The Sensory Evaluation group at McCormick & Company Inc. makes the following suggestions for do-it-yourself taste tests:
*The sense of aroma constitutes 80 percent or more of a person's sense of flavor. To test for aroma, line up 10 household items and see if the person can identify them with his or her eyes closed. Marianne Gillette, who performs this test with McCormick's taster trainees, suggests the following products: anise or fennel, almond extract, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, lemon extract, onion powder, turpentine, vanilla, vinegar, scotch or bourbon. (To keep in the volatile aromas, it's best to keep each item covered before smelling, says Gillette. And the best way to smell is to take three short sniffs of each item.)
*Fine tune your olfactory memory by smelling various spices and concentrating on their primary characteristics, as defined by the "spice language" at McCormick. Nutmeg: pine, citrus, numbing. Thyme: earthy, musty, minty, green. Oregano: minty, musty, medicinal, hay. Rosemary: evergreen, minty, dirty. Dill: green, pickles, hay. Caraway: rye, anise/licorice. Ginger: soapy, heat, perfumey, floral. Cardamom: medicinal, citrus, soapy, lemony. Horseradish: pungent, heat, radish. Cumin: musty, earthy/dirty.
*Prepare lemon gelatin and tint separate batches with red, green, orange and purple food coloring. Invariably, says Gillette, tasters identify the red as strawberry, the green as lime, the orange as orange and the purple as anything from grape, root beer or licorice to "terrible."
*With your eyes closed, take a sip of 7-Up and then a sip of Coke and see how much harder it is to identify them than you thought. Do your own Pepsi Challenge. Or, test Classic Coke against New Coke and see if you can identify each with your eyes closed or via a triangle test. A triangle test involves three samples: two that are the same and one that is different.
*If your kids insist they will only eat a certain brand of peanut butter, says Nancy Lynch, a McCormick sensory evaluation technician, try to outsmart them. See if they can truly identify the difference by conducting a blind taste test with two or three competing brands. Similarly, you can taste test your pet.
*Help yourself adjust to foods lower in fat or salt. Set up a triangle taste test to see if you can tell the differences in reduced-fat milks, mayonnaises, cheeses. See if you can tell the difference between NutraSweet and sugar.
*Conduct a "duo-trio" test, another method used to test the difference between two foods. This test, which is more difficult to answer correctly than a triangle test, involves giving the person a sample, removing it and then giving the person two other samples. In the second batch, one of the foods should be the same as the first, the other one should be different. See if the person can identify which of the second samples matches the first. Do not allow the person to retaste the first sample.
*Test the order of taste. According to Gillette, when tasting two similar products, people tend to prefer what they taste first, before any satiation or oral fatigue has occurred. As a result, a poorer quality sample, such as weak coffee or a generic cola will score better if it's tasted first as opposed to second. Conversely, the strong coffee and Real Thing will taste weaker if tasted second.
And finally, home amateurs who have the dream of going pro can participate in McCormick's new consumer taste panels, which begin in January at the company's technical headquarters in Hunt Valley. Call Nancy Lynch at 301-667-7059.