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How Kitchen Sounds Influence Food Flavor


Well, it's Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah. For lots of us, this means a festive feast is in the works. If you happen to be listening in the kitchen right now, the sound of us might be drowned out by loud relatives or the cacophony of kids. And under all that, if you really listen, there's another soundtrack - all the sounds of cooking. Whether it's the sizzle of a holiday roast, the bubble of seasonal sauce or the chop of a crunchy veggie, all of these sounds can change the way we experience flavor. Here to explain is Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza. They're editors of Cook's Science digital magazine, and they've just published an article called "Taste With Your Ears: How Sound Can Change The Way We Eat" (ph).

Thanks for joining us.

MOLLY BIRNBAUM: Thanks for having us.

DAN SOUZA: Yeah, we're excited to be here.

AUBREY: All right. So Molly, I want to start with you. How did you get interested in this intersection of food and sound?

BIRNBAUM: I actually got interested in this subject in a slightly odd way. About 10 years ago, I was working in restaurants, obsessed with food, really wanting to spend my life cooking. And I was in a car accident. I fractured the back of my skull and severed the olfactory neurons, which run from the nose to the brain. So in a split second, I lost my sense of smell completely, and flavor is majority smell.

AUBREY: This has got to be a terrible thing for a foodie, somebody who's very food-centered.

BIRNBAUM: It is. I mean, my sense of smell did slowly, slowly come back over the course of the next seven or so years. And during that time, I really started to think about how all of our other senses work together to create flavor. I really learned how to cook using my other senses and how to eat using my other senses.

AUBREY: In the article, you make the case that if we pay attention to all of our senses, hearing in particular, we can become better cooks. Dan, how so? What's an example of this?

SOUZA: So a great example is a recipe that we've done for this is a butter-basted ribeye steak. And it's a great recipe. We've actually built into the recipe auditory cues in place of some of the visual cues we normally use to kind of get people to pay attention more. So when a steak goes into a skillet, it should be a really sharp sizzle.


SOUZA: So depending on the temperature of the pan and how much moisture is on the outside of the steak will determine how loud that sizzle is. So if it's kind of dull or kind of muted, it means that the pan is not hot enough. So that's just one example.

We also have some really cool quizzes that we're going to put out on social media that compare the sound of hot water to the sound cold water. And, believe it or not, they actually sound really different. And we also have one where we're using a sharp knife on an onion and a dull knife. And so you can tell a lot about, kind of, the state of your knives, the state of your pan, a lot of what's happening around you in the kitchen.

AUBREY: How does hot water sound different from cold water? That's kind of perplexing.

SOUZA: It is. And it's really simple to try at home as well. So if you have a kettle, bring it to a boil and pour it into a mug.


SOUZA: And there's a very soft, almost muffled kind of sound to it, whereas if you pour cold water in the same way, it's much crisper.


SOUZA: And you'll be surprised that you actually know that even though you haven't thought about it before.

AUBREY: How about really noisy spaces, Molly, whether it's your own kitchen or a loud restaurant? How can noisy spaces influence our taste buds and our appetites?

BIRNBAUM: It's actually surprising how much the noise around you can influence how you perceive the flavor of food. First is how much you eat. People tend to eat more when they're in a noisy environment. The second is it tends to dull some of the taste of the food that you're eating, especially salty and sweet. And the third, which is also interesting and pertains particularly to loud bars, is scientists have found that you have a hard time perceiving how much alcohol is in an alcoholic drink when you're in a noisy environment, which means that you might drink more than you want to.

AUBREY: What about music? How does music influence this perception of taste?

SOUZA: Well, there's been some really interesting studies looking at the pitch of music and how it can influence, particularly how you sense sweet and kind of sour, bitter flavors. And we've actually done a really cool recipe that goes along with the story that we just published for a chocolate financier, which is a really butter-rich chocolate, kind of, French brownie. And it's both bitter and sweet. And we have some music links on the site to some of Ben Houge - he's a composer here in Boston - some of his music that make the financier taste either sweeter...


SOUZA: ...Or more bitter depending on the one you're listening to.


AUBREY: I will try all of this, probably not this weekend when I will have loud relatives.


AUBREY: But all of this is really fascinating. Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza with Cook's Science - their article "Taste With Your Ears" is in the latest issue of the digital magazine. And they also have a book out, "Cook's Science: How To Unlock Flavor In 50 Of Our Favorite Ingredients."

Molly and Dan, happy holidays and happy cooking.

BIRNBAUM: Thanks so much.

SOUZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.