The Flavor Equation: Spotlight on Mouthfeel


Nik Sharma

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

The taste sensation begins in the mouth, where we begin ingesting our food in its initial physical form. In this week’s post about Mouthfeel, I first interview Mary Mori, Director of Technical Services at California Olive Ranch. In this role, she oversees the quality, regulatory compliance, and research departments and new product development for the California Olive Ranch and its sister brand, Lucini Italia. 

In the conversation below, we share our thoughts on how and why our ingredients behave, the effect these have on flavor, and how this has made us better cooks. Since we both have a food science background, we go into detail on some points. Still, I hope you enjoy it.

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NIK: The first chemistry lab I took in high school provided concrete evidence of how food and science were interconnected. As part of an experiment to understand pH, acids, and bases, my professor dipped a turmeric-coated filter paper into a soap solution. It quickly went from a bright orange-yellow to a deep red. She then took the same strip and dipped it into a tube of vinegar, and it instantly switched back to yellow. How did you discover your interest in food science, and what’s your first ‘memory’ related to taste or flavor?

MARY:  I’ve always had a passion for food and cooking from when I was very young.  But my ‘first’ memory of taste didn’t occur until college while taking sensory courses in my food science program at UC Davis. Courses focused on understanding ALL the senses – how they are intertwined, tasting with your retro-nasal, diving into good smells, bad smells, taste, flavor, and aroma.  But more importantly, I learned the ‘why’ behind it from a scientific point of view.  It fascinates me.  Smells now evoke a food memory – when I smell an Ascolano-varietal olive oil, I am reminded of carving pumpkins at Halloween.  My husband says I’ve become somewhat of a ‘smell snob,’ so it turns discussions around the dinner table quite entertaining.

NIK: In The Flavor Equation, I write about how an apple tastes wonderful by itself but dip it into almond butter; it will take on a whole new flavor profile. Dip another slice into caramel sauce, and it delivers a whole new eating experience. How is it the same with extra virgin olive oil?

MARY:   Like ranges in the taste of chocolate or coffee (bitter to sweet, mild to robust), there are ranges in the taste of olive oils.  And each will impact the taste of the ingredients you are cooking with, sometimes elevating a dish to an entirely new flavor profile.  Take a slice of peeled cucumber, and dip it into a mild and fruity oil. The cucumber will have a slight fruitiness, maybe tropical notes. Next, dip a slice of cucumber into a very pungent or robust olive oil.  Your mouth will come alive and will brighten with a peppery mouthfeel in the finish.   It is quite fun!  You can do the same by drizzling different olive oils over a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, burrata cheese, or plain yogurt.  The taste experience will be completely different for each oil.

What I love about food science is that fats and salts are flavor carriers.  They excite your taste buds to accentuate the aromas and flavors. So, in these experiments at home, you realize these cause the interactions in your mouth, so why not use a healthy fat such as olive oil while adding a little flavor?

NIK: I’m going to get a little science-geeky here, but as you know from chemistry class, we can appreciate the food texture in our mouth thanks to highly specialized cells called somatosensory receptors. Some of these, the mechanoreceptors, sense when food touches the mouth, the pressure the weight of a heavy liquid such as oil or a piece of food presses against our tongue. How does one taste olive oil?  What should cooks look for in selecting a high-quality oil?

MARY:  Professional olive oil tasters use small, blue glasses to hide the color of olive oil since color does not indicate quality.  We do not want to predispose our brains into thinking a greener oil will taste like a green apple, or a yellow oil will taste buttery.  Tasting olive oil is a multi-sensory experience, and we use what is called ‘The Four S’s” our friend Nancy Ash developed years ago – smell, swirl, sip, and swallow.  There are three characteristics we are evaluating and tasting an olive oil: fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.  The aroma can tell you a huge story about what varietals are in the oil, and this is initially where you will detect quality.

To taste, we start by pouring a small amount into a cup.  Cup the oil in one hand while covering with the other.  Swirl the cupped oil in your hand to warm it slightly (optimally around eighty degrees).  This will also release the aromas, or what we call volatiles.  Now, release your top hand and bring the cup to your nose.  What aromas do you smell?  Fresh cut grass, green banana, apples, a fruity aroma?  You should smell these positive attributes when tasting a quality extra virgin olive oil.  Hopefully, you will not smell stale walnuts, and crayons, which indicate this oil has turned rancid.  Next, take a small sip to coat the inside of your mouth, but do not swallow.  Sense the oil moving throughout your mouth.  Now, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and take a few small, quick breaths.  You are bringing the aromas and tastes to life using your retro-nasal.  Now swallow the oil, exhaling through your nose.  For a robust oil, you may experience a pepperiness or spicy sensation down your throat.  You may even cough – and that’s ok.  This sensation is a good thing!  We are looking for bitterness and pungency.  This ‘burning’ or tickling on your throat is the polyphenols or antioxidant properties of a high-quality extra virgin olive oil.

 What can consumers look for?  Retail shelves can be daunting, so I recommend the following:

1.    ‘Extra Virgin’ olive oil on the label – This is the highest grade of olive oil with the most health and nutritional benefits. We test nine different chemistry parameters to dictate that grade, but it also comes down to sensory tests, the taste.  We are looking for no defect, a pleasant taste with some bitterness and pungency.

2.    Dark glass bottle – This protects the oil from harmful light, which is one of the four main enemies of olive oil.

3.    A harvest or best-by date – As a fresh fruit juice, olive oil degrades over time so look for a date that shows when the olives were harvested.  The more recent, the fresher the oil.  Here in California, the northern hemisphere, we harvest our olives in the fall, typically October and November, as found in our 100% California oil collections.  Southern hemisphere olives are harvested in April and May.  So, in some oils, like our Destination Global Blends, you may see a two-year harvest date, a blend of both hemispheres, and since we bottle on demand, this allows for the freshest oil bottled throughout the year.

4.    Certification – Finally, I would recommend looking for a certification seal from an accredited third party, such as Applied Sensory.  This seal allows consumers to trust what is in the bottle is certified extra virgin, the highest quality with the most health benefits.

The Flavor Equation | Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books, Oct 2020)

NIK: In cooking, fats provide texture and taste, and, when used sparingly, they can also add nutrition. Fats are the richest sources of energy for our body’s cells. They help our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins. For example, vitamin A in carrots is more easily absorbed when those carrots are cooked in fat. In this way, fats can provide flavor and nourishment when used correctly.  Many live by the notion of ‘food as medicine.’  How does this apply to extra virgin olive oil?

MARY: Exactly. Extra virgin olive oil is a vehicle that helps our body absorb certain ingredients. We all know broccoli is good for you; high in fiber, vitamin C and K.  But if you were to cook broccoli in extra virgin olive oil, this would allow your body to absorb those nutrients more easily. And if you don’t include healthy fat in your diet, your body will not absorb these nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition.

Fats are one of three macronutrients essential to human life and comprise a large part of our bodies. Without fats, we wouldn’t be able to absorb vitamins A, D, E or K.  But not all fats are created equal. According to some studies, healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, can help you fight stress, improve mood swings, decrease mental fatigue, and help manage weight.  Extra virgin olive oil also contains phenols or antioxidants, reducing oxidative stress throughout your body.  The main antioxidants are oleocanthal and oleuropein, known for anti-inflammatory properties, like those found in Ibuprofen.  So, going back to ‘food as medicine’, I would rather cook with extra virgin olive oil than take the medication any time.

NIK: In the kitchen, we use fat in myriad ways. We use fat to build texture and mouthfeel characteristics such as “creamy” and “crispy.” We use fat to release both the flavor of fat-soluble substances, like the fiery hot capsaicin inside a chilli, as well as the color of fat-soluble pigments, like the bright red color of chilli pepper. We also use it to extract the aromatic essential oils in lemon peels. And, perhaps most commonly, we use fat to transfer heat to food while cooking. A popular question concerning olive oil is whether one can use it for deep-frying, and I think the answer is yes—and no. Folks in the Mediterranean region cook exclusively with olive oil and use it to fry their food. Determining the smoke point of olive oil can get a little confusing. What can you tell us about that?

MARY:  Olive oil is not just for salad dressings.  You can fry, sauté, roast, or even deep fry with extra virgin olive oil!  One of the most common myths I hear is that you can’t cook with olive oil, and that olive oil has a low smoke point, at which the oil begins to break down.  This is not always the case.  Rule of thumb, the fresher and higher quality extra virgin olive oil, the higher the smoke point. Our oils have been tested to 425, some even 450 degrees depending on the varietal and harvest date.  In your average home, frying vegetables generally occurs around 350 degrees, so using fresh extra virgin olive oil certainly exceeds this level.  Cook away!

Olive oil does not get better with age, so don’t save it for a special occasion. Use it daily.  Store bottles away from heat and light in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry, not next to the stovetop where it may be exposed to heat which degrades the oil quickly.  And use it within two years of the harvest date, or within ninety days of opening the bottle.  It is essentially a fresh fruit juice, and just like freshly squeezed orange juice, best not to consume it after its best-by date.

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, Mary.

Let’s now take a look at food textures. Some of us have preferences for certain food textures, and researchers, Jacqueline Beckley and Dr. Melissa Jeltema have been looking into this body of research. By studying food textures and people’s behavioral responses, they’ve sorted people into four categories: Chewers, Crunchers, Suckers, and Smooshers.

Chewers: prefer food that can be chewed for a long time e.g., gummy bears

Crunchers: prefer food that’s crunchy e.g., potato chips

Suckers: prefer food that dissolves slowly e.g., lollipops

Smooshers: prefer food that is creamy e.g., yogurt

You can imagine some of the potential implications of this knowledge for example, one can improve and custom design a much more pleasurable eating experience and modify behavior around our food choices. You can read about their research in their paper here and visit their site MouthBehavior for more information.

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The Flavor Equation | Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books, Oct 2020)

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