(Originally posted on Sensorium, May 4 2014)
“Sour is the Basic Taste that makes our mouth water the most”, says Barb Stuckey in Taste: What You’re Missing:
This happens because a supersour food enters the mouth with more acidity than the permanent resident, saliva, which rushes in to try to manage this huge change in acidity in the mouth … Once there’s enough saliva to dilute the sourness, the waterworks stop. (pp. 227-228)
I thought that was interesting, but it was only the start of a fascinating exploration of sourness.
As I set out, I realised that I considered sourness—like bitterness—to be a “grown-up” taste. Babies really don’t like lemon, right? (Here’s a new video of babies reacting to their first taste.)
Surely only a mature connoisseur would appreciate the balancing tang that sourness brings to Asian food, or the sharpness it adds to a cocktail. Whiskey sour, anyone?
I myself have never been mature enough to enjoy umeboshi, Japanese salty/sour dried plums, but I do like other sour flavours: morello cherries, sour cream, a variety of vinegars, hot and sour soup, tamarind, and sauerkraut and other pickles. Always, a slice of lime in a gin and tonic.
I guess that makes me semi-grownup.
But my theory that a love of sourness indicates an educated and discriminating palate took a blow when I read further into what Stuckey says about this basic flavour.
Although infants display an acute sensitivity to sourness, she writes, “kids from about five to nine years of age prefer sour foods at acidity levels that both babies and adults reject” (p. 229).
This jogged my memory: watching a youngster I know—she must have been about seven at the time—eat slices of lemon, peel and all, with great gusto.
I finally had to let go of my theory altogether when I found YouTube clips about Warheads sour candies. Whoever would have thought that confectionary could be an extreme sport?
Well, as YouTube shows, the sourness of Warheads provokes competitions that leave some contestants’ mouths irritated and blistered. (See Try This, below.)
It seems that grown adults can’t resist stuffing their mouths with as many Warheads as they can. Then they heave and gag. Some people’s tongues bleed. Strange!
Stuckey points out that—under the conditions that prevail outside Warheads competitions, of course—“sour is the primary taste of fermentation”, and that sourness can indicate food that’s gone bad:
On one hand sour makes things like tomato sauce taste fresher. On the other, it indicates spoilage. A perfectly balanced white wine will taste brisk and refreshing. A spoiled wine will taste too sour, like vinegar. Fresh milk is creamy and comforting. Spoiled milk tastes sour. (p. 230)
That leads to her statement: “In fact, fermentation is a form of spoilage.”
But certain levels of fermentation “spoilage” create tasty foods. Stuckey points out that sauerkraut, yoghurt and sourdough bread all taste deliciously sour as a result of fermentation—and that the sour flavour comes from acids that develop during the process.
(By the way, the sourness in Warheads candies comes from a trio of acids: malic, citric and ascorbic. No wonder tongues bleed!)
So the link between sourness and fermentation can paradoxically indicate a health-giving level of bacteria. American writer Sandor Katz, a “fermentation revivalist”, advocates the benefits in foods like sauerkraut or kimchi. Katie Falkiner, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald about Katz’s visit to Australia in February 2014, says:
In the past several decades, we’ve worked hard to sterilize our food, adding preservatives to extend its shelf life. But what if these changes have affected our gut flora? … Medical research is indicating that we need to nourish and replenish our “gut biome” [sic.] to keep healthy.
It does seem that Australians have taken to fermenting vegetable pickles at home. Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation “sold out before Christmas, while small businesses making sauerkraut can’t get enough organic cabbages to keep up with the demand”, writes Falkiner.
Arabella Forge, also in the Sydney Morning Herald, demonstrates how to make sauerkraut and writes that “there is a booming market of forums, chat-groups, blogs and cookbooks”—all about cultured food. Expensive ceramic crocks for pickling are widely available.
Does that mean that—forgetting about Warheads competitions—people are increasingly appreciating sour flavours? Well, Jane Ormond does list “fermented vegetables” among the “17 essential ingredients” for 2014.
To find out if sour flavours are, in fact, enjoying heightened appeal, I Google-searched “sour cocktails” and immediately found Alex Van Buren’s article “10 Great Sour Cocktails from Bars across America”, published in Bon Appétit in 2013:
Sours—using spirits as distinct as bourbon and tequila, and mouth-puckering elements as eclectic as vinegar, pickle brine, fermented pineapple juice, and malic acid—are on the rise.
One example called The Nacho, from Bar Ama in Los Angeles, incorporates “a chile-lime cider vinegar shrub with honey, Campari, and tequila blanco for a silky drink that is sweet, sour, and hot.”
I also found lots of coverage on the “pickleback”, “a slug of whiskey followed by a bracing chaser of pickle brine, poured straight from the jar”, as Tim Hume writes in The Wall Street Journal. The chaser has an unexpected effect:
making mediocre liquors more palatable … the moment the sweet and sour brine extinguishes the burn of the whiskey, [it leaves] an unexpectedly meaty savor on the palate.
How does this happen? Hume explains it:
When compounds in the brine combine in the taste buds with some of those left by the whiskey, they create a pleasant umami flavor that isn’t present in either liquid alone.
The pickleback originated in lowdown dives in the south of the USA. In Australia, the drink is now popular at American-style bars such as the Beaufort in Carlton, Melbourne. In fact, that establishment serves 10 litres of brine—shot glass by shot glass—every week.
David Chang, founder of the upmarket Momofuku chain, puts a personal stamp on the pickleback by making his own lemon pickle. His version is much more refined than the original slamdown. It is, he says, “designed to be sipped with quality whiskey rather than downed”.
So here we are again. “Sour” has taken us from “adult taste” to childish bravado (sometimes exhibited by grown men) to healthy fermentation to lowdown picklebacks, and back to sophisticated sipping.
Well, that certainly is some journey!
• Make these cocktails that replace the usual lime sourness with imaginative alternative flavours.
• Watch these Warheads videos:
An entire family tries Warheads for the first time, including a grown man who comes to grief with 15 in his mouth at once.
• Some people blog solely about candy. Here are three pages reviewing a very large variety of sour candies.
- Barb Stuckey, 2012, Taste: What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to why Good Food Tastes Good, Free Press, New York.