Listen to Your Ingredients

“For a marinara like this, the San Marzano tomato, grown on the hills of the volcano above Naples, Vesuvius, is about the best.”

That was just part of the advice offered up by Lidia Bastianich, who was recently featured at the Rubin Museum during the museum’s Brainwave series. The Italian-born American chef and psychobiologist Gary Beauchamp, PhD, explored the link between the brain and cooking in “What’s the Secret to a Great Home-Made Sauce.”


Photo credit: Asya Danilova

Bastianich is a celebrated restauranteur and cooking-show host, and has written over a dozen cook books. Beauchamp is president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center and has dedicated his studies towards human perception of flavors, specifically sweet and salty.

One common theme stood out throughout the night – that food will “speak to you.” Beauchamp explored the ways in which certain food will biologically, through survival aspects or evolution, signal their importance to the brain as a supplier of essential nutrients through flavor. Bastianich explained ways in which she finds the best ingredients for her cooking by analyzing fruits and vegetables and how to tell which are the best to use for maximum flavor.

Take the tomatoes in San Marzano, for example. Bastianich pointed out that their signature thin skin, and lack of juiciness reduces their acidity and makes them sweet and pulpy, perfect for her marinara. Her simple marinara base includes only two other flavor profiles – garlic and olive oil. All these factors, as well as the topography of the land in which they are grown, add up to the ideal marinara tomato.

On the tables in which the audience were seated there were small samples of Bastianich’s marinara sauce along with some Italian basil and small chunks of parmigiana cheese. Beauchamp sampled the sauce and confirmed Bastianich’s sauce is special.

“It’s the perfect balance,” he said to a smiling Bastianich.

Beauchamp explained his interest in the balance between sweet and salty, and noted Bastianich’s low sodium approach. He also described another flavor, “umami,” which he defines as the breakdown product of amino acids. The umami taste is a signal for high percentages of proteins and amino acids, and humans are attracted to it because of its implications of getting those nutrients for survival. It’s a familiar taste to most people and is actually another description for monosodium glutamate (MSG). While a lot of controversy circles MSG, Beauchamp said that it is found in many natural things – tomatoes having one of the highest percentages. It is also found in cheeses and human breast milk.

Sweet flavor is a primal signal of glucose and calories, and another taste that humans associate with survival, since it is also a sign for foods that are not poisonous. Beauchamp gave his take on the sugar industry, revealing that sweet is the most innate pleasure stimuli we know of. It’s often associated with being addictive, but Beauchamp noted that since glucose is a requirement for survival, “addictive” might not be the best word. He does agree however, that the evil portrayal of sugar is based on the excess amounts humans consume.

Bastianich’s approach to finding the perfect sweetness in a fruit is to eat it in the moment of “natura morta,” or its biological dying process. This is the moment when a fruit is sweetest because it is decomposing and cells are exploding, releasing the most flavor. Beauchamp reaffirmed this by explaining that the glutamate levels in tomatoes increases as it ripens and is at its highest levels when about to rot.

Adding too much flavor should be avoided, agreed Beauchamp and Bastianich. Beauchamp referenced studies in which the subjects were given flavorless food, but provided with salt on the side. He found that people put less salt on top, yet were still satisfied with the amount they were tasting. Bastianich advised to avoid overheating, recommending that grated cheese on top, or adding butter in a recipe later than you would think will get you much more mileage out of the ingredient. Referencing fruit “natura morta” one last time, she said, “If you let nature talk to you, you get the maximum out of it.”

– Celina Sooksatan

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