When you think about places to spray perfume, you might think a few dabs behind your ears, adding it to your bath, or even spritzing it around the room—but in your food?
The intersection of perfumery and cooking is not all that far-fetched. “Flavor is a combination of taste and aroma,” says perfumer Mandy Aftel, who brought her edible essential oils to the masses with her line, Atelier Chef’s Essences by Williams-Sonoma, which include oils of basil, pepper, ginger, lemon, spearmint and nutmeg. “When you can’t smell, you can’t taste.” Lacing your food or cocktail with a drop of sweet basil, pepper or even ginger is an idea Aftel says she stumbled upon while writing her book “Aroma” with two-star, Michelin chef, Daniel Patterson. It seems that many essential oils used in fragrance were also found on the GRAS (the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe) edible list, and that’s when Aftel realized she could “wake people up to the beauty of essential oils in their cooking.”
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Smell, as she notes in her book, is the only sense that connects directly to the brain’s limbic system (the oldest part of your brain and the epicenter of taste, emotion and memory). “That’s why we form such strong attachments to things that smell or taste good,” she explains.
So it’s no wonder that certain smells can easily evoke memories. In a survey of 985 people, Alan Hirsch, M.D., director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, found that 84 percent of those tested said that particular odors made them nostalgic for their childhoods; not surprisingly, baked goods topped the list.
Gourmand scents can also have a profound effect on our attraction to the opposite sex, and that can vary by geography. In a study of women Hirsch led for AXE body products, they found New Yorkers were drawn to the aroma of coffee (duh!), eucalyptus was a turn on for those in Phoenix, and cherries were the draw for Atlanta’s peaches.Carlos Huber, founder of luxury perfume line Arquiste, notes that scents are always at play in a meal. “Cooks should understand the way extracts and natural essences from flowers, herbs and fruits can be used as a way to enhance recipes,” he says. “A good meal should entice all our senses.”
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Flavor preferences are developed early in life. We have a built-in affinity for milky smells, according to Joachim Mensing, Ph.D., a fragrance psychologist. A study from the National Centre for Scientific Research in Dijon shows that babies use their sense of smell to find breast milk. This, Dr. Mensing notes, also may be why we have a preference of sweet smells like vanilla which he says is comforting and places “a satisfying emotional imprint in the brain.”
But why use essential oils when you can use the real deal? For one, it’s economical. In most cases, only a drop or two are needed to add a burst of flavor to your dish (the vials Aftel sells contain 150 drops). Second, it allows you the freedom to flavor dishes and drinks without changing its texture—from salads, to coffee or a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Third, it may have a shelf life that outlasts the spice itself, says Aftel. And why purchase a whole head of basil when a drop of basil oil may heighten the taste and aroma in the food in a way the leaves themselves can’t?
Adding an olfactory element to food also helps feed the needs of those who seek out more intricate flavors. Interestingly enough, psychological studies show that extroverts tend to be accustomed to a certain level of stimulation. Dr. Mensing notes that “because of their need for higher stimulation, people who live in big cities especially are very demanding and seek out fragrances that are complex and interesting.” Flavors he says, work he same way. “Mixed drinks can include scent and taste undertones that add a hint of complexity; exactly what extroverted people like.”
Could adding flavors from essential oils be catching on? Aftel already supplies her essences to over 25 chefs, mixologists and restaurants across the country. But it’s her at-home line that may help to boost interest and awareness among the average at-home cook. “Once people use it, they realize it’s very, very different,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s magic and it adds an incredible taste and aroma to your food.”
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Next time you want to get more from your meal, take a moment to savor the aromas of what’s in front of you. After all, Aftel notes, “to be more awake and aware of the smells around you is to be more present.”