how to sniff, swish and swirl

“Bitter is like a drum roll – it builds as it’s swished around the mouth,” says Joanna Boese, sensory technologist and ice cream judge. Jennifer Yee Collinson went along to challenge her taste buds.

A white tray carrying rows of tasting cups of clear liquid coded with the numbers 356, 912, 407, 266, 172, 732 and 851 was set in front of us. On the table were plain Arnott’s crackers, bottled water, a white dish containing white napkins and white spoons. There was little stimuli on the walls in the room, the temperature is ambient – neither too warm nor too cool. There were no external distractions. No one was wearing perfume. It had been at least 30 minutes since any of us had eaten (longer for some) or brushed our teeth. This was an optimal environment for exercising our senses.

We were a diverse and enthusiastic bunch of New Zealand Food Writers members from Waikato and Auckland who recently signed up for the challenge to flex our sensory abilities in a two-hour workshop under the tutorage of Joanna Boese, a sensory technologist with many years of experience in the New Zealand food industry and a passionate advocate for the value of sensory science in shaping the food and drinks we consume.

Joanna kicked off with a brief history of sensory science, discussing the origins inherent in our desire to measure how something feels and how we feel about products and food-product quality – the softness and absorbency of tissues, for example, or the texture of a Bolognese sauce.

Sensory evaluation is used in new product development across many sectors – in food manufacture, horticulture, the beauty/cosmetic industry and in hospitality.

Our first challenge – “How does your tongue stack up?” – got us tasting the liquids presented in the tasting cups in a screening exercise to see if we could determine the taste of each sample: sour, water, bitter, sweet, salty, followed by two samples combining two tastes – bitter and sour, and sweet and salty.

Further challenges asked us to determine flavour matches and to consider the appearance, aroma, flavour (taste and aroma), texture, mouthfeel and aftertaste of a range of food: blueberries, orange juice, flavoured and plain coconut yoghurt, hummus with garlic and hokey pokey ice cream.

“Sensory evaluation in some ways is about appreciation,” says Joanna. “You consume a product, engaging your senses one by one. Without pre-judging, move your focus and sense from appearance through aroma, taste, mouthfeel and aftertaste. Your ‘sense-ing’ will conjure evocative word images.” My homework? To evaluate salted potato chips, carrots and walnut oat crackers, using what I learned from the workshop.