How Does Temperature Affect the Taste of Food and Drink and Why Does Coffee and Soup Taste Better When Hot?

What we normally refer to as “taste” is more correctly termed flavor, which is made up of taste, irritation and aroma.

Taste per se consists only of the five sensations that can be detected by the tongue: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. These are not affected by temperature and nor is irritation from, for instance, chilli peppers.

But aroma, which is sensed in the nose, is strongly affected by food temperature because it depends on the release of volatile oils. The higher the temperature, the more volatiles are released, and the stronger the aroma and thus the total flavor sensation.

The flavor of foods that have little aroma is enhanced by heating, whereas foods with strong aromas may become overpowering at high temperatures.

Red wines, for instance, tend to be drunk at room temperature with meals that have strong flavors, so achieving a balance in which food and drink complement each other, rather than cancelling each other out. White wines, on the other hand, are often drunk cold with fish or weakly flavored foods.

When imbibed at room temperature on its own, however, white wine gives a perfectly pleasant flavor sensation, and one suspects it is just convention for white wine to be served chilled.

Another important effect of temperature on meals is its influence on the viscosity of starch-thickened sauces, which drops at higher temperatures because starches react to heat.

The texture of food is very important to people. A meal covered in a cold, starch-thickened sauce is pretty unappealing, while a non-starch-thickened sauce such as mayonnaise covering the same ingredients in a sandwich would be a very different prospect.

There is also a large element of convention and cultural preference involved. We prefer our gazpacho cold but our minestrone piping hot.

Beer is served at room temperature in the UK but chilled almost everywhere else. Some people prefer whisky on the rocks, others, especially in Scotland, find ice an abomination. Hot coffee and iced coffee are equally acceptable to most people, and choice depends mainly on ambient temperature.

It’s all about circumstance, accompanying flavors, and how we are used to having our food and drink served.