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Something like 90 percent of all experiences that you have with food are actually nasal related. What you are experiencing through smell is called aromas, or aromatics. The reason this is important to know is because embracing the role that your nose plays in the eating experience will enable you to create richer, fuller eating experiences. This will also help you to understand that appetites are built or destroyed by your nose. I have pointed out in other articles that it is the smell of a shepherd’s pie that causes you to salivate. So, we will continue with this idea and venture further in-depth into the world of how to use aromatics and your sense of smell to your advantage.
Aromatics Make Food Better
Aromatics, as discussed in this article, include, but are not limited to, herbs and spices. Each individual food item has a smell all on its own as well. Think of the smell of a grilled steak, oranges, or fresh fish. Each food item has a scent or aroma all on its own. We must take this smell into account whenever we are preparing foods. Remember, our objective in preparing food is not to change the natural flavors of the food. It is to bring out more natural flavor and emphasize the qualities of our foods.
Your Most Powerful Sense is Smell
You are able to identify a trillion of independent odors. Whereas your eyes can only perceive about 10 million colors. When most people think of smell, they think of dogs. Dogs are always sniffing everything. This is for a very good reason. Through smell, they are able to detect a great many things: food, water, mates, danger, bombs, and even some forms of cancer.
Embrace Your Sense of Smell
While dogs embrace smell, humans tend to actively shun their sense of smell. People go so far as to look at other people suspiciously when someone smells something. Yes, I know this from personal experience. Don’t judge me. There is actually some strong evidence that suggests humans actually put off various odors based on their emotional states. Have you ever heard of someone “stinking of desperation?” As a chef, my sense of smell is my greatest strength. Being able to identify different scents and match them to other complimentary scents is one of the aspects that allows you to become a great chef.
So, why do dogs have it all figured out and humans stick their nose up at the idea of smell? Well, that probably has a bit to do with the desire to feel “civilized” and detached from our primal nature. But that is neither here nor there. What I am going to do is teach you how to regain control of that ever so powerful sense.
The power of your nose can never be understated. It helps you find food, and tells you when to be hungry. It’s a defense mechanism, and can protect you from potential harm.
How Do Aromatics Apply to Cancer?
Chemotherapy treatments misalign your memory association of the food or flavor that you experiencing. Because your sense of smell helps to dictate hunger from a distance, it is absolutely essential that we re-learn these smells and how they make the cancer patient FEEL. This next exercise is non-optional and must be done jointly between cancer patient and caregiver.
Before you do anything else, the very first thing I want you to do is start smelling EVERYTHING! I want you to smell herbs, spices, vinegar, meat, shoes, newspapers, books, computers, vegetables, clean laundry, dirty laundry, and anything else you can get your hands on. By smelling everything in sight, I assure you that people will eyeball you very suspiciously. One of my habits is smelling everything. I smell my flatware when I’m out to eat and my food when other people have cooked it for me. I smell newspapers, my pants, and even my shoes before I put them on.
The reason I do this is to find out more information about the item I am smelling. Smelling flatware at a restaurant tells me a few things. If it smells like chlorine, I know that they use bleach as their sanitizer and that the flatware has recently been washed. If it smells like food, I know that it hasn’t been washed and that I should get a different fork.
Smelling food tells me many things about it as well. I can tell the doneness of food by scent. If it is a steak, I can tell if the fat has been cooked long enough to become liquid and move through the meat. If raw food is past its prime thanks to a signature bacterial odor. The pungency and strength of spices so I know how much to use when I am cooking. If I smell my pants, I can tell if they are dirty and if I need to wash them. As you can see, there are a great many uses for smell, both offensive and defensive.
Identifying Different Aromatics
The aroma or aromatic quality of food in each dish is the defining quality and character that separates it from the other dishes.
Let’s use the following foods as an example.
moo shu chicken (Chinese)
shredded chicken tacos (Tex-Mex)
chicken shawarma sandwich (Mediterranean-American)
These 3 meals are all fundamentally very similar. Ultimately, there is a starchy bread-like substance that acts like a wrapper, a crunchy vegetable aspect, and a soft, but flavorful, protein aspect to each one of these dishes. On paper, these dishes look extremely similar. But as great cooks, we don’t care about paper. We care about plates! Plated and placed in front of you, it would be impossible to not tell these dishes apart. This is because each dish uses different aromatics (herbs, spices, and seasonings). The differences in aromatics are what make the differences.
The shawarma is full of warm cumin and curry flavors.
The shredded chicken tacos have hints of garlic and spiciness.
And the moo shu is both savory and sweet at the same time.
Effectively, three of the same dish done three different ways.
This is why developing our aromatic quality to the dish is so important. We do this by employing herbs and spices into our dishes to give them their distinct flavors.
Applying Aromatics in Cooking
I have a certain method to my madness when it comes to seasoning. I always season my dishes in a particular order: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and last sweet. But when it comes to adding aromatics, I always add the stronger flavors that need to be extracted throughout the entire dish early in the cooking process. Stronger aromatic herbs and spices should always be added first.
Aromatic Herbs Added Early
A perfect example of this is rosemary. I love rosemary! When I use rosemary in cooking, I always incorporate it early. The reason is that the aromatic quality of the rosemary is actually found in the oil contained within its needles. It is this scented oil that we are trying to incorporate throughout our entire dish. The best way to extract this is to smash the needles with a flat side of a knife and then incorporate it with hot oil. This will allow the oils to migrate out and co-mingle with the rest of the fats in the dish. This allows it to thoroughly coat every surface. We want to do this early when cooking a dish in order to give the rosemary time to not only be extracted, but to mellow within the dish during the cooking process.
Aromatic Herbs Added at the End
On the opposite end, there are aromatic herbs like basil. Basil has such a delicate flavor. Basil is such a tricky plant to use. Because if it is not quite right, you will completely loose the flavor from the basil leaves. In juxtaposition from the rosemary, if you add basil at any time but during the last few moments of cooking, the basil with become ethereal and disappear. Basil is a plant that should never be used as a dried herb. The essence of its flavor is best captured by using thinly sliced fresh leaves. It would preferably be added raw and not cooked. Think of a caprese salad. The raw basil leaves give such a pop of flavor and acts as a palate cleanser. This becomes the quintessential highlight of the dish. The aromatic quality pulls all the flavors together as if by magic.
How to season with Aromatics
When you are seasoning with aromatic herbs and spices, there are 2 main questions that you need to ask:
1. When should I add this?
2. And how am I going to get the best flavor out of this ingredient?
Add these aromatics early: rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, peppers, and oregano.
Add these aromatics in the middle: thyme, ginger, marjoram, cumin, and turmeric. These flavors don’t really take time to develop and can therefore be added at anytime.
Add these aromatics last: basil, cilantro, parsley, orange blossoms, rose hips, and other lightly flavored seasonings.
Charts of commonly used aromatic herbs and spices, their flavors, functions, when they should be added to a dish, and what they are most commonly used with are available. Print your copy from our Printable Resources Page
Food For Thought
Think about what you just learned and how it applies to your situation. Ask yourself these questions.
1. What aromatic smells entice you to eat?
2 What aromatic smells ruin your appetite?