A sensitive palate can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, diners with a sensitive palate often appreciate subtleties that elude most others. Yet, an overly sensitive palate makes many foods taste unbearably sweet, tart or bitter. For cooks, learning to accommodate a sensitive palate can be a fascinating challenge or an endless burden. Like so much in life, it's all about your attitude.
For some, an unusually sensitive palate is a simple question of genetics. Researchers at Yale University in the 1990s determined that up to 25 percent of us have more than the usual number of taste buds on our tongues. These "supertasters" are exceptionally sensitive to some flavors, usually sour, bitter or sweet. Other, more specific genetic traits may determine whether we like foods such as asparagus and cilantro, which some love and others detest. This is an area of research that is still in its infancy, so at present there are more questions than answers.
Those who have discerning palates present a different challenge to the cook. They don't have an exaggerated reaction to certain flavors, they are just able to taste all the nuances in a dish. This can be exciting for a good cook who's unused to appreciation, or daunting for one who isn't confident in his skill. Unlike genetic sensitivity, a discerning palate can be cultivated. Try tasting individual herbs, spices and other ingredients on dry bread, cottage cheese or other neutral food. Over time, you'll learn to recognize them in prepared dishes.
Some studies have shown that children under 10 have much more sensitive palates than adults, which can be a contributing factor in making them picky eaters. For those children, the forkful of greens you're coaxing them to eat might taste as bitter as a crushed Aspirin tablet. The same study showed that children with sensitive palates tended to be smaller than those without. If your kids fall into this category, try to develop a strategy to ensure they receive the nutrition they need.
If you have a supertaster or picky eater in your household, there are various ways to cope. If your spouse perceives chard and spinach as bitter, romaine lettuce is milder and will stand up to cooking. If your kids are super-sensitive to tartness, make up a shaker bottle of sugar syrup and keep it in the refrigerator for them. Cook mild-flavored foods, and keep the fridge stocked with Angostura bitters, hot sauce, pickles and other condiments to keep things interesting for the rest of the family. Cater to a discerning palate by turning to cookbooks, the Internet or cooking classes for more sophisticated meal ideas.
- "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Harold S. McGee; 2004
- MSNBC; Are You a Supertaster?; Robert Shmerling, M.D.
- Good Housekeeping: Are You a Supertaster?
- Live Science; Scientists Stalk Mystery of Smelly 'Asparagus Urine'; Wynne Perry; September 2010
- "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food"; Jeff Potter; 2010
- The Harvard Crimson; A Matter of Taste: The Super Palate Curse; Rebecca A. Cooper; October 2008
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