Questions for cooks: Taste bud differences

Reader Megan submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

When I eat cilantro, it tastes like dish detergent. When my husband eats cilantro, he says it tastes yummy and nothing like soap. I don’t like the acidic taste of raw tomatoes, but my husband loves them. When cooking a meal, I know when things taste good to me, but how do I know if something I make will taste good to a guest? How different is the experience of taste from one person to another? How varied are one person’s taste buds from someone else’s taste buds?

I can confirm that individual food preferences will sometimes highly vary based on personal history, the concentration and quantity of taste buds, and scent memory. Finding common ground between you and your guests can be a challenge.

To avoid disappointed faces, try these approaches:

  • Use prior knowledge of your guests to guide your menu. If you can recall a time you’ve seen them enjoy Italian food, then keep that in mind when you step into the kitchen. Do you remember a conversation when they mentioned a hatred of mushrooms? Keep them out of your cooking at all costs.
  • If you have zero idea what they have enjoyed in the past, keep your cooking basic, then allow for individual customization. Tacos can be made with a small assortment of base fillings which guests pick during assembly. A plethora of toppings will provide further customization, keeping guests happy no matter what their tastes are.
  • While not the most cost effective or timely solution, you could prepare an assortment of options ahead of time and reheat/complete them when guests arrive. With enough time and preparation, you could have four or more meals ready to go in your freezer, ready to be reheated and completed with additional fresh ingredients. This would give your guests a potentially huge number of options at your disposal. Personally, I like to have a few glass Pyrex storage containers full of tasty meals hanging out in my freezer for just such an occasion. They can go into the microwave straight from the freezer, and are a breeze to clean.

Thank you, Megan, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

5 comments posted

  1. Posted by Kathy - 07/22/2011

    The taste of cilantro, specifically, is an interesting and somewhat unusual case — there is lots of divided opinion on it, including a known phenomenon where a subset of people are known to experience cilantro as having a soapy taste. It seems to have something to do with the chemical makeup of cilantro, and apparently some people are more sensitive (or something…) to the taste than others. Just something to keep in mind, that cilantro is a somewhat unusual situation when it comes to assessing tastes across a group of people. There is an NYT article on this topic at There is of course lots of other info out there on the web as well.

  2. Posted by Anna - 07/23/2011

    I’m a new reader to this blog and I just wanted to say that as a picky eater, I’m always surprised and pleased when someone is sensitive toward the picky eaters of the world. So many people say “serve what you want” and then call guests rude if they don’t eat what they’re given. It’s nice to see a place where that attitude is not encouraged.

  3. Posted by Radiomom Rhetoric - 07/23/2011

    I agree with Anna!
    I for some reason CANNOT STAND and will probably nearly die (ok-that was a bit dramatic) if I eat raw celery! I hate it when people “hide” raw celery in those pesky cold salads which I love. I find myself digging thru salads to make sure nobody is trying to “slip” me some raw celery.

    Cooked? Like in SOUP? Well, it wouldn’t be SOUP without some cooked celery in it! COOKED celery is great with me!

    go figure. People think it is strange I can even TASTE celery! They say “There is barely any taste!!” ugh..for me–I beg to differ. ….and if there is no taste..why bother eating it, I say!!!


  4. Posted by Tiffany - 07/27/2011

    …or you could just call and *ask*. ;) Enough of my friends have food allergies that when I’m having someone new over, I just ask, “Is there anything you just can’t or won’t eat?” Anyone who really can’t bring themselves to choke down a mushroom or eat around some tomatoes in a salad will usually say so and be relieved that I asked.

    I do think it’s important for the sake of politeness for people to be game for at least *trying* to enjoy what their hosts cook- when someone makes you a meal, they have gone to the trouble of planning the menu, shopping (or growing!) the ingredients, and then standing over their stove/oven/grill/whatever to prepare it. It’s rude to turn up your nose at a gift someone gives you, so why would you do it to the food someone has prepared for you? And just like when you get a gift you don’t like, there are polite ways to handle the situation without letting the giver/cook know you hate it.

    At the same time, when I give a gift I make at least SOME effort to discern what the recipient would enjoy and use, so I really don’t think it’s too much to ask that a host would consider that a part of their hospitality.

  5. Posted by Haley - 08/17/2011

    Most of my good friends use Gmail so it is easy to share spreadsheets that all can see and update. I made a spreadsheet with the following columns: Name, Food allergies?, Food Likes?, Favorite meals?, Food Dislikes?, Other Notes. Easy peasy! This could easily be done through an email message, mail or verbally.

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