The Nature of Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Flavor is mainly a combination of two different sensations, taste and smell. Taste is perceived on the tongue, and comes in five different sensations: saltiness, sweetness, sourness, savoriness, bitterness. The molecules that we taste—salt, sugars, sour acids, savory amino acids, bitter alkaloids—are all easily soluble in water. (The astringent sensation caused by tea and red wine is a form of touch, and the “hot” pungency of mustard is a form of pain. They are not true tastes, but we also perceive them on the tongue and their causes are also water-soluble molecules.) Smell is perceived in the upper nasal region, and comes in thousands of different aromas that we usually describe by the foods they remind us of, fruity or flowery or spicy or herbaceous or meaty. The molecules that we smell are more soluble in fat than in water, and tend to escape from water into the air, where our smell detectors can sniff them.