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Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste

Whether crispy, creamy, or juicy, texture makes taste. Changing a food’s texture can also remake its taste—to eaters’ detriment or advantage. These gastro-scientific transformations have significant consequences when considering how to make healthy diets interesting, challenging, tasty, and appealing.

These are the insights of Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, a new book published in February 2017 by the Danish team of molecular biophysicist, Ole G. Mouritsen, and chef, Klavs Styrbæk, who wrote together Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste in 2015. Mouthfeel was translated into English, revised, and adapted for a broader audience by Mariela Johansen. The final product from Columbia University Press is a beautifully executed text packed full of relatively accessible food science, stunning full-color photographs, and thought-provoking recipes.

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Mouthfeel is a gorgeously produced text with high-gloss pages and many full-color photographs and images. / Photo credit: Emily Contois

Fans of Gordon Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters (also from Columbia University Press) will find much to love and think with in Mouthfeel, and with a welcome focus on the culinary.

Of interest to me as researcher in food studies and critical nutrition studies was Mouritsen and Styrbæk’s assertion that foods that engage all of our senses provide not only gastronomic pleasure, but also a potential path for eating well and healthfully. While Mouthfeel addresses these points in its introductory and concluding sections, the bulk of the text reads more like a textbook than a monograph making a critical argument.

Nevertheless, Mouthfeel very usefully articulates a set of common definitions and understandings for terms often used erroneously and interchangeably:

  • Taste is the recognition of taste substances by the taste bud.
  • Flavor is a complicated, multimodal, and multidimensional impression that engages all five senses (including mouthfeel), which are rooted in the nervous system.
  • Mouthfeel is a part of the somatosensory system that senses the physical stimuli of food’s textural properties, which arise from food’s structural elements. Mechanically, mouthfeel involves the lips, tongue, saliva, teeth, jaws, and nerves, as well as tactile sensations of the eating process like the feeling of food, breathing, chewing, and swallowing.

Building upon these definitions, Mouritsen and Styrbæk attest that mouthfeel has been the most neglected contributor to the experience of flavor, but one that ought to be recognized and understood.

Mouthfeel and Cooking

Cooking transforms mouthfeel and by extension flavor as well. The authors argue that foods with appropriate and pleasing textures can be prepared with less fat, sugar, and calories, and thus positively promote healthy eating patterns. Think the positive opposite of the food industry trends chronicled by Michael Moss in Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us or by former FDA commissioner David Kessler in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Recipes throughout the text make these food science transformations more tangible. The recipes range from pesto, instant churned butter, and caramelized potatoes to grilled beef heart, apple “fudge,” jellyfish “popsicles,” and chewy almond-milk ice cream. Some recipes are suited for the home kitchen and average cook (albeit one with some leisure time on her/his/their hands), while other recipes better serve as inspiration and aspiration.

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Recipe for and image of “Parmesan-Flavored Smoked Cheese with Dried Radishes.” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

The Language of Food—and Mouthfeel

Drawing from Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, the text also codifies a descriptive vocabulary for naming mouthfeel with words like “crisp,” which happens to be the most frequently used word to describe texture in the United States and in much of Europe. Classifications of texture, and the language that describes them, consider food’s mechanical, geometric, culinary, and nutritional qualities:

  • soft
  • firm
  • hard
  • creamy
  • juicy
  • tough
  • crunchy 
  • crackly
  • brittle
  • gummy
  • soggy
  • dry
  • tender
  • leathery

Playing Around with Mouthfeel

Nearly 200 pages of Mouthfeel unpack various food preparation methods as ways to “play around with mouthfeel.” Sections address the properties of heat and temperature, gels, gums, bubbles, and glassy glosses, as well as the characteristics of specific ingredients and foods—milk, eggs, beans, grains, and vegetables, along with soups, breads, seafood, and desserts.

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Photographs in Mouthfeel depict “eggs, twelve ways.” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

Along the way, call-out boxes in the text include numerous entertaining stories and examples that bring the science of texture to life:

/ Fascinating for scholars of gastronomy, the authors credit Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste for identifying in 1825 “a rudimentary theory of taste” that in many ways holds to the present.

/ The authors demonstrate how chocolate’s deliciousness is due, in part, to its special mouthfeel, a result of the specific melting properties of cacao butter.

/ Chapter Five includes the recipe for and story behind physicist Amy Rowat’s “perfect American apple pie.” One of the “secrets” for improving the mouthfeel of the crust is to cut up the butter into pieces of different sizes that resemble both almonds and peas. The large pieces create necessary air pockets, while the smaller pieces ensure that the butter is evenly distributed throughout the dough.

/ Chapter Five also includes ethnographic accounts of the hardest food in the world (katsuobushi, a fish fillet that is dried, smoked, and then grows a fungus) and the softest food in the world (konbu, large brown algae), which are both specialties of Japan.

/ Chapter Six decodes mouthfeel in every dish of an eighteen-course lunch at Nerua, located in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.

Conclusions: The Future of Food and the Perfect Meal

Mouritsen and Styrbæk conclude pondering why we like the food that we do, positing that the answer is more personal than universal and as complex as the science of sensation itself. In the final chapter, they consider how to create “the perfect meal,” citing the work of Charles Spence, who argues that such an effort requires a deep interdisciplinarity, drawing from experimental psychology, design, neuroscience, sensory science, behavioral economics, marketing, and the culinary aspects of chemistry and physics.

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In their concluding chapter, the authors consider, “Why do we like the food that we do?” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

As Mouritsen and Styrbæk imagine the future of food, they disavow a meal in a pill or a tube. They assert,

It is quite possible to get by with food that is mushy, provided it has the right nutritional content. However, it is hard to imagine that one would like this kind of food for an extended period of time.

They argue instead that the solution to feeding the world lies in efficiently harnessing the power of mouthfeel. While Mouritsen and Styrbæk would surely reject Soylent, they find food system solutions in interesting vegetables, aquaculture, and plant proteins with meat-like texture.

All in all, Mouritsen and Styrbæk provide a fascinating account of food, eating, and cooking that novelly places mouthfeel and texture at the center of the equation. Their work sets the record straight regarding the contribution of mouthfeel to flavor—as well as to gastronomy and health.


I was fortunate to receive a review copy of  Mouthfeel from the publisher. Mouthfeel is the newest publication in Columbia University Press’ Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History series, which includes Nicola Perullo’s Taste as Experience (which I reviewed here), among a host of other fascinating books.

Photo credit: Emily Contois, 2017

2 Comments

  1. I had only heard the word mouthfeel in conjunction with the engineering of addictive fast food, snacks, candy bars, etc. I’m glad to see it in another context since it really does have wider meaning.
    Nice photographs!

    Like

    • Emily Contois says

      I had heard it commonly discussed on Food Network (ha!) and in those ways too, Jan, that’s part of why I found the authors’ contention intriguing—that mouthfeel can be used to positively “engineer,” if you will, healthy foods, dishes, and eating patterns as well. And thank you for your kind words on the photographs!

      Liked by 1 person

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