It often amazes us how few cooks are taught how to taste. Anyone with a passion for wine learns how to evaluate the contents of a glass. We first examine the appearance of a wine, drawing different conclusions from how the wine moves in the glass, its viscosity, and the range of hues as you tilt the glass. We can see the effects of age and storage and are able to draw limited conclusions based on appearance alone.
We do this almost automatically with food. There is that first moment of pleasure when we see what we're about to eat. We can usually tell at a glance if the food is fresh, if it's cooked properly, if the sight of it makes our mouth water. A good cook revels in the visual appeal of ingredients. It's how we first select items in the market and why we take the time to artfully arrange components on a plate. But unless we're eating in a restaurant, how often do we examine the food on our plates, taking a few seconds to appreciate the care that went into the selection, preparation and presentation? There can be a lot of love in a dish of scrambled eggs, no matter how simple it may appear. Our habit of eating quickly helps to eliminate a good percentage of our ability to enjoy a meal.
A good wine taster will first sniff the glass before swirling and then again afterwards. It's a small extra step and can reward you by unearthing a corked wine before it ever touches your lips. You will also benefit from the illustration of how the aroma changes as you aerate the wine, a concept that rarely passes through the swinging doors, although it should. We tend to give lip service to aroma in the kitchen without truly evaluating its effects on a dish unless we are making a specific effort to manipulate it. The truth is a serving of soup that is ladled straight from the pot and one that is aerated before serving taste different. Texture and aroma are affected. We tend to think more in terms of the way the liquid flows across the palate but we should never forget that without a sense of smell there is no ability to taste.
Only after a wine has been examined visually and scent-ually is it tasted. We are taught to aerate the the liquid in our mouths to help release the maximum flavor and aroma available. We "chew" the wine, letting it roll across our tongues to fully experience the texture, whether it be thin and crisp or silky and velvet, and the entire experience coalesces into (hopefully) something wonderful.
Texture is so important in food. It's why two small bowls of cereal and milk will taste better than one large one. This is because half of the experience is the contrasts and once the cereal becomes uniformly soggy and the sugars and flavors leach out into the milk every bite begins to taste like exactly like the one before. It's why the experience of breaking through the crisp crust of a piece of perfectly fried chicken, sinking our teeth into the tender, chewy meat and feeling our mouths flood with the juicy chicken goodness is such a rarefied experience. Dishes are designed specifically so that each bite is slightly different in order to keep the diner involved in the experience. We are an easily jaded population and after a few bites it's easy to disengage and consume without tasting, no matter how good the food is. That's one of the reasons why chefs love small portions, they can pack a big impact into a small package and the diner is finished before they've lost interest in the dish. Always leave them wanting more.
The last step in a wine tasting is evaluating the finish. We analyze the way the flavors and aroma cling to our palate long after the actual liquid has vanished. We take a few seconds after swallowing (or spitting) to breathe in and out, allowing the finishing flavors to bloom against the roof of our mouths. Subtleties can be detected and harsh edges smoothed. Great wines linger. Although we may not consciously taste the following sips in the same way as the first, the groundwork is there. We know what kind of wine we are drinking and each sip is influenced by that knowledge.
The same is true for food. Flavors and aromas are "sticky" and they don't disappear the second that the food leaves our mouths. Being aware of the cycle reminds us not to rush through the meal. Slowing things down is never a bad thing. Taking the time to think about that first bite and truly savor it with all our senses will change the way we experience the entire dish. It isn't necessary to train a laser focus on every bite. A meal is about more than just the food we eat. But immersing ourselves in that first bite and experiencing it from the initial appearance and aroma through the finish enhances our pleasure without taking away from the overall dining experience. There's still plenty of time to enjoy your company and your setting. We just think it's important to take a few seconds to truly appreciate your food and drink.
While we constantly taste all of our food to check flavor and seasonings, how often do you take the time to really experience it?