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Palate cleansers, do they really work?

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Published : 2010-05-07 15:56
Updated : 2010-05-07 15:56

I was introduced to palate cleansers in Paris, France, while on my honeymoon. We went to a few upscale restaurants that served luxurious seven-course meals, and we were usually served some kind of fruity sorbet just before the main course.

At first, I thought it was odd to serve a dessert-like dish in the middle of the meal, but I was too embarrassed to ask why this was done. I decided to do some research. I went to the library (this was back in the days before we had the Internet). After searching books on French cuisine, I found one that addressed palate cleansers with a short paragraph. I learned that the refreshing sorbet was used to clean the palate and get it ready for the next course.

Back then, that information wasn’t so easy to find. Even today, very little is written about the art of creating excellent palate cleansers, but more than ever before, we are seeing innovative takes on the concept from some of the world’s best chefs.

From Pierre Gagnaire’s chicory cream and blue cheese kimchi juice jelly turnip-Curacao granite and many others which I never would haveve considered proper palate cleansers such as milk or bread at least before the main course. In doing the research for this column, I had to ask myself, “What defines a palate cleanser?”

Some of the information out there is confusing, such as the difference between a sorbet and a sherbet. Sherbet is generally accepted to include dairy or eggs in its ingredients, while sorbet is fruit-flavored ice. A sherbet would never be used as a palate cleanser, yet some restaurants mistakenly call their sorbets sherbets.

Some say a palate cleanser is used as a digestive aid, to help one avoid indigestion and stimulate the appetite. But does that really work? I will explore some of the different claims, and you can be the judge.

So what exactly is a palate cleanser? It is a food or drink that is served in the middle of a meal (or between glasses during a wine tasting) for the purpose of removing any flavors that may interfere with the next course (or sip of wine). Some define a palate cleanser as a food or a beverage that calms the taste buds down and removes intense flavors from the mouth.

The world of food can be roughly divided into seven categories: sweet, bitter, fatty, spicy/hot, astringent, cooling, and non-lingering. A study was presented by Lucak and Delwiche to demonstrate the efficacy of various palate cleansers with representative foods, and was published in the Chemosensory Perception Journal, March 2009, vol. 2. The following foods were selected based on the seven categories: jelly beans for sweet, coffee for bitter, smoked sausage for fatty, spicy tortilla chips for spicy/hot, tea for astringent, mint for cooling, and apple sauce for non-lingering. A number of documented palate cleansers typically used with each food type were paired with these foods, including table water crackers, spring water, pectin solution, whole milk, chocolate, and warm water. All of the foods, from jelly beans to applesauce, were assessed in combination with all of the palate cleansers by a panel of 24 people. The results of the experiment showed that only the table water crackers were truly effective.

In spite of this study’s findings, there are a number of palate cleansers that are considered useful in culinary circles. They include crackers, bread, fresh fruit, milk, and sorbet. You can experiment with using different ingredients to develop a palate cleanser that will work well with the dishes you want to serve. Crackers are great for cleaning the palate after pungent dishes. Breads, either fresh or crusty, also work well. Fresh fruit is always a good option, because it’s refreshing. Milk is considered an excellent cleanser after spicy foods because it washes down intense flavors.

The most common palate cleansers are sorbets, water crackers, and water. My favorite is tangerine sorbet, because it is wonderfully refreshing, light, and neutral in flavor. However, many sorbet flavors, including apple, calvados, lemon, lime, and mint, are suitable to use as palate cleansers. There are also palate cleansers that are considered unorthodox, including sparkling water, lightly brewed green, black or mint tea with a little sweetener, celery sticks, tart apples, parsley, and even plain water with a twist of lemon or lime.

Sorbet is one of the most popular and widely used palate cleansers during a multi-course meal, because it is light, refreshing, and extremely effective at cleaning the tongue of any flavors left in the mouth. Many flavors of sorbet, such as lemon, strawberry, mango, and grapefruit, can be used with great success. If you’re serving an edgier meal, more exotic flavors can be infused into your sorbet, such as green tea, champagne, or Curacao.

With the advent of globalization and fusion foods, more experimentation needs to be done with palate cleansers, because there is still not enough information available on them today. Scientific laboratories need to move forward with testing different cleansers to see what really works and what’s just a gimmick. Johnson, et al., of the Department of Food Science at the University of Minnesota, stated that there is very little published literature about the effectiveness of palate cleansers and rinsing methods used in sensory assessment. They conducted a study to see if different palate cleansers have the ability to enhance palate discrimination. The study compared the effectiveness of seven interstimulus rinsing strategies for discriminating bitterness in cream cheese. The palate cleansers used were water, sparkling water, carrots, and crackers. In the end, the best cleanser was sparkling water.

The following recipe is my personal favorite one to use for a delicious, refreshing palate cleanser. It’s so good, you don’t realize it’s serving a greater purpose than merely delighting your taste buds! Enjoy at your next multi-course meal, or whenever you desire a tasty frozen treat.

Lime sorbet

1 cup fresh lime juice (about 6 large limes)

13/4 cups simple syrup (recipe follows)

1 cup water

Lime juice must be put through sieve to remove all membranes. Mix lime juice, syrup and water and freeze in an ice cream maker. Makes about 4 cups. Serve within a week.

Mix water and sugar in saucepan and let boil over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is clear. Let cool and use for tangerine sorbet.

Sugar syrup

3 cups water

21/4 cups sugar

Mix water and sugar in saucepan and let boil over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is clear. Let cool and use for lime sorbet.

By Samia Mounts  (samiamounts@yahoo.com)

Samia Mounts is a long-time nutritionist and gourmet aficionado. She works as the Assistant Principal at Seoul American Elementary School – Ed.

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