Do-it-yourself taste testing

Although experts have elaborate techniques for sensory evaluation, you can do your own informal tasting by taking home a few cans of tomatoes or soup or bottles of soy sauce and rounding up some willing friends. For starters, advise your panel of friends that the four basic tastes are picked up by specific taste buds.

Sweetness is best appreciated at the tip of the tongue, sourness on the sides toward the back of the mouth, bitterness at the back of the tongue, and saltiness along the sides at the front of the mouth. Also, it is important to swirl food or drink around in your mouth when tasting.

Here are some basic tasting rules from Jennifer Havey Lang:

Never taste when you're hungry or full.

Ideal tasting time is 10 a.m. Studies show taste buds are most receptive at that hour, free of toothpaste and mouthwash and not yet subject to pre-lunch appetite.

Read up on foods to be tasted and type a list of criteria for everyone.

Use a ballot sheet. Rate foods on a scale of one to 10, with 10 for excellent, one for poor, and five for average. Food rated under five is unacceptable. Provide a ``comment'' box. Encourage notes. Tabulate by averaging panelists' scores.

Make sure brands cannot be identified. Use either paper or clear glass bowls and plates. Number stickers on food to correspond to numbers on ballot sheet, and keep original containers hidden during tasting.

Use plastic spoons and forks. Metal can interfere with flavor. For some things, fingers may be best.

Inexperienced tasters should not try more than five foods or beverages at a time. Experienced tasters should not exceed 10 or 15.

Allow time between tastes. What we call flavor is really a composite of smell and taste. The nose can differentiate among thousands of odors, but our taste buds can only detect four tastes: salty, sour, bitter, and sweet. The nose takes 15 to 30 seconds to recover from sniffing each item, so take time.

Provide appropriate palate cleansers such as celery sticks, unsalted crackers, and unsalted seltzer water at room temperature. Professionals use warm water between tastes of oily foods.

Taste foods in order, from less sweet or bitter to the sweetest, from bland to the strongest tasting.

No talking until everyone finishes. After tasting, have on hand a list of the brand names in order tasted.

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