Cooking by the Nose

This article appeared as Cooks, Follow Your Nose in Zester Daily in 2011. The great Marcella Hazan complimented me on it, noting that she also cooked using her nose. Unfortunately, the magazine has since been revamped and the article no longer appears online. In tribute to all of the cooks who follow their nose, I’m reprinting it here.

The best way to find a perfectly ripe tomato has little to do with its shape, color or size. It is the unmistakable scent of salty caramel that demonstrates a tomato is at its peak. While green tomatoes can be reddened with ethylene gas, furaneol, the compound that gives tomatoes their distinctive aroma, accumulates only when a fruit is allowed to fully mature on the vine. Strawberries and mangoes share the same compound and other fruits contain analogous aromatic molecules when fully ripe. But how often do cooking shows and magazines describe how produce should smell? Though we learn how to make colorful compositions on the dinner plate, when do we learn how to use our nose to explore food combinations? Understanding the role of aroma and the power of our nose is essential for eating well.

Our sense of smell comprises a comparatively large fraction of our genetic makeup. We use more than 1000 different sensory receptors to analyze a smell, each receptor with its own genetic code. The ability to distinguish subtleties among smells is enormous and was of great importance when our prehistoric ancestors relied on hunting and gathering to survive.

Though supermarkets have obviated the need for daily foraging, scent, closely linked to our sense of taste, is a cornerstone of our food enjoyment. The process of chewing food releases aromatic compounds that are detected by the olfactory receptors in the nasal passages. While we are likely to comment on how food tastes, we are making the judgment based on how it smells. Yet, our supermarkets are deodorized to the point of sterility, our produce is often hermetically sealed in plastic wrap, and our cookbooks read like IKEA design guides. Moving past visual appeal to explore other sensations associated with food opens up new horizons and leads to a richer culinary experience.

Despite the importance of olfaction in our lives, there is no common vocabulary to describe smell. We associate smells with something – a place, a memory, a flavor – but most people struggle to describe smell on its own terms. Professional perfumers and flavorists have developed their own vocabulary and classification of scents, but this language rarely makes its way to the consumer. The term “aromatic,” when used by a perfumer, refers not to something with a strong aroma, but to the specific pungent, camphoraceous notes found in herbs like lavender and rosemary. Perfume sales in North America are driven more by visual design and packaging than the actual smell of the perfume, so it is hardly a surprise that our food culture likewise places enormous emphasis on presentation and visualization.

In many traditional cuisines where olfaction plays a much larger role, food shopping and preparation are taught with reference to aromas. One such example is India, where Hindu purity guidelines dictate that a cook cannot taste food as it is being prepared. Outside of the Hindu community, one can likewise observe the culinary pedagogy in which smell and sound play a crucial role.

During my stay in the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, I followed instructions like “fry mustard seeds till they start popping; sauté onion till it smells sweet; if eggplant smells bitter, use a bit of sugar.” Though somewhat baffling at first, with time these guidelines were much more useful than a stopwatch. An onion can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to caramelize depending on its size and water content, but the sweet smell of golden and melted down onions is an unmistakable indicator of doneness.

The link between olfaction and cooking was made more explicit by earlier generations of cooks, and many cookbooks published before the 20th century made mention of scents and even included recipes for perfumes. Until the last century colognes were not just splashed on the skin; they were designed to be consumed as well!  They were created with essences such as bergamot, rosemary, cinnamon and clove, all valued as much for their pleasing scent as for their medicinal properties. Spice mixes for desserts such as gingerbread were often referred to as parfums mélangés, or mixed perfumes, and were also used in potpourri and beauty preparations.

Today, the Food Network and the burgeoning cookbook industry tend to favor “paint by numbers” recipes; food marketing requires simplicity and scent is a complex topic. Cookbook editors are afraid to replace the ambiguous system of cup measures for more precise weight measures. How can they be expected to tackle scent?

Yet I wish more cookbooks would deviate from the standard mold and include some basic instruction on the often ignored sense that ties it all together. It is time for the food media and chefs to teach us more about aromas and make us better equipped to select ripe fruit, to recognize poor quality olive oil, and to compose balanced dishes. Learning the nuances of scent takes practice and starts with awareness: smell fruit before you buy and be mindful of aromas when tasting. The world of flavor and fragrance is complex and the possibilities for exciting combinations are endless.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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18 Comments

  • Karen A: Wonderful article! I wonder what the reaction would be to a cookbook that does away with times and instead recommends using your nose! January 13, 2020 at 9:59am Reply

  • Sandra: Cooking and experiencing different smells and tastes from different cultures is so important. It can also brake down barriers between cultures.

    I am going to ramble a bit here, but when I was a very young woman, fresh out of college one of my first roommates was Iranian. I am not afraid to admit my short comings, as I hope I am amongst friends here, that I came at her in my mind with all my American stereotypes at that time. This was a period when I was brought up by influences of the news and people around me, their feelings towards the Middle East. What bridged the gap between her and I was they day she invited me to a Persian feast that was cooked by her and her Iranian friends. I clearly remember it and its been near 20 years. The first time I tasted rose water in a dessert I felt as if my taste buds were having an orgasmic dance in my mouth. And that is all it took..today I have several books on Persian cuisine. Since I never expressed my inner thoughts to my Iranian roommate at that time, she probably has no idea, even to this day, how she changed my views and my tastebuds by being herself and welcoming me into her kitchen.
    Today, my kids even know how to make kookoo sabzi. They know the smell of the herbs and the the interesting adveih spice.
    I have been making Malalabia, an Arabic pudding for years to remember the first time I tasted a sweet dessert with rose. I have a whole ritual around it. I never follow a recipe and add the sugar, cardamon, and floral waters to taste. I listen to the oud on the speaker while I am stirring the pudding waiting for it to thicken. I make it with a lot of love. When I am taste it, and the floral waters are balanced, in some ways, I seduce myself. January 13, 2020 at 11:05am Reply

    • Lema: Sandra, this is the best story ever. How taste and smell can overcome and subjugate all differences and how scent and food unify us all. January 13, 2020 at 11:32am Reply

      • Sandra: ..”how scent and food unify us all”
        Well said!
        I couldn’t agree with you more!
        Cheers! Sandra January 13, 2020 at 3:27pm Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Hello Sandra, I really, really love the story you tell! January 13, 2020 at 4:28pm Reply

      • Sandra: Thank you!
        I don’t know what shifted in me to share such personal things. But I have been reading this blog for a long time and felt moved by Victoria’s post January 13, 2020 at 4:39pm Reply

        • OnWingsofSaffron: Good for you! I find your story very moving! January 13, 2020 at 4:51pm Reply

    • spe: Beautiful – thank you for sharing this lovely memory and its impact. January 14, 2020 at 9:38am Reply

      • Sandra: I wish perfume and food were the answers to everything. January 14, 2020 at 10:11am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Thanks, Sandra, for sharing your lovely story.

      Victoria, thanks for the excellent article. January 16, 2020 at 12:49pm Reply

  • Tami: I often say that cooking is an art, baking is a science. Baking generally requires great care with timing and measurement (though scent and appearance can play a role); with cooking, you can rely more on color changes, scent, and the “feel” of the ingredients to give you a sense of readiness. Both require great alertness, but in different ways. That said, very few things remind me (and others) of “home” more than the scent of a certain kind of cookie or cake coming out of the oven. There’s a reason some realtors stick a pan of vanilla in the oven or plant fresh sticks of cinnamon in various corners when they’re trying to sell a house 😉 January 13, 2020 at 12:34pm Reply

    • spe: Tami – my Mom – an excellent baker – would absolutely agree with your observations! January 14, 2020 at 9:40am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Victoria, I couldn’t agree more! And—or should I say “but”?—in order to smell and savour the best fruit and vegetables, you need to go to farmers’ and/or organic markets, or to specialist shops selling the first perfect produce. (There is one such shop in Brussels called Champigros on Rue Ste. Catherine selling “primeurs”.) And you’ll have to pay more for your shopping.
    Sadly, here in Germany there is no real everyday culture honouring the cream of the crop like, say in Japan or France/Belgium. Here, the variety of food is more limited and the quality veers to mass production: the cheaper, the merrier, seems to be the motto. Therefore, as an example, it is next to impossible to find really ripe and luscious peaches brimming with flavour and scent. The peaches are rock-hard, thrown around like bricks, and three days later the peaches starts getting moldy where the fruit was bruised.
    So it’s rather lovely to read such a great article which hopefully will have an impact on the readers. January 13, 2020 at 4:49pm Reply

  • Carla: Marcella Hazan is right to compliment you! I’m an experienced cook and only follow recipes very loosely but I still forget to taste along (perhaps my American canned food upbringing), and I really ought to smell along too. Thanks for reminding me! January 13, 2020 at 6:53pm Reply

  • Inma: Thank you for sharing this article! I feel it connected to this other one “Why is the scent of listick so nostalgic?”. For me they bring up the importance of subjectivity and intimacy.
    These days reflecting on the visual sense as a more judgemental sense and sound, touch and smell as more directly connected to emotions. And how we human beings relate primarily to the world – for what is really meaningful for us – based on our subjective sensory experiences.
    So thank you for helping me to go on thinking and experiencing! January 14, 2020 at 6:11am Reply

  • Aurora: What a wonderful article. I get to smell fruit and vegetable in my neighborhood by going to the turkish store and it’s a treat. Also at the farmers market, once a month. Do you have a large collection of old cookbooks? January 18, 2020 at 1:33am Reply

  • Gelia: What a wonderful subject. I started to develop my nose after I discovered this site almost 6 years ago. I came from a cold non-smelling country. As long as I remember myself the only persistent smell was the one from the sea. People there rarely use perfumes and their tastes are very modest. Spices are not popular neither.
    So my nose was neglected by me for a long time. Now I really enjoy tracing scents.
    It’s so sad that fruits don’t smell anymore, even on farmers’ market. Only once I found peaches that had a distinct scent of ripe fruit. I still remember smell of berries and tomatoes in my garden.
    Cooking is a pleasure mostly because of smelling food during the process. I discovered cumin quite recently, less than 10 years ago. Now I buy it only from a small Lebanese shop. I keep it in a box and opening it every time I enjoy its animalic dense scent. And what a pleasure to crush black pepper or coriander seeds.
    When I read articles there I am being transported to another world. It’s like a magic. January 18, 2020 at 7:10am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Wonderful article, Victoria. My daughter-in-law is Gujurati and I have learned so much from her and her mother about cooking. I have learned is to smell the food as it’s cooking and to listen to cooking sounds as well, like the popping of spices being heated in oil. I now appreciate how much heating the spices improves the fragrance and flavor of food. I really enjoy using both fragrance and taste to determine what spices and ingredients are in a new food that I am tasting for the first time. January 24, 2020 at 11:06pm Reply

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