Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

The Science Behind Why Cheese is so Delicious

The great chef Auguste Escoffier did for fancy food what other early twentieth century thinkers around him were parmigiano-1adoing. He replaced old superstitions in the kitchen with a codified, scientific approach. In his gastronomic work Guide Culinaire (1903) Escoffier introduced modern cooking driven by taste… by pure deliciousness.

Escoffier based his cuisine on the use of well reduced stocks, such as demi glace (the distilled essence of veal, beef and vegetables) to make the taste of dishes deeply satisfying. What he had tapped into was L-glutamate, the dominant amino acid in the composition of life. Half a world away a Japanese chemist was also asking himself why a certain food tasted so delicious.

In 1907 Kikunae Ikeda noticed that his wife used dashi, a seasoning broth, as a base for most preparations. But what did dashi taste like? Not the recognized four flavors of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It had a universal and profound tastiness that he called umami, which means “delicious”. After years of research he discovered that protein, when properly processed by cooking, fermentation or ripening by the sun, generates the molecule glutamic acid. We perceive this as umami.

Umami is the reason that meat, soy sauce, tomato sauce and cheese (all potent sources of L-glutamate) have become the bases for cuisines around the world. Cured meats are a strong source. As prosciutto ages the amino acid glutamate increases substantially. In fact, using one form of glutamate with another intensifies the deliciousness of the whole… a tomato sauce pasta tastes even more tomatoey when prosciutto or Parmesan cheese is added.

Parmesan cheese is one of the most concentrated forms of glutamate at 1200 mg per 100 grams. Only Roquefort cheese has more. Is there any wonder that Parmesan is a universal flavor enhancer?

We are all designed with the taste for denatured protein (glutamine) and crave it. Being protein and water ourselves, we need it. Our bodies produce about 40 grams of glutamate a day and we are constantly trying to replace it. We are trained at birth to savor breast milk which is 10 times higher in glutamate than cow’s milk. The process of making animal milk into cheese concentrates glutamate and it becomes satisfying, even irresistibly delicious.

Need to know more? An entertaining book that includes a discussion of this is Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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