Flavor Is Part Taste, Mostly Smell

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The function of herbs and spices is to add flavor to our foods. Flavor is a composite quality, a combination of sensations from the taste buds in our mouth and the odor receptors in the upper reaches of our nose. And these sensations are chemical in nature: we taste tastes and smell odors when our receptors are triggered by specific chemicals in foods. There are only a handful of different tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory or umami, while there are many thousands of different odors. It’s odor molecules that make an apple “taste” like an apple, not like a pear or radish. If our nose is blocked by a cold or pinching fingers, it’s hard to tell the difference between an apple and a pear. So most of what we experience as flavor is odor, or aroma. Herbs and spices heighten flavor by adding their characteristic aroma molecules. (The exceptions to this rule are the pungent spices and herbs, which stimulate and irritate nerves in the mouth.)