Welcome to another tasting Tuesday the day I give you a tip to make your life a little bit tastier! Today we’re talking aroma, olfaction, sniffing, smelling…part one. Because there is a lot to unpack here!
Tasting Tuesday: When I Sniff, You Sniff, We Sniff
To start, an *extremely* brief rundown of how we smell things. A molecule must have two traits to be able to be sensed by smell. First, it must be vaporized (aka in the gaseous state if you are thinking back to high school chemistry). Second, it must be at least somewhat water soluble.
These two attributes must be in place because the molecule needs to travel about 7cm up your nostril to the olfactory epithelium (by being gaseous) and then be dissolved into the mucus that covers the olfactory receptor neurons. All of this traveling and mucus-ing is important because it affects your sniff strategy.
First, you’ll want to take a few short sniffs. This allows small doses of the aroma molecules to start their 7cm journey up your nasal passage. Though the journey doesn’t take long, it is also not immediate. If you were to take too long of a sniff, the aroma molecules could overwhelm your receptors when they arrive in a large dose at the olfactory epithelium. So take a few short ones and see if you need a little more to focus in on the aroma.
Once you’ve done a few rounds of short sniffing, (maybe three one-second sniffs for three sets) try a longer sniff…but not too long! Three to four seconds is just right. Again, you don’t want too large of a dose that may overwhelm your receptors, and you also don’t want to dry out the all-important mucus that allows the aroma molecules to be sensed in the first place. If you suck too much air up your schnoz you run the risk of some of the mucus evaporating which allows fewer aroma molecules to come in contact with your receptors.
We all know that you don’t want to be stuffed up with a head cold when you’re tasting (the aroma molecules will get stuck in the gunk and never reach the “good” mucus at the back of the nostril) but you *also* don’t want to be too dry, nasally speaking. Many tasters will sleep with a humidifier by their bed to keep the balance just right. (This is the one I have in my bedroom. And I just got this one to travel…I swear I’m not crazy!) If you are a little stuffed up before a tasting, consider your nasal decongestant carefully. It may solve one problem, but cause another by drying out your nasal cavity.
To improve your chances of getting every aspect of aroma from a sample, do a covered sniff: Create a seal with your hand on the top of the glass and swirl for three to four seconds. As you swirl, aroma molecules are filling the space between your hand and the liquid, ready to escape the moment you lift your hand from the rim. So make sure the glass is close to your nose when you remove your palm! Then take a few short sniffs or one three-second sniff.
Exploratory Sniffing and Getting to Know Your Nose
Now, a few fun things to try to get to know your personal aromatic sensitivities. Try sniffing with just one nostril, then the other. Your receptors in each nostril may not be identical, or one may be more dry than the other. Did you notice a difference?
Another fun sniff: try doing a long sniff with your mouth closed, then do it again with your mouth slightly open. Did you notice a difference in the aroma you detected? (Try again if you’re not sure!!) If you noticed something a litttttle different, I’ll tell you why next week when we graduate to part two of sniffing school!
Further Reading on Aroma and Olfaction: