Appetizer. Crazy salad with smoked salmon and warm potatoes.
Feast. Tafelspitz, boiled beef with creamed spinach, hash browns, apple horseradish and chive sauce. Schweinsbraten, Roast pork with bread dumpling and cabbage salad. Grilled rump steak with roast potatoes, French beans and spicy pepper sauce.
There were no sausages, hot links, or hot dogs in Salzburg. None that we could find, at least. We had the usual, traditional Austrian cuisine, which was rather interesting, and very healthy. Most meals consisted of a hefty chunk of protein, a source of starch, and a modest amount of colorful vegetables. Packed full of flavor, not overly greasy, and honestly, pretty amazing. Austrian food for the win.
Two things stood out at Sternbräu. One, the varying temperatures of the crazy salad. The greenery was cold, the smoked salmon was at room temperature, and the potatoes, warm. It was interesting, as not only did the textures vary from soft (potato!), to crunchy (salad!), to slimy (salmon!), the temperature alternated from cool and refreshing to warm and satiating. Foodies usually rave about the varying textures of food, and how awesome it tasted, but never too much about the temperature.
Investigation! How does this affect our taste?
A bit of background on our sense of taste. I’m no expert, but read this, commit it to memory, and impress some girls. Or guys. Or both. Pets? Yeah okay.
We have about 10,000 taste buds on our tongue; we all know that we have five tastes: sweet, bitter, umami (controlled by cascade mechanisms), as well as salty and sour (controlled by ion channels– channels that…carry ions). Contrary to popular belief, most recent research suggests that our tongue is not “isolated” in terms of taste. You can’t draw lines on our tongue and say, “yeah the tip of the tongue tastes this, and the sides of the tongue tastes that– “ seems all a bit ridiculous doesn’t it? Turns out, it was sort of ludicrous, and taste buds are actually clustered in groups of 50 to 100 buds, and each of these groups can taste all five. These, of course, are affected by the composition of the food, and as more research suggests, the temperature of the food as well.
Recent studies have identified TRPM-5 (microscopic channels in our taste buds) that activate or deactivate in response to varying levels of food temperature. On average, as the temperature increases, our taste perception gets stronger. A good example would be how ice cream tastes sweeter and stronger when melted and eaten (or drunk?) as a liquid. Increased food temperatures increases activity of TRPM-5 (as rudimentary of an understanding as this can be), which basically induces a heightened sense of taste. Researchers are putting their bets on the fact that somewhere in the near-near future, one may be able to alter the temperature or add certain additions to bitter n’ sour foods in order to change the taste profile, in order to make them more palatable. Currently, we call that…uh….cooking (sort of), or taken to extreme, food technology (lets make a processed food that hits all your reward buttons).
How about some common scenarios with food and temperature?
Scorching HOT temperatures.
Burned mouth. Seared off taste buds. Skin grafts probably required. Taste? Nothing but the cooking of your own tongue. Lots of pain. Not pleasant. Channels? Yeah forget about that.
I still think pain receptors would be dominant over (probable) TRPM-5 activation. Not recommended. Good indication, usually, that the food nuked in a microwave and served immediately. Run away.
Comfortably Hot. (I call this main course hot).
Most likely induces a favorable activation of TRPM-5 channels. No painful ooo’s aaa’s of burning food. Taste comes across loud and clear. Achieving this optimal temperature usually means properly cooked food, straight from the kitchen, onto pre-warmed plates (doesn’t that make you feel all cozy and fuzzy? No? Maybe I’m crazy).
Okay, the trend is obvious. As food gets colder, all this TRPM-5 channel activation (supposedly) gets less and less active. Tastes become less strong. There are, however, plenty of food items that are best served warm. Warm apple pie, freshly baked French rolls, sautéed summer squash, tomato soup. It conjures a relaxed, homey sort of feeling, no? Very moderate. Beyond taste and texture, the temperature of warm food is interesting, as our bodies are running at 98.6 degrees. Thus, warm would be considered slightly hotter than what we’re running at– similar to a pleasant shower, you could say. Does this have anything to do with our homeostatic regulation, that keeping around comfortable temperatures confers some sort of comfort? An emotional connection to food? Is that why comfort foods are usually…warm? (Cornbread, chicken and waffles, barbecue, collard greens, soups and stews). Could be an element worth looking into.
I don’t know man. Not much is good lukewarm. I can’t think of anything. Mousse? Only thing I can think of when someone says “lukewarm” is, “oh, it’s on its way to being room temperature, or sorry, we didn’t have enough power to heat it up for you.” This is usually sign of a restaurant without a kitchen or poor menu planning.
I’m fairly neutral when it comes to food at room temperature. Usually, hor d’oeuvres can be a room temperature. Quick bites. No fuss. No mess. Not cold. Not hot. Finger food! Most cured meats as well, like salami and prosciutto would do just fine at room temperature.
Ceviches, gazpachos. Things that should be refreshing. Sushi. Salad.
Ice cream, popsicles, shaved-ice, sorbets. Sort of obvious. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t eat a frozen ribeye. (OR WOULD YOU?).
Next time you eat a meal, pay attention the temperature of the food. How does it affect what you taste? What happens when you get a warm and cold bite together? Refreshing and cozy? Disgusting?
Try eating half your meal from the fridge, and the other half warmed up. (You’ll definitely get looks at family dinners).