The Flavor Equation: Spotlight on Sound


Nik Sharma

Hey Friends, I’m a multi-award-winning and best-selling cookbook author and photographer.

Welcome to my second installment of our journey of flavor as we prepare for the publication date of The Flavor Equation (October 27, learn more here). Last week I introduced you to Emotion and Taste—and mentioned the promotion I’m running with some remarkable promotional partners over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll take a look at how you can access some of the great content I’ve put together for you, and participate in winning the great prize packet.

This week I’m going to focus on one of the other senses that make up the Flavor Equation: Sound.

At home, we rely on sound quite a bit in the kitchen; we look for certain sounds during eating and pay attention to certain sounds when we cook. Sounds can indicate quality. Freshness can be conveyed by the crunchy sound of a vegetable, like a stick of celery, as it breaks, the crisp sound of pappadums as they shatter, and the hollow sound that comes from tapping a perfectly ripe watermelon.

Certain sounds can act as cues during cooking and give us an indication of how to proceed. When preparing the tadka (a flavor-boosting spice concoction of spices infused in hot fat or oil), the crackling sound that arises when the mustard seeds sputter in the pan of hot oil indicates that the oil is hot enough to draw the flavors from the seeds; within a few seconds, that sound ceases, and it’s time to take the pan off the heat.

While researching this book, I also spoke with several people who were visually impaired to understand how they used sound in their cooking. The sound of warm or cool water as it dropped from the faucet into a pot, the sizzling sound an egg makes as soon as it hits a hot skillet, and the way in which a whisk starts to make less noise as an emulsion builds, are just some examples that I learned were ways to use sound as a marker for different stages of cooking.

Sounds can also affect the perception of flavor. Some restaurants might play a curated list of music to enhance the dinner experience; others take might it a step further. Restaurants like the famed Alinea in Chicago play with sounds in various ways, take for instance, the way in which frozen soup pearls made from English peas are dropped into a bowl, that sound coupled with the ambiance of a very quiet room, creates a very dramatic effect for the diner.

The sound of spoken words can also influence our perception of taste. For example, in one study, separate soundtracks were played, one with the word “bitter” and the other with the word “sweet,” while people ate honeycomb candy, a bittersweet treat prepared by caramelizing sugar. The candy is eaten while hearing the word “bitter” was perceived as significantly more bitter than the one eaten while hear­ing the “sweet” soundtrack.

 I listen to music when I cook or write recipes, and if you haven’t seen it already, I put together a Spotify list of the music I listen to when I’m cooking that you can find here. You can access it directly – though you’ll need a Spotify account to listen to all the songs – and I hope you’ll enjoy it. It’s a way to experience all the elements of The Flavor Equation over the next few weeks.

The next time you’re eating or cooking, pay attention to the sounds around you and the sounds the ingredients and food makes, and take note. Are these sounds amplify­ing a sensation, or are they acting as indicators that help you cook?

I hope you enjoy listening to my music, and let me know what sounds you love to hear in the kitchen, whether the crackling of the oil heating or the beat of the music you are playing in the background.

One more thing for reading this far: Here are two bonus recipes from my book [Sumac and Saffron Refresher and Gingerbread Cake with Date Bourbon Sauce that I’m sharing to give you something to do as you wait for The Flavor Equation. There are also 8 bonus recipes that you can access when you pre-order my book and share the information here

The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma (Oct 2020)

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Order your copy of the best-selling James Beard nominated cookbook, The Flavor Equation.