Ask A Scientist: Feng Shui-ing Your Food
Question: Is it true that potato will cut down pepperiness in soup?
Answer: Technically speaking, no, potato will not cut down the heat in an overly spiced soup. Starch has little effect on a spicy broth, nor will that potato “soak up” any of the heat.
HOWEVER, not all hope should be lost if you went a little nuts in the seasoning department. The zing of a heavy spicing hand can be counteracted through flavor balancing, fat content and temperature, based on how we perceive flavors.
Flavor balancing doesn’t neutralize an unwanted flavor, it simply masks the undesirable one. Truly, I had never thought of this until I had started cooking seriously- I noticed that I would see people pour salt in like they were on a personal mission to prevent goiter EVERYWHERE, then counteract the salinity with a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of a lemon. I also noted how many times that I had made a tomato sauce with a spoonful of sugar or a grated carrot thrown in, whatever would cut down the acidity of the tomato. If a flavor was sticking out to me when I tasted it, I simply chose the opposite of it and used that with reckless abandon.
I could get into the science of how our brains pick up different flavors through ion channels and taste receptors, but we would be here for quite a while if I would. Instead, lets just go over the basic flavors and what flavors counteracts our reactions to the initial flavor.
The five basic flavors that the tongue can detect are bitterness, sweetness, acidity, salinity and umami (aka “delicious” or “savory”). There are other additional sensations that are commonly associated with the five flavors as well, such as spiciness, temperature and mouthfeel, but these are mere descriptors on the basic flavors. Much like a color wheel, if one flavor is present, the opposite flavor will balance it. Like this:
(Also to note, flavors will compliment each other- such as sweet and salty or bitter and sour.) So, for example, if you have a very bitter sauce, salt might help counteract some of the undesirable tang. Sweet or sour flavors might also bring out desirable sensations as well, but the best bet is going to clearly be salty. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the flavor is more in the eye of the beholder than having an actual measurement to work with.
To note, when balancing undesirable flavors in food the element isn’t being eliminated, it’s simply being masked. Other culinary techniques can also influence how we taste something- namely by fat content and temperature. If food is higher in fat, less of the flavor will be picked up by receptors on the tongue as the fat acts as a makeshift buffer of sorts. Our tongues also have a harder time perceiving flavors when foods are over 86 degrees, so if fat or seasoning balancing isn’t an option to mask an unwanted flavor, another simple hack to save a dish may be to just warm it slightly.