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A Brief (and Biased) History of Flavor

From The Art of Flavor: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food

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Advanced civilizations were possible because there was a surplus of food, so not everyone had to farm all the time. Advanced civilizations are where cooking for survival changes to cuisine — cooking with awareness, for a purpose other than just to make food edible. —Linda Civitello, Cuisine and Culture

It’s clear that people have been eating well — and cooking well — for centuries. The evidence isn’t only in old cookbooks, which are a fabulous paper trail of their own. It’s also in novels, art, poetry, and song. But what exactly people think defines good food — and good cooking — isn’t easy to tease out, because it’s always been bound up in broader cultural notions about what is familiar and what is exotic, what is healthful or harmful, what goes together and what doesn’t. And of course, it shifts over time. No cuisine is static. Innovations in technology, transportation, and agriculture, currents of trade and migration and urbanization — all of these factors shift cultural preferences over time.

It was fascinating for us to dive into the history of flavor, and to look for reflections of our own notions about it across time and space. One through‑line is the sense that the art of cooking is an expression — and reflection — of a civilization itself. As Brillat‑Savarin puts it, with typical pithiness, “Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.” The Dao De Jing asserts that “governing the country is in principle like cooking a small fish,” meaning that great care and attention are in both cases essential. Culinary skills were a fine qualification for ministerial appointment. In her essay “The Quest for Perfect Balance: Taste and Gastronomy in Imperial China,” historian Joanna Waley‑Cohen recounts the legend of the rise of one Yi Yin from cook to trusted minister in China’s Shang dynasty — a fast track from gastronomy to governance if ever there was one:

His culinary skills brought him to the king’s attention, and in his first audience he transformed the greatest philosophical issues of governance into a menu of foods to be coveted. Among other things, Yi Yin likened the whole world to a kitchen in which one prepares food, and proper government to good cooking. Just as in cooking it was necessary to understand flavours to blend them successfully; so in governing it was necessary to grasp people’s sufferings and aspirations in order to satisfy their needs.

The cook has always been part levelheaded administrator. As Michael A. Symons entreats us in A History of Cooks and Cooking:

Forget for a moment their mouth‑watering creations and think of cooks as rationing resources. Think of them counting out one artichoke for each guest. Think of them balancing the sweet and sour. Think of them ensuring fat, but not too much, and fibre, but not too much... Cooks use their eyes, ears, touch, and, especially, nose, teeth and tongue, to share. And the most balanced results become the most satisfying, those we agree are the most pleasing. We like fairness. Not just through the dishes, cooks conjure harmonious blends out of the social, cultural and physical worlds.

But what, beyond notions of basic evenhandedness, has determined our views on what goes best with what? Of course, before it was possible to ship food easily from one place to another, what was cooked together was largely dictated by what grew together in a given region. In the south of France there was lamb and wild thyme; in Thailand, seafood, lemongrass, and galangal; and in Mexico, corn, beans, and squash. Over time, these combinations became traditional; when people were transplanted to other countries, as travelers and immigrants, they reached for the combinations they’d grown up with, introducing their favorite ingredients even as they adapted to new ones. But cuisines are more than rote combinations. They gradually evolved overarching principles that attempted to impose structure on how to bring ingredients together in harmony.

CAPAs in our own time, ideas about what constitutes good food have always been entwined with rules governing the health of the body. For example, Taoist theories dictated that foods should achieve a balance between yin and yang. Yin is cool, dark, moist, and associated with the feminine; hence yin foods —green vegetables and creatures that live in the water — are considered cooling. Yang is hot, bright, dry, and associated with the masculine, and yang foods — fatty and spicy and piping‑hot foods, for example — are considered heating.

Similarly, the medieval practice of balancing humors — which had its roots in philosophical and medical concepts from ancient Greece — held that the universe was made up of four elements: fire (hot and dry), water (cold and wet), earth (cold and dry), and air (hot and wet). The human body had four related fluids or humors: choler or yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood. The aim was to eat so as to balance the individual’s humors, achieving an optimal state of warm and moist. Disease was understood as the result of humoral imbalance and was to be avoided (or treated) by adjusting one’s diet, as described by medieval food scholar Ken Albala in Eating Right in the Renaissance: “Cloves would bring into balance the excessively phlegmatic person... Conversely, a sanguine youth should abstain from wine because it would only increase his natural imbalance toward heat and moisture.”

As Paul Freedman explains in Out of the East, the ideas that animated such principles of “healthful” eating were not like “the American practice of having a diet soft drink to offset a cheeseburger. Rather it is a notion of harmony and complementarity, linking foods and ingredients that belong together for reasons of both taste and balance, or even that medical balance is what lies behind the achievement of beautiful gastronomic effects.” In fact, under the trappings of healthfulness, deliciousness often seems to be the real point. Albala underscores this:

The key to understanding the qualities in the humoral system is flavor. Behind nearly every single qualitative evaluation is ultimately a taste test, and flavor is the most consistent criterion for categorizing foods... Everything can be placed into one of seven basic flavor categories: sweet, bitter, acute, salty, acidic, styptic, and unctuous. Most would add an eighth as well: insipid. The Hellenists also added “acrid” as the hottest of flavors, associated with pepper and mustard.

Mandy had done a deep dive into the history of perfume for her previous books on perfumery, and had been entranced by the sense of stepping back into epochs when the lines between enterprises — cooking, medicine, worship, adornment — were not drawn as they are now. The very notion of cooking as a discrete activity is a modern invention. In the medieval world, cooking, perfumery, and medicine were entwined. Little distinction was made between end uses of ingredients. Edward Schafer makes this point in The Golden Peaches of Samarkand:

Just as no hard and fast line can be drawn between cosmetics and drugs in the civilization of the medieval Far East, so any attempt to discriminate precisely between foods and drugs, or between condiments and perfumes, would lead to frustrated misrepresentation of the true role of edibles in T’ang culture... spices and perfumes had their parts to play in religion as well as in medicine, and also in daily life, to preserve food, to repel unpleasant insects, to purify noxious airs, to clean the body and beautify the skin, to evoke love in an indifferent beloved, to improve one’s social status, and in many other ways.

Medieval apothecaries, cooks, and perfumers alike used musk and ambergris and civet and rosewater along with precious spices to bring both exquisite fragrance and extraordinary flavors to their concoctions. Their recipes were jumbled together in volumes that were sometimes called Books of Secrets. Yet there is no doubt that the sensual orchestration of ingredients was a driving force in the composition of such concoctions from their earliest manifestations — and the systems that emerged in many cultures for categorizing them reflected this. In cooking during the Arab Em‑ pire, as Bernard Rosenberger notes in the essay “Arab Cuisine and Its Contribution to European Culture,” fragrances were “the noblest of all food additives.” Those derived from animals headed the list, chiefly musk and ambergris, although their costliness meant that only the very rich could afford them. Also prized, and more readily pro‑ cured, were rosewater, saffron, cinnamon, galangal, clove, mastic, nutmeg, cardamom, and mace.

We were delighted to discover an unapologetic sensualist in Ghiyath Shashi, the sultan of Mandu (near present‑day Mandav, India). An eccentric with some very modern interests and attitudes, he is the original author of The Sultan’s Book of Delights, a collection of recipes for cooking and perfumes that dates to the late fifteenth century. A lone copy of it survives, in the British Library, but versions of many of the recipes it contains are still in use today. Upon assuming the sultanate in 1469, Ghiyath Shashi immediately announced that, having supported his father, Muhmud Shah, for thirty‑four years, he decided not to extend his kingdom or spend his time on the cares of state. He left that to his son, Nasir Shah, while he gave himself up to seeking pleasure, a pursuit that he hoped his subjects would share.

The recipes — to which Nasir Shah later added — reflect a culture that literally feasted on aromatics. Many concoctions are recommended both for perfume and for flavoring — instructions to “eat this or rub it on the body, or put it in food” are not uncommon. Readers are exhorted to “rub rosewater and musk onto their private parts and in their mouths and to put sandalwood on their throats. Essence of musk is good for the mouth, [also] put aloes perfume into the mouth. Rub rosewater on the forehead, sniff flowers, scatter spikenard on the head, rub saffron on the face, use scented flower oils of every kind, make scented powder with the sweet scent of flowers, polish the two front teeth, rub perfume into the handkerchief, wash the whole body with rosewater.” Other tips: “Fill pockets with musk and sew them up. Rub scented paste into every belt and into the armpits.” For fresh breath, “hold a white China rose in one side of the mouth and turmeric leaves in the other side.”

The recipes are a marvel of specificity and creativity, reflecting a deep understanding of ingredients and the nuances that distinguish them from one another, all fueled by a sensual delight in creating delectable concoctions. They are careful to indicate when to use dried ginger and when fresh, or when to roast cumin with salt. One recipe calls for both sweet orange peel and sour orange leaves, and another recommends putting dough that has been fried in ghee “amongst roses so it acquires a sweet smell.” Not a page passes without mention of musk or ambergris, and often a recipe specifies white ambergris or black. Methods for stuffing limes and oranges capitalize on the essential oils that are concentrated in the peels of citrus fruits. The attention to the details that make flavor exquisite extends to the serving suggestions, such as the recommendation to present a lime sherbet seasoned with pepper in glasses that have been scented with aloeswood.

It was this kind of sensual, sophisticated engagement with a range of alluring ingredients that made us sit up and take notice. We felt like we were discovering kindred spirits who thought about flavor the way we do. From an earlier period of the history of what is now modern‑day India had emerged the concept of rasa. Reading about it was like finding a fellow traveler, or a long‑lost lover. We quickly recognized that the concept comes close to the way we think and talk about flavor — centuries ago and a world away. The concept refers both to the essence of an ingredient, its purest and finest part, and to the pleasure one takes in experiencing that flavor. Moreover, rasa conceives of both the flavor of a dish and the process that achieves it as irreducible. “Rather than thinking of flavoring as an enhancing additive,” writes Susan L. Schwartz in Rasa: Performing the Divine in India, Indian traditions view flavor as an essential, defining quality of food. “One does not add herbs and spices as a separate and intriguing supplement but as a part of the process of creation.”

Rasa acknowledges the entirely new flavor that can emerge from a combination of ingredients: “The standard analogy is that of a blend of a basic food, such as yoghurt, with a number of spices; the resulting substance has a unique flavor (rasa) which is not identical with any of the single elements comprising it,” writes Donna M. Wulff in “Religion in a New Mode: The Convergence of the Aesthetic and the Religious in Medieval India.” Rasa is about creating flavor in a way that is integral to a dish, not an afterthought or adornment — it puts flavor at the center of cooking and eating.

Cultures with this kind of thoughtful and intricate engagement with flavor seem to use the widest array of ingredients, and appear particularly alert to the possibilities presented by the most intensely aromatic of them — the herbs and spices and flowers and citruses. The carefully orchestrated use of spices is a game‑changer in the mastery of flavor, and Indian cooking is rightly celebrated for that.

You may be surprised to learn that for a long time even Western cuisine was more adventurous than its reputation would lead you to believe. Herbs, of course, grow locally the world over and so were always at hand for use in food and medicine alike, and some spices, such as anise, fennel, and coriander, were widely available as well. Yet we tend to forget how early the more exotic spices became available in the West, and how popular they were. With their penetrating aromas that could survive long voy‑ ages, they mounted a multipronged attack on the senses that few could resist. They could be worn on the body as perfumes, season food, or fragrance your home as in‑ cense. Part of their appeal, too, was their exotic origins. They came from fabled, faraway lands and carried the whiff of all that was beautiful and rare. As Paul Freed‑ man notes in Out of the East, spices appeared in 90 percent of the recipes in medieval English cookbooks and in 75 percent of the recipes in European cookbooks from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries — a proportion that covers both sweet and savory dishes (a distinction that, for that matter, did not yet cleanly exist).

Sugar was considered a spice in its own right — a way of making medicinal concoctions with bland or unpleasant tastes more palatable. It was also valued for its ability to influence texture, whether as a syrup or boiled to candy. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the increased availability of sugar from the colonies had paved the way for the dichotomy of dishes into separate categories of sweet and savory, and sugar began to be limited to what we now think of as “sweets,” with a higher concentration of sugar used in fewer kinds of dishes. Sugar also played a decisive role in the popularity of coffee, chocolate, and tea — inherently bitter substances that were initially introduced into Europe as medicines and didn’t become widely popular in the West until they were sweetened with sugar.

So what happened? How did Western cooking — the cooking of the English‑speaking world in particular — lose its polymorphous sense of flavor and become known for a missionary‑position‑like blandness and monotony? There were many factors, and many doctoral dissertations and colloquia have been devoted to them. We are not food historians, but a few developments are worth pointing out. First, the tastes of the northern European nobility — those wealthy enough to afford more than a subsistence diet — began to change, with France leading the way. The appearance of François Pierre, Sieur de La Varenne’s seminal Le cuisinier françois in 1651 marked a major turning point in the history of flavor in the West. La Varenne was unapologetically uninterested in promoting healthful eating. He championed balance and subtlety in flavor. Culinary trends veered away from spices and toward indigenous foods such as truffles, olives, and herbs. Recipes were based on reduced meat bouillons, eggs, and cream, along with the highly adaptable flour‑and‑butter roux. Sauces that had been thin and heavily spiced turned thick, elegant, and savory. Vegetables became more popular. Subtlety trumped strong flavors. Slowly this new kind of cooking spread across Europe and, via the restaurant, trickled down to the middle class, and the new Euro‑minimalism be‑ came codified into books and recipes and menus.

Obviously, the spices that had once been so highly prized by European cooks did not suddenly taste different. But taste is not only about flavor. In fact, the word taste is derived from the Latin word taxare: to touch, to value, to judge. Its culinary meaning is secondary, overlaid. More broadly, taste came to indicate a preference, and eventually a value judgment. Advances in medicine meant that spices were no longer considered essential to good health. And thanks to the advent of mass cultivation and production, burgeoning sea trade, and constant colonialism (with its attendant atrocities), spices had become inexpensive. What were once luxury items were now available to every‑ one. As spices lost their status as a symbol of luxury and wealth, the taste of the upper classes for them declined as well.

Some spices — chiefly pepper, saffron, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg — continued to be used, but in smaller amounts and in concert with, or in deference to, herbs. Cinnamon was largely relegated to sweets. “French dictionaries of the period began to distinguish between medicinal spices and aromatic spices, and instead of indicating the dietetic utility of the latter, they warned against immoderate use in cooking,” observes the French historian Jean‑Louis Flandrin in the essay “From Dietetics to Gastronomy: The Liberation of the Gourmet.” By the end of the eighteenth century, spices in European cooking were no longer in good taste.

On the one hand, cuisine was theoretically free of allegiance to any dictates other than what was pleasurable, and anyone could judge it on those grounds, an attitude best expressed by the eighteenth‑century statesman the Abbé Dubos, as Carolyn Korsmeyer quotes him in Making Sense of Taste:

Does one reason in order to know if a ragout is good or if it is bad, and does it ever occur to anyone, after having posed the geometrical principles of flavor and defined the qualities of each ingredient which makes up the composition of foods, to discuss the proportions of their mixture, in order to decide if the ragout is good? One never does this. We have in us a sense designed in order to know if the chef has followed the rules of his art. One tastes the ragout, and without knowing the rules, one knows if it is good.

On the other hand, what this new democratic‑seeming attitude appeared to result in was allegiance to a pretty narrow idea as to what constituted good food. French cooking, and the values it represented, was exported around the world, a culinary colonialism that often disrupted native cuisines. It quickly embedded itself in the United States, and to this day many Westerners’ favorite cuisine remains that of the era of classical French cooking, still celebrated in a dwindling number of jacket‑and‑tie restaurants in major European and American cities.

In the meantime, out of their jackets and ties, Westerners were consuming an ever‑ growing quantity of processed food, and along with it, an idea of flavor as just another quality that could be injected into ingredients, rather than a way of orchestrating their inherent properties. The introduction of artificial scents and flavors around the begin‑ ning of the twentieth century had created an opportunity for a new field of endeavor: the flavor industry. If flavor could be whatever we wanted it to be, what the food in‑ dustry wanted was for flavor to be profitable.

The flavor industry was not entirely new, of course. In a sense, the earliest instances of deliberately flavoring food with herbs and spices can be considered to be part of it. Flavor as a distinct industry, however, began to emerge with the technologies that allowed the extraction of essential oils from plants. And as with the development of cuisine in general, it was entwined with the development of the fragrance industry. In fact, to this day the huge conglomerates that create fragrances for the perfume indus‑ try also create flavors for the food industry.

Essential oils are where the flavors and fragrances live in plants — the volatile aromatic compounds that make up the way we experience them when we smell and taste them. In the case of citrus fruit rinds, the oils can be extracted by simple pressing. Most other plant materials have to be put through a process of distillation with water or steam, being heated in a still to separate the oils from the plant material. There is evidence that the ancient Persians employed distillation as far back as 3000 B.C. Around 1000 B.C., the Arabs rediscovered the process, and from that point forward it was continually refined. The method depends on the fact that aromatic substances — chemicals — can be removed from plant materials by volatilizing them with steam and collecting and condensing the vapor. Provided the volatile substances are not soluble in water, on cooling they will separate from the watery distillate and can be removed and preserved in a relatively pure condition. In direct distillation, the plant material comes in contact with the boiling water. Steam distillation is a gentler method of extracting essential oils, and more widely used. In this method, steam is generated in the still, or in a separate boiler, and blown through a pipe in the bottom of the still, where the plant material rests on a stack of trays for quick removal after exhaustion.

The history of using essential oils for flavor is documented in European cookbooks up to three centuries old, in recipes for bitters, cakes, puddings, cordials, sauces, gum, cocktails, colas, ketchup, candies, cookies, and more. (There are also Arab and Mughal examples from many centuries earlier.) At first, the available flavors were relatively few, limited by the state of technology. Up to the sixteenth century, only a small group of essential oils were distilled and in use, among them frankincense, cinnamon, sage, rosemary, rose, and cedarwood. But in the seventeenth century, with advances in the craft of distillation, a plethora of other essential oils joined the mix: cardamom, anise, angelica, lovage, mace, nutmeg, caraway, fennel, pepper, juniper berry, basil, thyme, lemon, coriander, dill, oregano, chamomile, spearmint, cumin, cloves, orange, saffron, and wormwood.

Along the roadways of nineteenth‑century England, many establishments were named after the itinerant sellers of essential oils — as attested to by the many “Green Man” tavern signs of the day. Their products were initially based on the natural extracts from herbs, spices, and resins that were already being used in the fragrance and pharmaceutical industries. As methods of extraction were refined to allow the isolation of individual aromatic components, these isolates also became useful flavor materials. Soon the flavor industry overtook the perfume industry as a consumer of essential oils, especially those derived from citruses, spices, and mints.

But in its modern incarnation, flavor was increasingly isolated from and even synthesized without actual food. Beginning with coumarin in 1868, chemists started to figure out how to synthesize some of the specific aroma molecules they had isolated in the distillation process, for use in both flavor and fragrance. Initially these were used as a supplement to natural ingredients, to add aroma and taste to beverages and can‑ dies. But they quickly supplanted the use of essential oils for the same reasons that synthetics were taking over the fragrance industry: they were cheaper and more reliable. They were also of lower quality, as they could not replicate the complexity of flavor as it occurs in nature, where the fragrance of any given plant is composed of a complicated bouquet of dominant and trace molecules. By the 1960s, however, the cruder synthetic ingredients were being prominently used to re‑create a smorgasbord of flavor offerings, from fruits to vegetables to meats. Today there are more than two thousand synthetic materials in routine use for flavor, and another three thousand in the experimental stage.

For more than a century — even before its turn to synthetics — the flavor industry’s ways remained almost entirely cloaked in mystery, its formulas considered trade secrets. It wasn’t until the 1960 publication of the industry bible, Food Flavorings: Composition, Manufacture, and Use, by Joseph Merory, that the secrets of their formulation began to become widely known. A commercial formula for ketchup was disclosed to be made with the essential oils of clove, cassia, nutmeg, pimento berry, mace, and celery seed; sweet pickle was flavored with cinnamon, cassia, black pepper, coriander, caraway, pimento berry, and clove; ginger ale featured ginger essential oil, of course, along with orange, lime, mace, coriander, and, remarkably, rose, to smooth out the rough edges.

Sodas, not surprisingly, were a major focus of the emerging flavor industry. Soda syrups were originally artisanally concocted, to be served at opulent soda fountains that often featured marble counters adorned with mirrors and trimmed with gold, establishments that rivaled saloons as meeting places. In 1911, according to Darcy O’Neil’s popular history Fix the Pumps, the United States had more than a hundred thousand soda fountains that served more than eight billion drinks a year; now fewer than a hundred remain. The fountain was presided over by the “soda jerk,” whose job it was to squirt syrups into the sodas. Essential oils — ranging from clove, orange, and peppermint to rose, musk, civet, and ambergris — were used in the formulas, many of which seem playful and inventive today. They were often created by pharmacists and considered to be medicinal, which increased the need for secrecy. Coca‑Cola, for example, was originally formulated to treat dyspepsia and headache and included lemon, lime, orange, cinnamon, and nutmeg essential oils (not to mention cocaine).

The Food and Drug Administration recognized the maturity of the flavor industry by giving it a kind of benediction, via the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, a list of substances “generally recognized as safe” (commonly referred to by the acronym GRAS). Formulas using only substances on this list were not required to be officially tested before being added to foods and drugs. The GRAS list is constantly updated as testing results become known, and to this day it includes many essential oils as well as synthetic substances that can be used for flavoring.

The flavor industry really took off after World War II, when the interest in artificial flavors, and the money to be made from them, burgeoned along with the rise in processed foods and the profitability and shelf life they promised. It had become clear that the decline in nutritional richness that was a byproduct of excessive processing was accompanied by a decline in flavor richness, and most of the flavor industry’s mission became how to replace that missing flavor, just as the vitamins depleted by all that food processing were now being added back into cereals. Essential oils continued to play a part in creating flavor, but now they were used the way synthetic oils were. Individual molecules were isolated so that they could be mixed together with other isolates or synthetic oils to create the simulacrum of a naturally occurring flavor, with none of the unruly complexity of the thing itself. Nor were natural essences generally used to contribute the rich flavor of the plants from which they are derived. Basil essential oil could have easily been used much as you would use fresh basil — as a delicious addition to a canned tomato sauce, for example. But it is more likely to be sent down the slippery slope toward Frankenflavors — as part of a host of components to create artificial berry flavor, say.

As with other industries, the flavor industry has consolidated itself into a handful of international conglomerates. In the 1920s there were about seventy family‑owned essential oil and aroma chemical‑flavor companies in the United States, over fifty of them located in lower Manhattan. By the 1970s more than three‑quarters of them were out of business. With the help of gas chromatography (GC) analysis, such com‑ panies can identify and reproduce any number of the hundreds of molecules that create flavor and fragrance in a given plant. On the printout of a GC analysis of, say, actual basil oil, a wide range of its component molecules appears. But in practice, only a dominant handful are selected for inclusion to approximate the flavor of the original. By limiting themselves to “only those notes deemed essential to a flavour’s characteristic taste and smell, they are able to produce a heightened sensation of that flavor,” write Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott in “Artificial Flavours.” Artificial flavors as we know them today, they say, “are consequently at once much less than their originals and much more. Our contemporary craving for larger‑than‑life flavour is reminiscent of the medieval appetite for spices. While spices brought medievals a taste of Eden, however, artificial flavours are reminiscent rather of Disneyland, a synthetic paradise of consumer delights.”

Artificial blueberry is a good example of the limitations of fake flavor. Today, blueberries are regarded as a “superfood” packed with antioxidants and flavonoids, high in potassium and vitamin C. They are believed to help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer and to reduce inflammation in the body. None of these remarkable attributes accrue to fake blueberry flavor, but the positive associations with blueberries have driven flavorists to jump on the bandwagon and produce artificial blueberry flavor to further increase the marketability of “healthy” foods such as vitamin water, yogurt, and tea.

Neither, of course, does synthetic blueberry flavor replicate the dimensionality of actual blueberry flavor. The key profile descriptors for actual blueberries, according to flavorist John Wright in Flavor Creation, include fruity, floral, green, pungent, cheesy, vanilla, candy, medicinal, buttery, citrus, cooked, nutty, sharp, herbal, sulfuric, and vanilla. As Wright observes, blueberries have a very complex flavor profile, dominated by fruity, damson plum–like damascenone, apple‑like ethyl 2‑methyl butyrate, and lavender linalool. “These three notes put together,” however, “would only give a sketch of the profile. The true character depends on a complex mix of secondary notes added in relatively small quantities, which are the facets of the ingredient. Preparing a delicious‑ tasting blueberry flavor is very challenging.” But no matter how many facets the laboratory troubles to include, it will never match the depth of flavor of a blueberry itself.

The most recent trend to emerge from the flavor industry is what’s known as flavor‑pairing theory. It originated from the same gas chromatography techniques that allow chemists to analyze the molecular structure of flavor ingredients with a view to replicating aspects of them. GC made it possible to see what chemical components different foods have in common. This led to the theory that foods that share key flavor components can be substituted for one another, will pair well with the same foods, or, most radically, will harmonize well with foods that share the same major flavor molecules. Some of the combinations that derive from this theory are unusual, to say the least: strawberries and Parmesan; poached banana and ketchup; chocolate and caraway.

The flavor‑pairing approach has spread to the world of oenology and molecular gastronomy, as chefs and sommeliers search for new ways to combine ingredients and dishes. But as we shall see, such an approach overlooks the fact that the commonalities such foods have on a molecular level, because of similar dominant aroma molecules, are far eclipsed by the trace elements that distinguish them. A pineapple, in other words, is not necessarily an apt substitute for a strawberry, as a strict flavor‑pairer might have you believe. While the two foods share dominant aroma molecules, the caramel‑like furaneol and the clovelike eugenol, they also have wildly divergent ancillary molecules that, even in tiny amounts, profoundly influence flavor. Nor do they necessarily dance well with the same partners. And because more than just a molecule or two determine a food’s flavor, there is no reason to assume that two foods that share a major molecule will combine well. So flavor pairing can be just another culinary crutch that prevents cooks from developing a truly attentive approach to flavor. Over the past few decades, the pendulum of public opinion has started to swing away from artificial flavors and back toward real food. Many purveyors, chefs, home cooks, and ordinary eaters awakened to what was being lost in the rush for convenience and profitability and joined the Slow Food movement, or were swept along by it. More people began to cook and eat at home, and to eat more adventurously, at home and away. Fueled in part by this resurgence of interest, food itself has become a bigger industry. Restaurants have become more numerous and more diverse. And food is consumed not only as substance but also as entertainment — chefs have become candidates for celebrity, and a plethora of cable channels, blogs, and other outlets are devoted to the subject.

On this tide of popularity, the recipe industry has flourished, with hundreds of versions of any dish available at the touch of a keyboard. But while many of these recipes describe beautiful and delicious dishes, somehow the art of flavor — the understanding that governs which foods go best together, and how — remains under‑ explored terrain. That is where we are going in this book, and we want to take you with us.

Excerpted from THE ART OF FLAVOR: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food by Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel, published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel.

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