A Matter of Taste. From chocolate chip cookies to chicken broth, ketchup to caviar - traveling down the tastebud trail with a food-testing journalist

Why does chicken taste better when you add salt, or ginger, or fresh tarragon? Elementary, dear reader - it's a matter of taste.

But what is taste? And who decides what is the best taste? How do you choose the best mustard or olive oil or mayonnaise when you find a dozen or more different brands at the supermarket?

For some people, like chefs and restaurant critics, a finely honed palate is an essential piece of equipment. Their careers hang on the ability to discern, recall, and re-create tastes.

Culinary journalist Jennifer Harvey Lang has studied and researched the profession of tasting as a way to finding the best in many national brand food products. A well-known chef, consumer spokesman, and food writer, Ms. Lang trained at the Culinary Institute of America and was the first woman to cook in the kitchens of New York's famous ``21'' Club.

When talking with shoppers for a consumer shopping column for the Washington Post, she discovered that many people buy certain brands ``because their mother did,'' or ``because it's familiar.'' Others say ``it must be good because it's imported, because it's expensive.''

Intrigued by such vague reasoning, Ms. Lang decided to set up some panels of professionals for determining taste and quality of basic foods.

``This kind of investigation appeals to me,'' she says. ``I've always had a penchant for searching out the very best.''

Lang gathered together a group of food industry people with trained palates for 100 or more blind tastings of some well-known, everyday brand foods.

For four years or so, she and her tasters sampled over 225 mustards, 60 strawberry jams, about 100 kinds of chocolate, and many other national products. The results are informative and, in some instances, controversial. Take ketchup, for example.

Ketchup is probably the most important condiment in the United States. We put it on hamburgers, French fries, scrambled eggs, and meatloaf. President Nixon ate it with cottage cheese.

``It's no surprise that surveys show the average teen-ager eats ketchup once a day,'' Lang says.

But the bottom line for taste is often surprising.

An example is Heinz ketchup. When asked, 9 out of 10 people will state flatly that they like Heinz ketchup and no other. But at the blind tasting Heinz was not a favorite, to the disappointment of others on the panel who are diehard Heinz lovers. Del Monte ketchup rates first, even though Heinz is more popular. Heinz has 46 percent of the ketchup market, Hunt's has 14 percent, and Del Monte has 12.

``The panel liked Del Monte best because it's sweet and pungent without being too sour, has a hint of tomato flavor, and is not too salty,'' Lang says. ``It seems to have all the qualities that a ketchup should have.

``The panel says the texture is just right, thick enough to mound nicely for dipping into French fries, with no watery runoff,'' she explains.

``Industry scuttlebutt has it that Del Monte is made with pineapple vinegar. That could be just the touch that makes it taste best.''

Lang explains that one's sense of taste is not constant and that many things can influence it. An individual's preference for bitterness, sweetness, or a certain texture may contradict the preferences of a trained palate.

When it comes to ice cream, the most popular food in America, industry surveys show that New Englanders eat an average of about 24 quarts of ice cream a year, the most of any region. The nation as a whole averages about 15 quarts per capita.

The bottom line on ice cream tastes? H"aagen-Dazs is tops. Howard Johnson's is second, but Lang says results were almost a tie between these two.

``Both are creamy and rich tasting, which is what most of us look for in a commercial ice cream,'' she says. ``The main difference between the two front runners is texture.

``H"aagen Dazs is the epitome of super premium ice cream. It's richly dense and intensely flavored.

``Howard Johnson's, on the other hand, has a lighter, more airy texture. It is also made with stabilizers, while Haagen Dazs is not, but this gives Howard Johnson's the advantage of lasting longer in the supermarket as well as in the home freezer.

``Although I would not have predicted the results before our controlled tasting session, Howard Johnson's is my personal favorite over H"aagen Dazs,'' Lang says. ``The texture is lighter, which allows me to eat more - my secondary goal when eating ice cream!''

Also rated were Frusen Gl"adje', which placed third and was described as ``a mild vanilla flavor, sweet, good texture, creamy, a little bland,'' and Godiva, fourth, listed as ``grainy, sweet, very rich, bland.'' Swenson's came in fifth, with Breyers sixth and Ben and Jerry's seventh, from this panel's judgements.

Tuna is another favorite American food that was tested by the special panel.

``Most US households have an average of two or three cans on their pantry shelves at all times,'' Lang says. ``You know where it goes - tuna sandwiches, tuna salads, and tuna casseroles.''

Top ratings for tuna packed with oil went to a brand imported from Spain listed as Atun Blanco Bonito del Norte. The panel said it is ``meatier than most American tuna, almost like a tuna steak, packed in lots of oil.''

Star-Kist chunk light tuna came in second, and Bumble Bee chunk light third, followed by Chicken of the Sea solid white tuna.

The Lang team tested foods in some 31 categories, ranging from common pantry basics such as flour, pasta, yogurt, soy sauce, olive oils, peanut butter, and chocolate chip cookies to luxury foods like caviar and truffles. Lang has put them all together in a book, ``Tastings: The Best - From Ketchup to Caviar'' (Crown, $14.95).

Each chapter begins with a lively introduction about the use of each food, with information on how to evaluate, buy, store, and cook them. In addition, there are 75 special recipes.

There are a number of surprises in the lists of winners. Columbo, for example, garnered finest fruit yogurt, and Kraft the best mayonnaise, with Cains second and Weight Watcher's third.

Swanson chicken broth was rated best and praised for its ``balanced, clean flavor,'' although College Inn has long been recommended in cookbooks and by cooking school teachers. Campbell's was second, and Manischewitz came in third in the canned chicken broth tastings.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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