The not-so-super experience of being a supertaster
Taylor Tasting Tours owner, Don Ward, handed me a tiny tab of paper.
“You’re going to put this on your tongue and you tell me what you taste and feel, what your sensation is from this.”
Ward, who leads wine tours, is testing to see if I’m a supertaster.
“A supertaster is one of those people who has acute sense of taste,” Ward said. “They have many more taste buds than the average person, probably about four or five times more. There’s maybe only about 15 percent of people who have that.”
The word ‘super’ makes it sound like a positive thing, but it’s really not. Supertasters have way more taste buds than the average person, which makes their palates highly sensitive. So food and drink with bitter notes, like coffee, IPAs and Brussels sprouts, are unbearably bitter to them.
Most people probably don’t know if they’re a supertaster, or even that the concept exists, so I wondered if these people are often unfairly deemed picky.
“Umm, yes. I had a recent couple from Chicago [on a wine tour] and she was a supertaster and her husband was not. She said, ‘Now I feel vindicated! My husband has been teasing me my whole life that I’m so picky about these things.'”
Based on the results of the paper tab test (it did not taste bitter to me, just like paper) and the questions that Ward asked me, I now know I’m not a supertaster.
“We pretty much can guarantee right now that you’re an average taster. Which is good,” said Becky Selengut, Seattle private chef, cooking teacher and author.
Selengut also gave me the supertaster test. She is an average taster, but her wife is a certified supertaster and a sommelier.
“She’s a wine expert and that makes her extremely good at her job because she’ll take a sip of wine and, unlike me, which I’m like, ‘Wine! Yum! Good!’ She’s like, ‘Oh, I’m getting some volatile acidity. I’m getting some imperfections. I’m getting a lack of balance.’ I thought she was just picky for a long time and then I realized, no, those are things that are actually in the wine. With my taste buds, not having enough density of them, I’m a little bit blind to. For example, a mango, she says funny things like, ‘This tastes like grave dirt.’ And I’m like, ‘How do you know what grave dirt tastes like? Maybe I shouldn’t have married you. And what do you mean?’ And she’s tasting some actual compounds that are in mango that give it almost a rotten, fermented taste that we can’t taste.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum are tolerant tasters — people who have fewer taste buds and less sensitivity. They don’t taste things very intensely. These are heavy salters who use a lot of hot sauce on their food.
Selengut wrote a book called “How To Taste,” to help eaters and cooks learn to perfectly balance their food. She talks about why Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are so popular and how studying one can help you be a better cook.
“It’s not just the salt and the sweet in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup that people like, it’s the textural difference between the crunchy outside and the creamy inside,” she explained. “So involving texture into your food instantly makes it much more exciting. Also, the fat content of the peanut butter is great. The bitter content of the chocolate is spot on.”
She says that’s why so many people love tacos. The best ones are crunchy and creamy, cold and warm, they are balanced with acid from lime and earthy flavors from the tortilla. Those components are also why people love bacon so much.
“It’s got salt, it’s got sweet, it’s got umami from the amino acids, it’s got texture if it’s crunchy,” Selengut said. “It’s got fat and smoke, which is an aromatic.”
To be a better cook, incorporate these tastes, textures and concepts into your dishes. And if something is too bitter, we’re talking to you supertasters, you can add a little salt.
“If you’re not an IPA fan, you don’t really love those hoppy, bitter beers … put a tiny, tiny bit of salt in the bottle, swirl the bottle a little bit,” instructed Selengut. “The best thing is to not add anything sweet, it’s to actually add a little more salt.”
I took advantage of Selengut’s taste expertise and asked a question I’ve been pondering for years: why does spicy food, like wasabi, burn the nose, while spice from chilies burn the tongue?
“Horseradish and wasabi, the molecules that give you that kind of heat, are very light. So when you eat them they rise up in the mouth and they go right up to the olfactory cells to the nose. And capsaicin, which is in red chilies, in Mexican food, those are heavier molecules and they just sit and they torture your tongue and your throat.”