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Building Flavor: How Taste (and flavor) Works

Have you even looked into how we taste? One of my favorite things I learned back in college was sensory analysis and pretty much how to fuck with peoples' minds through food. And let me tell you it is so much fun. To create great food you need to understand how taste and flavor work and how we can manipulate things to play with the mind and change flavor even more than just the specific ingredients used in a dish. First let's talk more in depth on flavor and how we taste food and why particular foods taste different. When we look at flavor there are three main elements; taste, scent, and trigeminal effect. That last one is the weird one no one talks much about and I will get into it later but first let's start with taste.

When we eat something we place it in our mouth and use our sense of taste to get some flavor. When we taste, there are only 5 things we can detect; sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami. Umami is the newest accepted taste (few still fight it) but it is a sense of earthiness mostly associated with mushrooms and fermented foods. This isn't a complete list since there is still ongoing research into other concepts of taste like one called kokumi, or the taste of richness in foods like cheese, but for now they are not considered a taste. Back to the first five, these tastes are the base of flavor and using them we can already start to mess with people's minds because of the way we evolved to use them for our own safety. We need sugar and salt to survive so we evolved to enjoy sweet and salty flavors. That also adds to a huge problem in terms of addiction to sweet and salty things because too much of a good thing can be bad and too much sugar or salt can lead to various health conditions. Bitter and sour on the other hand, were developed as a defense on what we shouldn't eat. Most natural dangers like poisons and toxins have bitter or sour flavors so we evolved to avoid those flavors because it was a sign something can harm us.

In modern times we don't need to worry so much about the flavor indicating being good or bad because we have knowledge that tells us what we should and shouldn't eat, but this can also make things like eating healthy difficult because we avoid these flavors, specifically bitter. When I talk to people about healthy eating I often times get the "oh I don't like the taste of that because it's bitter" and yes bitter can mean danger but not all bitter things are bad. Since our brains are wired to avoid bitter flavors it takes a lot of super nutritious foods out of our preferences but with time and patients you can alter your mind to be more open to these tastes. Many people hate dark chocolate for it's bitter flavor but once you can get past it and better hone into the sweetness in the chocolate you can enjoy the extra health benefits from cacao itself. Milk chocolate does have some of those benefits but in lower amounts and with milk solids/fats as well. These milk fats help to reduce the bitterness but in turn reduce the health benefits.

When it comes to flavor, the five tastes are really simple and don't tell us too much about the food we eat. The real flavor and what makes everything we eat so distinct is actually from our sense of smell and the thousands of chemical compounds that exist in various foods. This is where diverse flavors come into play. If you read my previous article about building flavor (linked below!) I talked a little bit about these chemicals, but this is a huge door when you start to look further into it. Not only does everything have multiple chemicals that make it distinct but the way we consume it can also alter how we perceive it.

When we think about how we smell food, most typically assume we smell through our nose and that's it. And although that is the first part of flavor we observe, especially since our nose is near our mouth so we smell as we eat, a lot of people don't think deeply about anatomy and the other way these chemicals can reach the nasal sensory cells. When a chef looks at a flavor profile they don't just look at the initial smell (this is what we call orthonasal, or through the nose) but we also have to think about when we chew and swallow where these chemicals can also go up the back of the throat and into the nasal cavity where the sensory cells are. This is called retronasal olfaction, or smell through the mouth. You may think this is something new but you may have already talked about it when you talk about things on the "back of the pallet". These are the chemicals that are more pronounced after the initial bite and come further back in the senses. This is actually believed to be a key into why we love bread so much. The pockets of air in bread release more flavor chemicals as you chew and swallow where they head through the back of the throat into the nose for more flavor.

By using various methods of textures and ingredients we can alter the way we taste a food by what we force to come through the orthonasal passage of flavor and what comes later in the retronasal. Think about using a spritz of oil or juice or even smoking a dish to cover other flavor chemicals so that they are hidden until after consumption. Some chefs will even burn various herbs at the table to play with these senses and manipulate the flavor of a dish without even adding to the actual plate!

The last part of flavor, and one that I find most interesting, is called trigeminal effects. Rather than a taste or smell, this is a third sense that adds to flavor, the feel of flavor. Trigeminal effects are the feelings you can get from eating specific foods. Think along the lines of the heat from spicy foods or the cooling when you eat mint. This sensation isn't much of a taste or smell but a sensation that fills your mouth and can affect the other flavors you get in a dish. Have you ever had water after something minty and felt the weird tingle and cooling happening? Using trigeminal effects a chef can further play with the overall flavor of a dish and mess with the minds of the person eating it.

When it comes to developing flavor there are so many factors to look at and to make sure they all play with each other in ways to both compliment and contradict. As I continue to write about flavor and ways to build and create amazing dishes, make sure to look at these concepts and of course the thousands of ingredients that can be used to manipulated the way we eat food. The limits do not exist when we expand our field of knowledge and resources on what we can do to create the best in the kitchen.


For Part 1!!

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