Aroma: Variety and Complexity

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
The subject of aroma is both daunting and endlessly fascinating! Daunting because it involves many hundreds of different chemicals and sensations for which we don’t have a good everyday vocabulary; fascinating because it helps us perceive more, and find more to enjoy, in the most familiar foods. There are two basic facts to keep in mind when thinking about the aroma of any food. First, the distinctive aromas of particular foods are created by specific volatile chemicals that are characteristic of those foods. And second, nearly all food aromas are composites of many different volatile molecules. In the case of vegetables, herbs, and spices, the number may be a dozen or two, while fruits typically emit several hundred volatile molecules. Usually just a handful create the dominant element of an aroma, while the others supply background, supporting, enriching notes. This combination of specificity and complexity helps explain why we find echoes of one food in another, or find that two foods go well together. Some affinities result when the foods happen to share some of the same aroma molecules.