All about the 5 basic tastes
There are five basic tastes – salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. These flavors are said to be “one dimensional” because none of them can be recreated by blending the others. To call yourself Chef de Commis, you need to know all about applying the 5 basic tastes in the kitchen.
Five basic tastes
Salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami are said to be basic tastes because for each and every one of them there are specific receptor molecules within the cells situated in the taste buds. The taste buds, in turn, are situated on the tongue and oral cavity.
Being one dimensional and having assigned taste receptors makes them “tastes”, other savory sensations in the mouth are “flavors”.
Flavor and the nose
Other flavors that you detect when eating are in fact a ”collaboration” between your mouth and your nose. They are first and foremost picked up by olfactory receptors in the nose that are susceptible to a much wider array of aromas/flavors. That is why you should pull air into your mouth when tasting wine and other delicious things, to make it easier for the receptors in the nose.
No limit for sweetness and umami
The basic flavors have different qualities: For example, there is a distinct limit – although it varies from one individual to another – where the taste of salt, sour or bitter becomes so strong that it disgusts you and puts you off your food. There is no such clear limit for sweetness and umami.
Temperature and flavor
Heat and cold affect the taste experience. Temperate and warm food – but not so hot that it makes the taste buds go numb – is perceived as more flavorful. Cool or frozen food is less tasty. Sometimes the right temperature is of such importance that a flavor which is normally served warm becomes an unpleasant experience when served cold. Coffee is a good example. To many people cold coffee is undrinkable unless you add large amounts of sugar.
Investigating new flavors
There is ongoing research that might soon reveal that other tastes, for example “fat”, also have their own particular receptors in the taste buds. According to Chinese tradition “hot” and/or “spicy” is considered a basic taste.
All the time.
– Christophe Buchet, Restaurang Bleck, on how often a cook applies the basic tastes
More about the basic tastes:
Taste by percentage
For a person with average sensitivity to be able to detect a flavor, a certain concentration must be exceeded, a taste “threshold”. The weight percentage needed for detection is extremely small:
Source: Preparing Food by Östen Dahlgren
In other words it takes only 4 grams of sugar in one liter of water or 1.8 grams of salt in one liter of water for your taste buds to react. These minute levels are a reminder to be careful when adding (too much) sour lemon or bitter vermouth to a sauce.
An early warning system
Originally the basic tastes are nothing but a primitive ability to detect edible, inedible and poisonous substances in the search for food.
Salty and sweet – go for it
Salty and sweet are both tastes that signal that a substance is useful for the body and should be eaten. Sweetness means carbohydrates and energy and salt is necessary for the body’s ability to balance and retain water. Experiencing these two flavors as pure pleasure when fighting for survival works well, but not so well when we live in overabundance. The body doesn’t set limits and we can overindulge in both sugar and salt.
Sour and bitter – beware
Sour and bitter are ”acquired tastes”. Originally they were more about repulsion rather than gratification. Within a split second these flavors tell you that you might be about to eat something that is bad for you. Food that has gone bad often has a sour taste and poisons – not least in plants – often have a bitter flavor. Over time we have taught ourselves to enjoy these flavors – as long as we know what it is we are eating.
Umami for dear life
Umami is the taste that helps us find sources of protein. Proteins are essential for building muscles, for brain function and many other vital processes in the body.
Wine and the basic tastes
The basic taste do not constitute the whole picture, but they can take you a long way when choosing wine with your food. Read more here: