The best way to find a perfectly ripe tomato has little to do with its shape, color or size. It is the unmistakable scent of salty caramel that demonstrates a tomato is at its peak. While green tomatoes can be reddened with ethylene gas, furaneol, the compound that gives tomatoes their distinctive aroma, accumulates only when a fruit is allowed to fully mature on the vine. Strawberries and mangoes share the same compound, and other fruits contain analogous aromatic molecules when fully ripe.
But how often do cooking shows and magazines describe how produce should smell? Though we learn how to make colorful compositions on the dinner plate, when do we learn how to use our nose to explore food combinations? Understanding the role of aroma and the power of our nose is essential for eating well.
To taste is to smell
Our sense of smell comprises a comparatively large fraction of our genetic makeup. We use more than 1,000 different sensory receptors to analyze a scent, each receptor with its own genetic code. The ability to distinguish subtleties among smells is enormous and was of great importance when our prehistoric ancestors relied on hunting and gathering to survive. Though supermarkets have obviated the need for daily foraging, scent — closely linked to our sense of taste — is a cornerstone of our food enjoyment.
The process of chewing food releases aromatic compounds that are detected by the olfactory receptors in the nasal passages. While we are likely to comment on how food tastes, we are making the judgment based on how it smells. Yet our supermarkets are deodorized to the point of sterility, our produce is often hermetically sealed in plastic wrap and our cookbooks read like IKEA design guides. Moving past visual appeal to explore other sensations associated with food opens up new horizons and leads to a richer culinary experience.
The specialized vocabulary of scents
Despite the importance of olfaction in our lives, there is no common vocabulary to describe smell. We associate smells with something — a place, a memory, a flavor — but most people struggle to describe smell on its own terms. Professional perfumers and flavorists have developed their own vocabulary and classification of scents, but this language rarely makes its way to the consumer.
The term aromatic, when used by a perfumer, refers not to something with a strong aroma, but to the specific pungent, camphoraceous notes found in herbs such as lavender and rosemary. Perfume sales in North America are driven more by visual design and packaging than the actual smell of the perfume, so it is hardly a surprise that our food culture likewise places enormous emphasis on presentation and visualization.
In many traditional cuisines where olfaction plays a much larger role, food shopping and preparation are taught with reference to aromas. One such example is India, where Hindu purity guidelines dictate that a cook cannot taste food as it is being prepared.
The sounds and smells of cooking
Outside of the Hindu community, one can likewise observe the culinary pedagogy in which smell and sound play a crucial role. During my stay in the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, I followed instructions like “fry mustard seeds till they start popping; sauté onion till it smells sweet; if eggplant smells bitter, use a bit of sugar.” Though somewhat baffling at first, with time these guidelines were much more useful than a stopwatch. An onion can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to caramelize depending on its size and water content, but the sweet smell of golden, melted-down onions is an unmistakable indicator of doneness.
The link between smell and cooking was made more explicit by earlier generations of cooks, and many cookbooks published before the 20th century made mention of scents and even included recipes for perfumes. Until the last century, colognes were created with essences such as bergamot, rosemary, cinnamon and clove, all valued as much for their pleasing scent as for their medicinal properties. The colognes were not just splashed on the skin; they were consumed as well! Spice mixes for desserts such as gingerbread were often referred to as parfums mélangés, or mixed perfumes, and were also used in potpourri and beauty preparations.
Today, the Food Network and the burgeoning cookbook industry tend to favor “paint by numbers” recipes; food marketing requires simplicity, and scent is a complex topic. Cookbook editors are afraid to replace the ambiguous system of cup measures for more precise weight measures. How can they be expected to tackle scent? But I wish more cookbooks would deviate from the standard mold and include some basic instruction on the often ignored sense that ties it all together. It is time for the food media and chefs to teach us more about aromas and make us better equipped to select ripe fruit, to recognize poor quality olive oil, and to compose balanced dishes. Learning the nuances of scent takes practice and starts with awareness: Smell fruit before you buy and be mindful of aromas when tasting. The world of flavor and fragrance is complex and the possibilities for exciting combinations are endless.
This week’s Zester Daily soapbox contributor, Victoria Frolova, is the editor of boisdejasmin.com, which is devoted to scent-related topics and includes fragrance reviews, essays on aroma-materials, perfume history and interviews with industry professionals.
Photo: Victoria Frolova. Credit: Vera Klokova