Cooking, science


Pertaining to the senses: smell, touch, taste…

It’s not a word you’ll see in general reading, but I was reading a paper on the cyanide content of fruit seeds, and they were discussing what those seeds bring to the table as they are used in cooking and making liqueurs. The organoleptic qualities of the seeds of plums, cherries, or pears bring a certain color and astringency to the products they are in: they affect the senses of the eyes, and the taste. Most likely, the smell as well. It may reassure you to note that the seeds in their intact state do no leach enough cyanide or other substances to make the liqueurs toxic, or baked goods. Still, you wouldn’t want to eat many plum pits.

I was thinking about this in conjunction with my cooking recently. As the week wears on and I am more tired, I really don’t cook much. Or if I do, it’s dead simple and I’m not worried with the organoleptics of the dishes. But when I am on top of my game and striving for more than just food-is-fuel, I’m very aware of what it looks like, smells like, and tastes like. Because that’s important. I grew up with Dad talking about how the one thing he couldn’t eat was SOS – I’m not certain what that acronym is supposed to be, because to me it was explained as “sh&^ on a shingle” and as Dad said, it looked the same coming up as it did on the plate. For a young airman, that’s scarring.

We make associations with food. Cancer patients undergoing chemo are told to come up with ‘scapegoat’ foods as they force themselves to eat even though they don’t want to eat, and their tastebuds are registering flavors that no one else could perceive. Compassionate healthcare workers realized that patients would eat their favorites, like ice cream, and later be unable to tolerate those foods because of the associations with pain and bad flavors, so they recommended that a food which wasn’t as well-liked by the patient be eaten, so later it could be sacrificed with no ill feelings ( Which is of course exactly what a scapegoat is. An unloved animal thrust away from the bosom of it’s caregivers to be sacrificed. But I digress.

One of my grandfathers, brought up on a dairy farm, to this day will eat no dairy that looks like dairy. He simply cannot force it down without his stomach rebelling. Another of my grandfathers (I am blessed to have three) refused to eat corn. Two of my daughters will not touch tomatoes in any form (no, not even pizza). For whatever reason, most of us have food we don’t care for – mine is peanut butter, although I will eat it, and actually enjoy it in Thai foods. The First Reader is not fond of fish – most any seafood, actually. Which considering he once wanted to be a marine biologist is actually funny.

Food that looks good will appeal to more than food that looks like, well, SOS. Or some of the other concoctions I’ve come up with over the years. It might not actually affect the taste, but it certainly seems that way. A beautiful plate arouses the appetite. Food that smells good starts the saliva flowing, and literally drooling over your food does actually affect how well it is digested. Good cooks have been aware of these effects long before they knew the science behind organoleptics of the components they called ingredients and spices. Salt is perhaps one of the most important – even in the Bible, we find references to how dreadful food without salt is. But for a long while it was mistakenly blamed for ailments, and taken out of diets, to the detriment of the patient’s appetite. That is slowly – very slowly! – coming back around to a more common-sense approach (low-salt diet in healthy patients can lead to insulin resistance . Food that has lost it’s savor is hardly worth eating. But salt alone is not where the flavor comes in. Understanding your ingredients and their organoleptic properties will make your food better, tastier, and perhaps even healthier.

Campfire cooking
Preparing food makes a difference in how you feel about eating it.

15 thoughts on “Organoleptic

  1. SOS – Creamed, chipped beef. And yes, it looks like it wouldn’t be modified by digestion. Had to make it for a Home Ec. class. Never had it since, for good reason.

    1. Oh, yes, “…on toast” which is the ‘shingle’.
      The SOS experience might have contributed to my aversion to anything gravy.
      That “biscuits and gravy” often looks like something “that went halfway through a dog” doesn’t help change my opinion any.

      1. I should probably ask the First Reader if that’s part of why he won’t put meat in gravy. I did once challenge myself to photograph biscuits and gravy and make it look good – which I think I did – but that’s not easy!

        1. Curious, I looked up biscuits and gravy, and that looks yummy, but I suppose the way that I used to see blutwurst served in East Berlin cafeterias – a slightly chunky dark mud – is the similar to the ick Orvan describes (well, I was told it was blutwurst; my parents liked the stew, which they said was like dinuguan, which I also don’t like.)

          Barring food allergies, I think the only food I have textural issues with off the top of my head are chickpeas, and maybe great big soft fatty chunks in meat that’s tough at the same time. Smellwise, asocena, or grilled dog meat; I’m told cat smells bad too when being cooked (I don’t have the ‘but it’s a pet animal’ aversion to it, I don’t like the smell). Tastewise, blutwurst or similar foods that have blood, or liver in them, and food that tastes similar to liver.

  2. I had trouble eating chicken for a while after we’d spent a couple of long days butchering a hundred of them (Cedar may remember helping our neighbors butcher their meat birds when she was small — she got the fun job of pulling the guts out of the body cavity because her smaller hand fit in there better).

    1. Oh, I *vividly* remember that. I don’t have any issues eating chicken, though. I do have the occasional recoil when I smell something that reminds me, though, like the Miami River in summer, which you can smell from the Hamilton campus. Smells *just* like fresh chicken guts.

      1. Yuck. Do you have any idea of the cause? The things that come to my mind are effluvia from upstream, agricultural runoff, or the rotting of organic material that washed ashore.

        1. Any of the above? This was in Hamilton, after all. The city has a certain reputation. I know I’ve spent time next to the river elsewhere, mostly upstream, and didn’t smell that.

  3. I still have my life long aversion to mayonnaise and I am not sure that it is the taste, or the texture, or a forgotten incident of being made to eat something I didn’t want to eat.
    The same with sour cream and buttermilk.

  4. I guess I’m weird. Many of the cooking shows have said, “First you eat with your eyes”. Based on my personal experience, I would have said they were wrong, but I suppose if it’s a well-known effect, then it’s just me.

    Unless it closely resembles something I have a serious aversion to (I’d have a problem tucking into a chocolate souffle that looked like a cowpie, maybe), I simply don’t care how food looks. I love chipped beef on toast, though we often used biscuits instead, but no one in my family will eat it now, so I never get a chance. And on several occasions, I have seen dishes that looked wonderful, only to find that in no way could I choke down the food on them, so I am suspicious of anything i have not eaten before.

  5. I cannot abide the though of eating sushi and the smell of traditional greens cooking has forever put me off eating them. However sos as prepared by my Paw Paw (an Army cook) and my Uncle (a Marine) was tasty. They made basically a ground beef gravy over toast, if it was over a biscuit it was somc (manhole cover).

  6. But I like SoS…. possibly because the chefs at my university made it delicious. Perhaps the only mass cooking I’ve seen that was good as mom’s own.

Comments are closed.