Using both taste and memory recall creates a powerful teaching method for developing knowledge of flavors and textures.
By Chef David Pazmiño
“Sniff, sniff like a dog!” Those were the words uttered by my wine instructor Ann-Marie LeBorgne giving young culinarians advice about how to taste wine. I laughed hysterically when I first heard them (and to be quite honest, I still chuckle out loud when I hear them said). However, my journey into taste and flavor has come full circle to this simplistic, yet infinitely complex statement.
For pastry chefs, building and combining flavors and textures are paramount to a successful dish. What we all memorize in culinary school are the classic flavor combinations set forth much like mathematical formulas that have to be memorized (chocolate + raspberry, lemon + vanilla + almond, etc). Like any good student, I wanted to learn them all, not from a gustatory standpoint, but from a purely analytical one. I have notebooks full of ideas and flavor combinations that I wrote down thinking they would be important one day. I was convinced that if I knew all the right formulas then I could create the best dishes. I quickly learned that this was not always the case.
There are four primary categories of “mouthfeel” that all chefs utilize to some degree: taste sensation, flavor, temperature, and texture. Taste sensation is the chemosensory reaction between food and the taste receptors in the mouth. Flavor is the interaction of taste sensation along with the chemical response of flavor compounds released through mastication into the olfactory system. Texture is the physical quality of food experienced through chewing. And temperature (for most pastry chefs), means an interplay between hot, warm, and cold items.
Now, teaching these in the classroom can be a challenge. More on that momentarily. When I was working on a piece about Beef Soup several years ago for Cook’s Illustrated magazine, I was trying to layer in what was the hottest trend in taste sensation: umami. While foods high in glutamates have long been utilized in all cuisines, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that this taste sensation was making it big in the culinary circuit. Everyone was talking about it.
However, in further research on this article, I unearthed a deeper meaning for why umami has such strong reactions when people taste food- memory recollection. Neuroscientists believe that new taste memories are stored in the insular cortex (also called the taste cortex), whereas the physicality of the experience is stored in the hippocampus. More current research highlights that these two areas are needed when tasting food. In other words, when tasting food, you must recall on your memory of “like” foods. A new food experience is stored for later recollection. But, if it is a familiar food (or contains familiar parts) you are comparing them not only to past taste sensations and flavor profiles but to the physical experience where you had those foods. Umami foods are much like the “Islands of Personality” in the Pixar movie “Inside Out.” These glutamate rich foods “burn” strong memories in our brains that make us crave for more.
However, we also have to train our students to discern between different forms of perception that can throw off how we taste. Take for example an experiment that my colleague Chef Paige Haringa uses with first year students. She removes the labels from lemon/lime flavored seltzer water and colors one light green and the other light red. She presents the green one first and has the class taste it to discern the flavors. Most of the class put the flavors somewhere in the citrus universe. She then presents the red one, and well over 90 percent of the class always claim (and sometimes the arguments get heated) that the flavors are somewhere in the red berry universe. They are all alarmed when they find out they are both the same. While not scientific, it illustrates to the students the simple interplay between taste and memory recall.
As an instructor, the process of this testing represents a moment that teaches the teacher about teaching: let students gain the visceral food experiences. Marcel Proust’s famous essay on the madeleine comes from that intersection of tasting and memory recall. And how, as an instructor can I grant students the opportunity to explore new taste sensations critically in the pastry world? When I first started exploring this, I would lay out pint containers with all sorts of raw pastry ingredients: fruits, berries, nuts, chocolates, dairy, and extracts and have students combine them on spoons. While good, it was simply a real world example of my early mathematical view of pastry flavors. The jump from pure knowledge to critically thinking about the food was not there yet.
That brought me full circle back to Anne-Marie LeBorge and her famous words: “Sniff, sniff like a dog!” While this was done in a wine class, what could I do to get the students to look beyond formulaic taste experiences and to truly experience the food much like a metaphorical dog completely in the moment of smelling intensely? And the solution presented itself serendipitously. Burdened with lots of leftover Halloween candy, I brought it into class. When the students were eating the candy, they were talking about different flavors, what candy bars they liked the best, and arguing over the flavors and textures of similar candy bars.
So, I ran out to the store and began getting all sorts of candies and chocolates that highlight different flavors/tastes and tastes/textures. A Heath Bar is perfect for illustrating the combination of chocolate with a crunchy caramel whereas a Three Musketeer Bar helps them understand texturally what happens when air is trapped inside of a sugar matrix. Using Mounds and Almond Joy to get to the root of the advertising slogan “sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” has been a great discussion to have in class. The wonderful new Bark Bites have been great for combining all sorts of interesting flavors with chocolate. In the end, I had to let students enter into the discussion via a familiar and inviting format. Connecting the language and science of taste with non-threatening tastes helps them to not only develop their palate but the tools to manipulate those tastes in different ways. Using both taste and memory recall creates a powerful teaching method for developing young chefs.