Tasty T-Day Science: food science 911 and the mystery of flavour balancing

Happy Thanksgiving, DFE fans! I hope you’ve been enjoying the Tasty T-Day Science series we’ve been putting out. But while we’re discussing science, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that science is based on the need to solve mysteries. And there is no shortage of mysteries to solve, including some that are remarkably homely and common.

For example: the strange case of flavour balancing in food. When I talk about “balancing,” I mean in this case the notion that certain flavours have a negating or counter-balancing effect on other flavours. Salt and bitter, hot and acid. While these flavours may not seem like natural opposites, their effect on food often is.

Here’s what I mean: take some cheap coffee and make a pot of brew. Bitter, right? Now dump that out and make a new pot. This time, add a couple sprinkles of kosher salt to the top of the coffee grounds and taste the result. No salt, but also no bitter, right? That’s the counter-acting principle. And it works the other way, as well: add a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters to your heavily-salted canned soup to turn sodium hell into an actually palatable meal.

Acid and heat work in this same way. If you make a chili or some other preparation that requires heat – and if you go a little overboard – add a couple of dashes of vinegar to the pot and let it mellow for a while. Heat will be cut down considerably!

Why exactly these tastes counteract one another remains a scientific mystery. I’ve done lots of searching over the course of the week, and while I’ve found lots of individual theories, none quite explains the phenomenon and all agree that more research is needed.

The most common theory and probably the most plausible is that your taste buds can get distracted by flavours. In the same way that scratching an itch causes pain and distracts you from the itching, salt might just crowd out bitter or vice versa. This at least has some basis in prior scientific knowledge, but there is a lot of dispute about the veracity of that theory.

Regardless of the truth behind the effect, the fact remains that many Thanksgiving disasters can be averted with the power of the flavour-balancing principle. Now if only we could figure out a way to un-cook over-cooked turkey…