The Five Basic Tastes

When someone asks you how something tastes, your answer could be “good” or “delicious.” But if you really want to get specific, that answer could be broken down in a number of ways: five in fact. There are five universally accepted basic tastes that stimulate and are perceived by our taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Let’s take a closer look at each of these tastes, and how they can help make your holiday recipes even more memorable.


You probably have or know someone who has a “sweet tooth.” It has a nicer ring to it than sweet tongue, doesn’t it? Sweetness is often described as the pleasure taste, signaling the presence of sugar, which is a core source of energy and hence, desirable to the human body. It is no wonder that this is a taste that even babies gravitate to.

Furthermore, when used in a combination, sweet complements well with the other basic tastes. Adding sweetness such as a drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze to a traditionally salty vegetable dish like roasted brussel sprouts would take it to the next level.


The simplest taste receptor in the mouth is the sodium chloride receptor. Salt is a necessary component to the human diet and enhances the flavor of foods. However, the average American tends to consume way more than needed (about 2-3 times above the FDA’s recommended daily limit), and our palates adapt to crave more salt. Interestingly enough, when people cut back on salt in their diets, taste buds can adjust again and adapt to be satisfied with less.

As a flavor enhancer, adding salt to traditionally sweet dishes is necessary to amplify the sweet notes. A pinch of salt is core to most baked dessert recipes. Even if it is not listed in the ingredients, sprinkling some sea salt flakes or smoked salt over holiday ginger bread cookies brings out the sweetness of the sugar and enhances the ginger flavor.


Sourness is a taste that detects acidity. These taste buds detect hydrogen ions from organic acids found in foods. The mouth puckering sensation is common in citric fruits such as lemons and oranges, as well as tamarind and some leafy greens. The sour taste can also be obtained from foods soured through fermentation such as sauerkraut and yogurt, or through the addition of vinegar.

Many salad dressings feature vinegar as a key ingredient, which is a perfect way to add sour notes. You could also try adding lemon or orange zest to vinegar or even cream based dressings. Or, simply zest the top of your salad to help drive this craveable flavor sensation.


Bitter is the most sensitive of the five tastes. A large number of bitter compounds are known to be toxic, which is why many perceive bitter
flavors to be unpleasant. Hundreds of substances, mostly found in plants, taste bitter. However, a little bitterness can make food more interesting and have become beloved, like the hoppy taste in beer. Furthermore, there are cases where some bitterness could be healthy. Antioxidants, which aid in metabolism, account for the bitter taste in dark chocolate and coffee.

Dark chocolate shavings on top of your favorite holiday dessert could be a great addition to create a fun bitter flavor party.


Umami is an appetitive taste, sometimes described as savory or meaty. It is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. In the early part of the 20th century, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda attempted to identify this taste common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. But, not one of the four well-known tastes could describe it adequately. What he pinpointed was the presence of glutamic acid, which he renamed “umami”, Japanese for “good flavor”. Though one of the core flavors of Eastern cuisine imparted by soy sauce and MSG (monosodium glutamate), it wasn’t accepted as a basic taste in the West until 1985.

Why not add some savory umami flavors to your traditional holiday stuffing recipe this year by adding mushrooms into the mix?

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