When I teach cooking classes, students often ask me, “How much salt should I add to this dish?” or “Which chocolate should I use?” And I always reply, “It’s up to you. You should prepare food that you—not I—will love.”
But when it comes to matters of the palate, how do you go about learning what you love? The answer is simple: Just keep tasting. One of the most effective and enjoyable ways to get in touch with your flavor preferences is to organize a tasting party for your friends. It’s easy. Simply gather several food or drink products—it could be cheese, honey, apples, balsamic vinegar, tea, ale, almost anything really—and then taste them side by side.
How to taste: Tasting is different from eating. When you taste, you slow down, pay attention, and savor the food in a structured fashion, evaluating the samples’ appearance, aroma, flavor, texture, and finish. Then you ask yourself, Did I enjoy this product? Would I buy it again?
At such structured tastings, you’ll learn how you react to different flavors, and you’ll broaden the repertoire of ingredients you can use in your cooking. For example, if you taste several different plain dark chocolate bars at the same time, you might discover that you prefer bitter and intense, rather than mild, varieties; consequently, you may end up using chocolates with higher cacao content when you bake. Through a honey tasting, you might discover chestnut and acacia honeys. Or by tasting cheeses, you might find that you favor washedrind varieties.
In this article, I’ll provide general guidelines for putting together a tasting party and walk you through three sample tastings: of sharp Cheddar, chocolate, and extra-virgin olive oil. From there, you can explore other possibilities on your own.
1. Select a category: Choose a food or drink you and your guests enjoy and would like to learn more about, such as extra-virgin olive oil, chocolate, cheese, or something else you’re curious about.
2. Narrow your focus: Research your topic and do a little pre-tasting. Choose a theme to help you tie your choices together. (It’s important to compare apples to apples: Don’t include flavored chocolate bars, flavored truffles, semisweet chocolate bars, and white chocolate bars in the same tasting.) Then, narrow the field to six samples—enough to experience a lot of tastes but not so many that you’ll fatigue your palate.
Blind vs. open
In blind tastings, the samples are disguised so that your preconceived notions don’t color your assessments. That’s fine for professional events, but for home parties I prefer open tastings, in which the samples are identified. Open tastings are easier to organize and more relaxed, yet they’re still very educational.
3. Shop: Buy all the samples and palate cleansers, plus food and drink for serving before and after the tasting, if you want. If you can’t fi nd what you’re looking for locally, visit online specialty food merchants, such as Zingermans.com, Igourmet.com, or Agferrari.com.
4. Organize: Set up everything, from tableware to pens (you can download printable tasting sheets so your guests can record their impressions). Set your table and arrange the samples in tasting order, moving from more mildly flavored items to those with stronger flavors. If you try extremely flavorful samples first, you won’t be able to fully experience the milder products. Also, it’s a good idea to provide background information about each sample, including price and where to buy.
5. Conduct the tasting: Introduce the first sample and lead your guests through the tasting steps, encouraging them to take time to focus and jot down their thoughts. Then discuss the sample. Have everyone cleanse their palates with water and mild bread (I like baguette slices) or crackers to prepare for the next sample.
Tasting: Sharp Cheddar Cheese
First, some definitions: Cheddar refers to cheeses in which the curds have been cut, stacked, drained, restacked, milled, salted, and pressed. Within this category, sharp Cheddars are those that have been aged for enough time to allow strong flavors to develop— in general, longer aging equals sharper flavor. Among sharp Cheddars, differences abound, especially between supermarket and farmhouse varieties. The former tend to be milder and less complex than the latter, which are typically produced in small batches right on the dairy farm. In this tasting, you’ll experience the differences for yourself.
If you’d rather try another theme, you could compare Cheddars that have been aged for different lengths of time, resulting in increasing amounts of sharpness, or sample American, British, Irish, and Canadian products.
How to select varieties
Purchase six sharp Cheddars, including both artisanal (farmhouse) and mass-produced (from the supermarket). Since farmhouse Cheddars are generally long-aged and thus extra sharp, buy the longest-aged supermarket products you can find to even things out a bit.
Here are some you might include: Keen’s Cheddar (British farmhouse, raw milk, aged about two years), Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar (American farmhouse, raw milk, aged about 16 months), Montgomery’s Cheddar (British farmhouse, raw milk, aged up to two years), Cabot Extra Sharp (American, pasteurized milk, aged up to 18 months), Grafton Village 2-Year Extra Aged (American, raw milk), and Tillamook Sharp Cheddar (American, pasteurized milk, aged more than nine months).
How to taste cheese
Initially, you’ll want to taste the cheeses alone. After that first round, though, it’s fun to try them with accompaniments, such as mango chutney and pecans.Cleanse your palate between samples by drinking cool (not cold) water and eating bread or crackers.
- First look at the cheese and assess its color. Rub a small piece between your fingers and consider its texture—is it very hard or semihard? Is it at all crumbly or buttery?
- Hold the cheese in front of your nose and inhale. What are the aromas (for example, nutty or grassy)?
- Now place the cheese on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth. Start chewing, and evaluate the mouthfeel and flavor notes (for example, strong, nutty, caramel).
- Swallow the cheese and evaluate its finish. What flavors remain in your mouth? How long do they linger?
- Finally, ask everyone whether they enjoyed the cheese.
Tasting: Dark Chocolate
A chocolate bar’s personality depends largely on how much cacao, as opposed to other ingredients like sugar and vanilla, it contains. A higher percentage of cacao means a more intense chocolate flavor. In this tasting, you’ll become familiar with the different flavor profiles of semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate contains 35% or more cacao content, while unsweetened chocolate is 100% cacao. “Semisweet” chocolate is a more informal classification but generally refers to bars with 15% to 35% cacao content.
Other themes you might consider: only 70% cacao bars from around the world; only French dark chocolate; or French versus Belgian dark chocolate.
How to select varieties
For this tasting, include six plain bars, each with a different cacao percentage. Keep in mind that bars labeled “semisweet” are often produced by mass-market companies, which may not include percentages on their labels.
Possible chocolates to include: Rapunzel semisweet chocolate bar, Chocolove 55% cacao bar, Santander 65% bar, Scharffen Berger 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate, Valrhona 85% cacao dark chocolate bar, and Ghirardelli 100% cacao unsweetened chocolate.
How to taste chocolate
Taste the chocolate alone. Cleanse your palate between samples by drinking cool (not cold) water and eating bread or crackers.
- Look at the chocolate: Is it shiny? Does it break cleanly?
- Hold it in front of your nose and inhale its aromas. Does it remind you of nuts, coffee, tobacco, fruit? Is it mild or strong?
- Now place the chocolate on your tongue and let it melt for several seconds. Consider its flavor notes (for example, floral, smoky, acidic, red fruit, caramel, or raisins) and texture (for example, dry and chalky, creamy, smooth). Then, bite down—how do the flavor and texture change?
- Next, swallow the chocolate and evaluate its finish— does it dissipate quickly or linger? (A long finish is considered positive.)
- Finally, did you enjoy the chocolate?
Tasting: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for Drizzling
As with wine, provenance is a huge factor with extra-virgin olive oils. The terroir, or the nature of the land on which the olives grow, is important, and so too are the olive varieties used and how they’re processed in that production area. For example, Tuscan olive oils are usually green and peppery, largely because Tuscan olives are picked when young, green, and pungent. Provençal olive oils, on the other hand, are often nutty and buttery, due to the later picking of the olives, when they’re ripe and fattier. In this tasting, you’ll learn which area’s extra-virgin olive oils are to your liking—for drizzling over bread, vegetables, cheeses, meats, and fish.
Alternatively, you could opt for another tasting theme, such as single varietals (oils made with a single variety of olive) or regional comparisons (all from a specific region, such as Tuscany or Provence).
How to select varieties
For this tasting, purchase six bottles of high-quality, unflavored extra-virgin olive oil, each from a different country. Consider products representing France (especially Provence), Italy (Tuscany, Liguria, or Sicily), the United States (California), Greece, Spain, and Chile.
Some recommended brands are Lucini (Italy), McEvoy Ranch (California), Olave (Chile), Terra Medi (Greece), Nicolas Alziari (France), and 34° (New Zealand).
How to taste olive oil
Taste the extra-virgin olive oil alone, using shot glasses or disposable pill cups, and then on a piece of neutral-flavored bread. Cleanse your palate between samples by drinking cool (not cold) water and eating bread or crackers; some professional tasters use green-apple slices as well.
- First, what color is the oil? Is it cloudy or clear?
- Swirl it around in the glass, then hold the vessel up to your nose and inhale. Describe its aromas (for example, green apple or grass)
- Take a sip and swirl it around in your mouth. Evaluate its flavor notes (for example, bitter, fruity, spicy, earthy) and body (for example, buttery, round, silky).
- Swallow the oil and evaluate the finish—how long does it last?
- Finally, ask everyone whether they enjoyed the oil. If desired, try the oil again, this time with bread.