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Barbecue lovers should learn how to taste

By JOE O'CONNELL,  cbbqa past President 

The premises of this article are:

  • Most barbecue lovers do not know how to taste
  • It is important that they learn how to taste
  • With proper education and experience, they can learn how to taste.

Not "learn how to taste barbecue" or any other specific kind of food, but simply "learn how to taste".  By taste, we mean the ability to distinguish consistently one flavor from another.

Can you pass a simple taste test?  If you are given three plates of blue cheese, can you look at them and identify the Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola.  If you are blindfolded, can you tell them apart by their smell?  Can you tell them apart by their taste?

Years of education and experience

Learning how to taste is an acquired skill, which takes years of practice.  People are not born with the ability to taste, just as they are not born with the ability hit a baseball or write a novel.  It takes years of dedicated practice and understanding.  In other words, learning how to taste is a skill that requires both education and experience.

Most adults never completed their education in learning to taste.  Very young children learn to taste cherry, orange, lemon and other common flavors.  By adolescence, most children have learned to taste hundreds of different flavors, which they can identify immediately.  These flavors are the "bright" flavors, like the common fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses, rather than the "subtle" flavors, like most herbs, spices and rarer foods.  After adolescence, however, most people stop the education of their "taste buds" or "palates", so they never learn to taste the subtle flavors.

Most people have the talent -- the sensory awareness -- to learn how to taste, but they have not developed their talent.  For example, almost everyone could learn, with practice, how to differentiate the blue cheeses of France (Roquefort), England (Stilton) and Italy (Gorgonzola).  But few people can do so, not because they lack the talent but simply because they lack the education and experience.  Yes, a few people lack the basic, raw talent or ability to taste, and these people cannot taste any difference between, for example, Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola. But most people could learn to taste, if they are given the education and experience.

This is one reason that some people who have been dedicated and serious barbecue cooks and judges still cannot taste.

French noses

This is the reason that French perfume houses eagerly pay a superstar salary to a "nose", who has the talent to smell the smallest differences.  Remember too that, what we call "taste" is actually "smell" -- the human tongue can detect only four taste elements (sweet, sour, bitter and salty), while the other taste elements are smells, detected by the nose.  Even those who have the raw talent to detect subtle differences in flavor cannot do so unless they have practices and developed their talent.  This is the reason that barbecue veterans spend so much of their time eating -- to learn about regional differences and to learn to taste the good from the bad requires practice.  Because so few have the talent and experience to be able to taste the difference between barbecue produced by the direct or indirect method and between a fire produced by flaming wood, embers or charcoal alone, although there are real differences in taste, few people can tell them apart so they carry on endless discussions and even arguments about the subject.

Objective or subjective

Arguments often revolve around the question of whether taste is objective or subjective.  As with so many other arguments, however, the question is not really about taste but about the definition of words.  People who engage is arguments about whether taste is objective or subjective have different definitions of the words "taste", "objective" and "subjective".

This article avoids the issue and concentrates instead on scientifically certain issues.

Four basic tastes  

Almost everyone can taste the four basic flavors:  sweet, sour, bitter and salty.  These are in fact the only four tastes that can be detected by the tongue alone.  

As proof, consider a person whose nose is stopped-up and thus cannot smell.  Because the nasal passage is blocked, most "tastes", like orange or lemon, cannot be detected.  Yet, in a blind taste test, the person can tell the difference between four drinks:  the sour of lemon juice, the sweet of orange juice, the bitter of cold coffee, and the saltiness of brine.

Barbecue cooks and judges should know that the flavors of many barbecue meats are enhanced with the addition of these four basic taste elements.  For example, a basting or finishing sauce may include salt, for the salty component, plus the bitter taste of molasses (which is the primary flavor component in Worchester sauce), plus the sweet taste of brown sugar, as well as the sour taste of vinegar.

Basic barbecue tastes

Barbecue contains several unique tastes.

First is the smoky taste.  Most barbecue lovers would have no difficulty in passing a blind taste test to identify barbecue meat and oven-roasted meat.  That is, they could taste the difference if the same cut of meat were cooked with the same rub at exactly the same temperature of 230F, except that one is cooked by the dry heat of wood coals and the other is cooked in the oven.  Barbecue has a unique flavor which is called "smoky" because it is imparted by the smoke of burning wood.

Sadly, however, most barbecue lovers could not pass a blind taste test on identically cooked barbecue meats, where the only difference is that one is cooked directly over the wood coals and the other is cooked indirectly in an offset smoker.  If both meats are cooked with the same wood, burned to the same wood coals at the same temperature, and with all other variables the same, few barbecue lovers could distinguish the difference between them.  Yet there is a difference--a very significant difference--in the taste of the meats.  The difference arises because the smoky tastes are different:  the smoky taste of the meat cooked directly over the wood coals will include the smoke enhanced by the dripping meat fat and juices, which is not present in the meat cooked with the indirect method.

Historical differences have also provided regional variations of barbecue tastes, and these must be detected and understood by barbecue lovers.

An example for the doubtful

Those who doubt the issue are invited to take a very simple test.  Take any barbecue meat which is ready to eat (i.e. at the height of its perfection in terms of taste).  Cut several small bite-sized portions from the same area of the meat.  Taste the first bite, and give it a score.  Then taste the second bite, and give it a score.  If this is done fairly, very few novice judges will be give the same score, if they are honest with themselves.  Why don't they award the same score to the same exact meat?  Because they don't know what they're supposed to be looking for in terms of taste, and because they don't know how to go about actually tasting the meat.

This very test occurs frequently at KCBS Judging Schools.  The evening before the school, a veteran cook will be enlisted to prepare the meats which will be "judged" at the school.  At the school, the teacher explains the rules and then illustrates the judging procedure with practice rounds of judging chicken, ribs, shoulder and brisket.  At most schools, the cook who prepares the sample entries does not cook different meats.  For example, if the school will have 18 students, and each student will be "practice" judging six entries, the cook will barbecue 9 racks (so that each student will be 6 ribs to sample and score).  The cook usually uses the same rub and cooks the 9 racks identically in the same smoker for the same amount of time with the same wood and at the same temperature.  One would expect, logically, that the judges, if they were competent, would award almost identical taste scores to each entry.  ("Almost identical", because it is very possible that ribs from one slab will taste different from those of another and that ribs from one side of the rack might taste different from those at the other end.  In general, however, the taste scores should logically be almost the same -- same, all 5s and 6s, or all 8s and 9s, for example.

But this is not what happens.  Invariably, at every judging school, the scores by the same judge will range from 4s to 9s!  And this is from the same judge who is tasting the meat from the same pit!  (On a few occasions, the teacher will tell the students before they begin tasting that the meat was prepared by the same cook in the same manner.  Even in these cases, the student judges still award wildly divergent scores!)  

Acidic and Basic

If you recall basic high school chemistry, you'll remember that some chemicals are neutral (a pH of 7.0), some chemicals are acidic (a low pH, under 7.0), and others are basic (a high pH, over 7.0).  

Barbecue cooks often use onions and chile peppers in rubs and mops, so they should know that the onions are acidic and chilies are (usually) basic.  Used together, they tend to neutralize each other.  (Whether this is good or bad depends on what the cook is trying to accomplish.)

Taste in the same exact way

Inexperienced judges fail to realize that the very way in which they taste barbecue meat affects the flavor of the meat.  For example, if a judge takes a small bite from one entry, chews it twice, swallows it and then thinks about the flavor, the judge will have an entirely different flavor sensation than if the judge takes a large bit from an entry, chews it six times, rolls it around with the tongue, and thinks about the flavor without swallowing the bite.  This means that entries which are not tasted the same way will not be scored consistently, even if the judge has developed the ability to taste barbecue.  Saying this another way, no judge, no matter how good, can award accurate taste scores unless the judge uses a consistent procedure to taste each entry.

There are several different methods of tasting which are used and which allow the judge to taste an entry and to score it accurately.  One exceptionally good procedure is set out below.

Procedure for tasting and scoring

This is one exceptionally good way to learn how to taste and score an entry.  The judge who uses this system emphasizes that it is his system but not the best system.  So, consider adapting this system as your own if you are looking for a system.

  • Pick up the portion with your left hand (keep your right hand clean for writing and handling the score card, water bottle, etc)
  • Smell it from one side to the other, trying to sense the odor of smoke, herbs, spices
  • Take a small bite.  Always take a bite from the same part of the meat.  For example, if sampling a chicken, try if possible to sample the same type and area of meat -- breast meat without skin, thigh meat, etc.  Or if sampling brisket, try to sample the end of a slice with some bark.  In other words, try to be consistent.  (Note that you are not comparing the taste of one entry with another.  The purpose of trying to sample the same area of meat is to develop a taste which is consistent.)
  • Before chewing, roll the bit around with the tongue and think about tastes in the following order:  salty, sweet, bitter, sour, smoky, spicy, tangy (acidic).
  • Now chew it slowly four times (two on the left side, two on the right), and think about about tastes in the regular order:  salty, sweet, bitter, sour, smoky, spicy (basic), tangy (acidic).
  • Put a pencil dot for each defect that you can taste.  Make each dot worth one-third of a point.  For example, a little too much salt gets one dot, and not enough smoky taste gets another.  
  • Score the entry, rounding the number of dots.  So 2 dots equals a 2/3 point deduction, so the entry would receive a score of 8 1/3.  KCBS requires whole numbers, so this score rounds to 8.


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