Harold McGee on Taste Buds, Nasal Receptors & the Complex Meatiness of Spanish Ham

Harold McGee Makes a Point with a Meat Map

This Saturday we stopped into to see the legendary food chemistry writer Harold McGee — the author of the seminal On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and the Curious Cook — at the Alchemy of Taste & Smell: Flavor vs. Aroma series at Astor Center. His talk was meant to give a basic background, a chemistry 101, if you will, for the lectures, tastings and dinners that often pushed the boundaries of smell and taste thanks to scientific tricks. (Like: “This cocktail smells like habanero chile but doesn’t taste hot,” or “this panna cotta tastes like pine, but contains no needles!”)

He made a few simple points about smell and taste that struck home: primarily that they are both about chemicals, because both tastes and smells literally are chemicals. A few we liked in particular: a) Everyone tastes and smells differently, for the pure fact that the receptors that take in compounds that have flavor or aroma in our mouths and noses are different. Some of us have more, some of us less and of certain kinds. (Sorry, suckers.) Therefore, if Sheila thinks the tagliatelle has too much salt and Bobby think it’s perfect, neither are wrong. b) That we have about 50 taste receptors in our mouths and 400-450 in our noses, meaning all that sniffing wine geeks do before they take a drink is not, as you may have expected, totally worthless. c) Fruits are a mixture of a complex pattern of hundreds of aromas while common spices have a lot of just one thing. d) That big molecules don’t have flavor, but smaller ones do, and to release the flavor you have to break them down into smaller pieces, such as by fermentation or cooking.

Actually the map above illustrates the latter point. It’s a chart used by producers of Spanish ham, or jamon, to determine when time, humidity, temperature and oxidation of fat and the action of enzymes breaking down protein molecules in the meat create chemical compounds that approximate the same flavor compounds that browning the surface of meat with heat does, which is called the Maillard reaction, as readers of On Food and Cooking know. Pretty cool, huh?

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