It’s summer and the first tomato harvests are showing up in farmers markets and backyard gardens around Los Angeles. If you’re trying to figure out what heirloom varietal you’re most likely to enjoy or looking to impress your friends with tomato tasting expertise, read on. Here’s some background on how taste works and what it means for tasting tomatoes.
Tasting Fact #1: You can only taste five flavors - salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami - everything else comes from your sense of smell.
What it means: Slice all tomatoes (even cherry tomatoes!) prior to tasting if you want to fully experience their flavor.
Tasting Fact #2: 25% of the population are “supertasters,” meaning that they have a significantly higher density of taste buds than the general population. Supertasters are more sensitive to all flavors and tend to react negatively to bitter and sour foods, such as coffee and citrus.
What it means: If you don’t like tomatoes, it might be because you’re a supertaster. Tomatoes are rather acidic with a pH between 4 and 5 depending on the varietal. If you’re a supertaster and are seeking a tomato that you might like, consider one with a higher pH. Cherry tomatoes, such as sun gold or Super Sweet 100’s, and brandywines are good options.
Tasting Fact #3: Building on tasting fact #2, people generally prefer salty, sweet and umami foods to bitter and sour foods. This served an evolutionary purpose since bitter and sour flavors could indicate poisonous or rotten food.
What it means: If you want to be a contrarian, acquire a taste for acidic tomatoes such as green zebra.
Tasting Fact #4: Women generally are more acute taste testers. For example, 35% of women are supertasters compared to just 15% of men. There is some scientific literature which also suggests that women have superior senses of smell. Without delving into an overly detailed analysis of these studies, the general consensus is that women are not necessarily able to better detect smells but the parts of their brain that identify and remember smells tend to show more activity.
What it means: Not sure what flavors you should be noticing? Ask one of your female friends.
Tasting Fact #5: According to Dr. Harry Klee, a horticulturalist at the University of Florida, there are flavors of “bananas, honey, roses, apples, melon rinds, vanilla, berries, sweaty cheese, peaches, chocolate, lawn clippings, lemongrass and wasabi” in the flavor of tomatoes.
What it means: Want to impress your friends? Practice identifying these flavors in the tomatoes from your garden. For the more humble, Sean’s guide to tomato flavors is a handy reference.