information about sensory techniques and sensory evaluation. Food science and culinary can— and should— be more closely linked. The function of aroma goes to right to the heart of that.

Taste and flavor are not the same thing, and in fact 60-80% of any flavor experience is actually aroma. Chefs have known this empirically for a long time, but now there’s strong science behind it.

Taste happens on the tongue, and consists of the five specific dimensions of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. But when smell, which traditionally happens outside of the head (orthonasal), combines with taste, you get the entire perception of flavor, which is a retronasal response.

Aroma is what allows up to perceive the flavor of foods and beverages. The dimensions of taste start to volatize in your mouth, releasing aromas that go straight to the brain. The brain is actually hardwired for aroma, which is why we experience such compelling sense memories around odors, like the smell of mother’s pot roast when you were a child.

Hot food delivers more aroma than cold food; think of the moment when the waiter pulls the cover off the dinner plate or your fork breaks through a pastry crust on a chicken pot pie. French gastronomes of the previous century loved ortolans, tiny songbirds that could be eaten in a bite or two. Diners would drape their heads with linen cloths in a move said to hide their greedy shame from God, but which was really intended to capture the aroma of the lavishly prepared ortolans.

Foods need to be chewed or worked for a bit in the mouth to get the most aroma and flavor; the same is true of liquids— especially wine. Ever watch a wine taster slosh a sip around for a while? Aroma is a precursor for hormone functions like salivation, satiation and even hunger. It requires a little time to savor food, not gulp it down. Cancer patients or people in nursing homes who can’t smell well or need to eat soft foods often don’t get enough nourishment because they simply aren’t hungry. This is one of the reasons why the science of flavor and aroma is so important.

But it’s also important to Chefs who want to delight their customers with flavorful food. As complex as the physiological mechanisms behind flavor are, the way to take advantage of them are easy and effective. You just need to control the aroma orthonasally and retronasally.

You do this by enrobing food in a wet rub before cooking. This creates an external aroma that the customer perceives the minute the food hits the table. The seasonings also volatize immediately in the mouth for the full impact of flavor. It’s a double whammy.

When I cook chicken on the grill, I first rub it with a slurry made from Minor’s Farm to Label™ Gluten Free Chicken Base made with Natural Ingredients, a little olive oil and pepper, and some seasonings, like Herb de Provence Flavor Concentrate or a combination of garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger and other spices. I put it in a zip-top bag and smear the chicken around a bit with the paste. It can then be cooked right away or held for a while; it makes no difference.

Unlike marination, which mainly serves to tenderize by denaturizing the proteins in food, this wet rub coats the food more efficiently— so it’s less expensive. It’s healthier because the chicken base contains less sodium than salt does. And it delivers a big umami pump when you grill the meat, releasing aroma on the plate and flavor in the mouth.

It’s a great way for operations that are short on skilled labor to create high impact with minimal cost and time.

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