“Have you ever wondered why beer and salted peanuts go so well together?” is how Bob Holmes opens his book Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense. “Scientists know the answer: Salty tastes inhibit bitter ones, so the nuts tame the beer’s bite and allow some of its other flavors to step forward.
It’s more than a fun fact. Knowing that a pinch of salt can save a bitter batch of broccoli or punch up your morning grapefruit is a step toward more intentional cooking and enjoyable eating. That’s the mission of Flavor, which takes an academic look at the subtleties of taste to expand our understanding of food.
“Most home cooks approach flavor haphazardly,” Holmes writes. “We bumble along pretty well, and occasionally stumble on something that works beautifully. But think how much more we could accomplish with a better understanding of what we’re doing.”
Through interviews with anthropologists, psychologists, taste researchers, and food engineers, Holmes explains ways we can wield science to achieve gustatory perfection—and he uncovers a lot of other surprising variables that affect our taste, including language and vision. For instance, did you know that cake seems sweeter when served on a white plate? Or that the color of food itself can seem to alter its taste?
“One study, for example, showed that a food’s color can profoundly affect our perception of the food’s sweetness, but not its saltiness,” Holmes writes. “Presumably that’s because in the natural world, color signals whether a fruit is ripe and sweet or underripe and sour.”
With first-person anecdotes and plain language, Holmes crafts a science-filled narrative that’s easy to digest, even when he’s digging into the role olfaction plays in taste, the myths behind MSG, or how evolution shaped our current experience of flavor.
“You’d think such a vital sensory system—especially one that’s relatively simple, with only a handful of basic tastes—would be completely understood by now,” he writes. “Huge gaps remain in our understanding of how taste works.”
Perhaps, but Holmes endeavors to clear things up. From intro to epilogue, Flavor will surprise you and inspire you to reexamine every detail of your next meal.