The Cheat's Guide To Being A Foodie has been written for food lovers who want to understand more about the science of flavour. It's concise, no-nonsense and packed with experiments you can do at home. And thanks to your support, I'd like to offer it to you here as a free gift. Let's jump in!
Do you ever get in those conversations with a food “expert” and feel intimidated by their apparent knowledge? Maybe you feel like you can’t contribute because you’re not an “expert” and you’re worried you’ll say something silly.
Honestly, this is really common and it’s not your fault. The food industry (and I’m also including coffee, beer and wine) have made a fortune out of intimidating people into feeling insecure about their ability to “taste properly”. Do you know why? It makes it easy to manipulate them into paying more.
For example, if deep down you don’t think you have the ability to tell a “good” wine from a “bad” wine, then you’re going to use the price of the wine as an indicator of quality. It’s an industry trick – increase the price of the same bottle of wine and you sell more of it, not less. This goes against common sense until you realise the manipulation that is happening behind the scenes.
I see this over and over again when I’m doing tastings at markets. People say to me, “oh, I’m not much of an expert”. Or they’ll make a comment on the coffee like “it’s really smooth” and then glance at me for confirmation as if they’re worried they have said something wrong. Until I spent time studying and experimenting with flavour, I felt the same way.
I wrote this guide because I want you to enjoy my products without feeling insecure about whether it is worth you investing in quality.
The guide is broken into 7 sections and by the end of it, you’re going to know more than 99.9% of the population and will be confident in any conversation about food and drink that comes your way.
A word of warning, the first section gets pretty technical, but it is well worth reading. It holds the key to defending yourself from self-appointed experts who enjoy belittling other people. After that one, the lessons get pretty light and fun.
It's early in the morning, and the sun is still asleep. You hit the alarm clock to shut it up (perhaps a little too hard) and stumble into the kitchen.
There's only one thing on your mind: Coffee.
Must. Get. Coffee.
As it's brewing, the scent fills the room, entering your nose and the smell makes everything ok. And when you take your first sip, the taste of this liquid gold combines with the smell to make a wonderfully complex flavour sensation.
But your senses are not done yet. The feel of the hot mug. The sight of the glossy black fluid (or perhaps swirling latte art). And for the first time this morning you notice the sound of the kookaburras waking up with an excited chuckle.
The taste in your mouth, combines with the smell in your nose to create flavour, and your other 3 senses kick in to complete the experience that we call "savour". And where does this all come together? In the brain.
If you've had the above experience, then I can relate to it. But my morning coffee experience is different to yours. Because we have different brains, and more specifically different genes.
I've done hundreds of genetic taste tests at farmers markets. I'm weird like that. I'll tell you how it's done.
You take a strip of paper that has a chemical called PTC on it. Give it to half a dozen people to taste. Some people have a gene (TAS2R38, if you must know) that means they can taste it. Some people don’t. Typically those who can taste it say it tastes bitter.
Generally, those who can taste it think they are superior to those who can't and give them a hard time about it. (Unfairly, but it is fun to watch).
TAS2R38 is just one of many, many differences we all have that affect our experience. The exact same inputs - coffee, wine, cheese or whatever, will provide a different experience for each of us.
I want to be clear - it's not like the experience might be different.
It's definitely, categorically different.
We haven't even got to how prior history, upbringing and culture impact each of us differently. Crazy as it might seem, some people don't even like coffee.
And this fact is what is going to protect you from those uninformed, uneducated swine who take pleasure in making you feel bad if you don't taste what you "should" be tasting.
And here's another thing...
As well as what taste receptors you have, the density of your taste buds has a large impact on your experience of food and drink. The number of taste buds on your tongue has been correlated with the intensity at which you taste most things (which seems obvious when you think about it).
If you have lots of taste buds then sweet is sweeter, salt is saltier and bitter is bitterer. The density of taste buds in the population is spread out like a bell curve. A small percentage of people have lots of taste buds (“supertasters”), a small number have not so many (“tolerant tasters”), and most people fall somewhere in between (“regular tasters”).
Here are the instructions to find out where on the spectrum you fall, but be warned - it gets a bit messy so take care.
1. Buy some reinforcement labels and blue food colouring.
2. Pour a bit of food colouring into a cup.
3. Dry your tongue with a paper towel.
4. Use a cotton swab to swab the food colouring onto your tongue - let it saturate your tongue and dry (keep your tongue sticking out).
5. Apply a reinforcement ring to your blue tongue, and get someone to take a photo of your tongue.
6. Zoom in on the photo and count the number of round taste buds inside the inner circle.
And the results are...
0 - 15 = tolerant taster
16 - 39 = regular taster
40 or more = supertaster
The term "supertaster" has been made popular because it makes for great click-bait on internet articles. I've used it here so that when you hear people talking about it, this is what they mean. But the truth is, if you are a tolerant taster then rejoice - there are lots of foods that you can enjoy which others find too intense. A thick, black, Turkish coffee might be one of them.
The number of tastebuds you have just shows another one of the many ways we are different.
There's nothing wrong with winemakers or coffee roasters providing tasting notes, but you have to remember that it is based on their experience. I decided that Roasted On won't provide these taste descriptions because I think it 'primes' people to taste something a certain way. Which, in my opinion, makes it harder for them to enjoy their unique, personal experience of the coffee.
I suggest that the next time someone tells you that a wine has hints of toast or a coffee has green apple notes, ignore them and focus on what you taste. Your palate is king.
If you've got this far - well done. It's the most technical part of this guide. The rest of it is still informative, but a bit lighter on the brain.
Regardless of whether you are a tolerant taster, regular taster or supertaster, you probably like the taste of sweet things. You may not like intensely sweet foods and may not consider yourself as someone with a sweet tooth, but it’s rare for someone to taste sugar and say that it is unpalatable.
The enjoyment of sweet food harps back to hunter-gatherer times where fruit was a no-brainer for a source of calories. You didn’t need to hunt it, cook it, mill it or ferment it. If you found a piece of fruit, then you’d found a good source of food that immediately fed your hunger.
People so universally love the sweet taste that making foods sweeter is an easy, though lazy, way to make them more palatable. Many people would rather eat overly sweet foods than explore other tastes that come out when sweetness levels are lowered.
However, this is changing. For example, dark chocolate is winning market share from milk chocolate which tempers its sweetness with a bold bitter counterpoint. In fact, sweet and bitter make for a great taste pairing, as do sweet and sour - think Asian cuisine. Even Coke - without its high level of acid would taste one dimensional.
Common aromas associated with sweetness are vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. If you’re trying to pull back on the amount of sugar you’re eating, consider how these may help you to trick your brain into thinking the food is sweeter than it really is.
This experiment is for the nerdy chocolate lovers:
It is common that after tasting the very dark chocolate, the other chocolates will get higher sweetness scores the second time around.
This is a fast way of demonstrating how we can ‘reset’ our perception of sweetness.
To explore some of the subtleties of coffee, it is helpful to resist adding sugar to it. If you are someone who is looking to remove sugar or milk from coffee, pay attention to what you have your coffee with.
For example, drinking black coffee while eating toast and jam will highlight the bitterness of the coffee. If you switch from jam to marmalade your perception of the coffee will change, in the same way as your perception of the chocolates vary depending on the order that you eat them.
There is an experiment later in the guide that returns to this idea. When pairing any food and drink, first get the balance on the 5 basic tastes aligned and then worry about trying to pair the aromas.
The difference between describing a coffee as "sour" or "acidic" is marketing.
I mean, who wants to drink a "sour" coffee? Yuck! But a coffee with "bright and lively acidity"? Yes please!
They're the same. Acids cause us to taste sourness. There is nothing more stupid than debating that they are different (yet so many people do). You may as well debate the difference between salt and salty (actually, bad example, I'll explain later in the guide).
Here's the subtlety worth understanding: Acidity levels are measured on the pH scale. However, there are different types of acids, and the relationship between how acidic food is and how sour it tastes is not a simple one.
If you can be bothered, with your nose pinched shut (to remove smell from influencing your experience), if you taste pH 3.0 lemon water (which contains citric acid) versus pH 3.0 vinegar water (which contains acetic acid) versus pH 3.0 lactic acid water (the type of acid in cheese) each will have a different level and quality of sourness.
Want to cheat like I did? Follow the instructions above but just with lemon juice and vinegar, and don't fuss about measuring the pH levels. You'll still get the idea.
So it is just as accurate to describe something as having a bright and lively sourness. It just doesn't sound as good, right?
On the other end of the pH scale is alkalinity, which is an indication of a substance’s ability to buffer an acid or decrease acidity (which equates to an increase in pH).
When you brew a cup of thick, rich black coffee, one of the basic tastes is often a slight acidity. Many coffee lovers seek this acidity. For those who don’t like it, darker roasts and different beans can be the answer, or you can balance the sourness with milk.
Black coffee falls within the acidic range of the pH scale, with a measurement around 5.0. Milk is higher at around 6.0 to 7.0, and so when you add milk, the resulting coffee will have a higher pH level.
Other things are going on as well - milk adds sugar (lactose) increasing sweetness and fat which changes the mouthfeel.
If by adding milk to coffee you change its pH level from 5.0 to 6.0 the change of 1 may seem small, but because the pH scale is exponential, you have made the coffee 10 times less acidic. The end beverage is much creamier and ten times less sour.
In small amounts, bitter things like caffeine and alcohol can have delightful effects. When cooking with bitter ingredients, you want just enough bitterness to give the flavour complexity but not so much you kill it.
Many people (especially children) avoid bitter tastes - the aversion once again dates back to caveman times, when poisonous plants often tasted bitter. Where sweetness signals that food contains calories, bitterness signals that it may contain poison.
Humans have only one or two taste receptors for sweet, but dozens for bitter. Many things in food taste bitter.
Unlike the sour taste, which comes only from acids, bitter compounds include amino acids, peptides, esters, lactone, phenols, polyphenols, flavonoids, terpenes, methylxanthines (caffeine), sulfamides (saccharin), and salts.
This is why we need many different receptors - to recognise all bitter substances and avoid them at harmful levels.
About 10% of the bitterness in coffee comes from caffeine. The rest comes from phenolic acids, formed during the roasting process as well as the temperature, time and method you use to brew the coffee.
The bitterness in tea and chocolate also come mainly from phenolic compounds rather than caffeine.
As we discovered earlier in this guide, it’s well documented that your genes influence whether or not a food tastes bitter to you.
Bitter and sour are often confused, perhaps because many sour foods are also bitter. Grapefruit and cranberry are two great examples. Both have an assertively sour taste with some strong bitter notes, especially in the pith of the grapefruit and the skin of the cranberry.
Instead of trying to avoid bitter, remember that it can add complexity and make food and drink more interesting. Our palates will readily accept sweet food, but sweetness paired with the right amount of bitterness can make for a delicious experience.
If you want to reduce the bitterness of your morning coffee, then one of the easiest ways is to brew it for a shorter time and using water with a lower temperature.
The Aeropress is an excellent method of making coffee that minimises bitterness. Cold brew and cold drip produce the lowest levels of bitterness.
The taste of salt is salty... kind of. Pure salt is the compound called sodium chloride, which is what we know as table salt. The sodium part makes salt taste salty.
Salt + Chicken Soup = ?
The real magic of salt is that it heightens other existing flavours. Chicken soup will taste more chicken-y with salt than without. Adding the right amount of salt to chicken soup doesn’t produce salty chicken soup, it creates a more intense chicken soup flavour.
A good chef will not just throw salt on food to make it taste good, but instead, add the right amount to extract the most flavour from the dish. Rather than taste the salt, you want to taste the ingredients.
This is why many cake recipes will call for salt, not because you want a cake that tastes salty, but to enhance the other flavours.
Salt also increases the volatiles being released, it nudges those delicious aromatic compounds out of the cells of the food so you can smell them.
And given smell makes up such a big part of what we experience as flavour, the salt is enhancing flavour via both taste and smell.
Salt tastes sweet, sometimes. There is an effect called mutual suppression that can neatly be experienced via a grapefruit.
Many English speakers haven’t grown up with the word “umami”, so we don’t use it in conversation like we do the other basic tastes such as sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Other words used to try to capture the taste of umami are; savoury, meaty, brothy and full.
Consider the difference between sprinkling salt onto sushi or dipping it into soy sauce. Both are salty, but the fermented soy adds a depth of flavour that complements the mild freshness of the fish. Soy sauce delivers umami that salt just can’t.
Then consider the difference between a young brie and an aged parmesan. The parmesan has a much fuller, rounded taste compared to the brie thanks to parmesan being packed with umami.
How it works
When the large protein molecules in food are broken down into smaller molecules, they become more flavourful and develop umami. This breakdown is usually a result of cooking, fermenting, drying or aging.
So when cheese ages the smaller protein molecules offer up more flavour. This means we don’t need as much aged cheese to get the same flavour - we can shave it on salads and still get a big impact.
Pickled ginger + sushi = yum
Like all flavours, umami also needs balance. If you’ve experienced a sauce that has been reduced down so much you find yourself wanting to squeeze a lemon on it, then it may be that the umami is too high. Acid - such as slices of pickled ginger at a sushi bar - is the best thing to tame excess umami.
So far we’ve covered the 5 basic tastes - sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami, which are the components of flavour that come from your taste buds. But volatiles are where the action is.
A chemical is volatile if it can be transported to the olfactory system in the upper part of the nose. Scientists estimate what we ‘taste’ is 75 - 95% what we smell - your flavour world without smell would contain only five things.
We smell in two ways - orthonasal (sniffing) and retronasal olfaction. Retronasal happens when the volatiles travel into your nose via the back of your mouth (e.g. while chewing). It’s more influential on flavour than orthonasal olfaction because many volatiles aren’t released until food is chewed and mixed with saliva (think of a potato chip).
Heat from your mouth can also help release aromas - think of chocolate melting in your mouth. Chocolate has nowhere near the aroma outside your mouth as it does once it melts in your mouth. Bread warmed up in the oven smells far better than at room temperature - the chemicals have become more volatile thanks to the heat.
A few months of the year farmers can grow heirloom tomatoes outside of greenhouses, pick them when they’re ripe and sell them not far from the farm. These big juicy tomatoes are bursting with flavour and actually taste like a tomato. But most produce in Australia is shipped from where it was grown by truck (or plane), so it is available everywhere, all the time. It’s picked before it’s ripe.
One of the volatiles that ripe tomatoes have are green top notes that smell a lot like cut grass. Tomatoes sold on the vine are taking advantage of this fact - when you pick them up at the shop and smell them, they smell fantastic. But you’re not smelling the tomato, you’re smelling the vine.
When people talk about “top notes” they are talking about the aromas you are most strongly detecting in food - they are lightweight and evaporate quickly. This explains why freshly squeezed orange juice savours better than pasteurised - and why espresso should be drunk as soon as possible after the shot is pulled.
Pour half a cup of a nectar-like juice (e.g. pear/peach/mango) into a glass, cover with glad wrap and set aside for an hour.
Push the short end of a straw through the plastic but not into the juice - you are going to sample the air.
Using the straw, breath in that air with your mouth. This bypasses orthonasal smelling, so you can experience pure retronasal smelling with the aromas entering your nose via the back of your throat.
Next, remove the glad wrap and smell the juice as you normally would (orthonasal smelling).
Finally taste the juice so you experience both orthonasal, retronasal and taste. Consider how each gives a different experience of drinking a cup of juice!
Congratulations - you now know more about flavour than 99.9% of the population. Well done! So the question now is, what are you going to do about it?
I wrote this guide to help people trust that their own experience of food and drink is just as valid as the next persons. Regardless of if they are a professional wine judge or a connoisseur of cheese sandwiches.
Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you can hold your own in an earnest debate on the merits of Granny Smith apples versus Red Delicious.
Most of all, I hope you have the confidence to trust your palate.