How to Grow Great Tasting Food

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Robert Pavlis

Gardeners spend hours growing a few tomatoes simply because it’s the only way to get a truly great tasting tomato. What can you do in the garden to make your food taste even better?

Girl eating strawberries
Learn to grow great tasting food

Taste vs Flavor

Do tomatoes have great taste or great flavor? Are taste and flavor just different words for the same thing? Unfortunately, the use of these two terms is often incorrect and the title of this post is a good example. In general conversation, we use the word taste to reflect the sensation of food in our mouth, but strictly speaking, taste only refers to the sensation that food has on taste receptors in our taste buds.

Our experience with food is much more than just taste. Take mint, for example. It does have a taste, but it also has a strong aroma (a smell), and in our mouth it creates a cooling sensation as it stimulates certain nerve endings. This overall sensation is known as the “flavor” of food and it includes the aroma, texture, and taste. Even the appearance of food affects our perception of flavor. The Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) describes flavor as “the entire range of sensations that we perceive when we eat a food or drink a beverage.”

Flavor is largely subjective because everyone tastes and senses smell differently and their perceived understanding of the difference between a good and bad flavor varies a lot. The flavor of food also decreases as we age.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

We evaluate flavor first by a food’s appearance and color. Then we evaluate taste and aroma, and finally we experience texture. But it does not stop there; our bodies are also able to evaluate nutrition during and after digestion. We eat with our eyes. The size, shape, and color of food is what gets us to pick it up. Only then do we sense freshness, spiciness, sweetness, and all of the other sensations our mouth is capable of sensing.

Our senses do not determine flavor. We do have senses for taste, smell, sight, and touch, but flavor is created in our mind by combining all of the inputs from our senses. Flavor is in our mind and that is one reason it is so subjective. The subject of flavor is explored in more detail in my book Food Science for Gardeners.

Factors Affecting Flavor

Almost everything we do affects flavor. The growing conditions, harvesting, storage, and the way it is preserved all affects flavor. Flavor is also affected if food gets contaminated with pathogens.

You might also like How to Grow Nutrient Dense Food.

How do Growing Conditions Affect Flavor?

Every aspect of the growing environment, including soil nutrition, temperature, water availability, humidity, and amount of light affects flavor. In general, the best flavor develops when a plant is growing in ideal conditions, and that varies by plant type.

Organically grown food does not taste better than conventional food.

Soil fertility plays a big part. A lack of nutrients hampers plant growth, which means the plant has to prioritize how it uses the resources it does have, and survival is usually the top priority. Plants will be smaller and contain less nutrients and fewer sugars. Plant parts like roots and leaves may be tougher.

Excess nutrients can also be a problem. Too much nitrogen tends to produce more green growth and fewer fruits. Such plants have thinner cell structure, are weak, and are less flavorful.

The pungency in onions is due to sulfur-containing compounds, so it should be no surprise that sulfur levels in soil play a big part in the flavor of onions. Sulfur is fairly mobile and moves through sand quickly. As a result, such soil usually has low levels of sulfur and produces milder onions. Clay holds the sulfur molecule and therefore has higher levels. It produces onions that are more pungent. Adding sulfur as fertilizer will increase pungency, and if too much is used the onions will become too pungent.

In general, soil with higher levels of clay and organic matter is more nutritious and produces better-tasting food, but such soil may not produce the best-looking food. Carrots generally taste best grown in clay soil, but they look the best when grown in sandy loam soils.

The availability of water is also important for flavor. Water is really a plant nutrient. Adequate amounts allow the plant to grow well, and deficits stunt growth. It has the same effect as low nutrient levels. Too much water can also reduce flavor. Crops such as melons, strawberries, and tomatoes taste best if they don’t get too much water, especially before harvest.

Each crop has different water needs, and timing can be very important. Melons are sweeter and less mushy if they have less water near harvest time. Broccoli and kale, on the other hand, become bitter if they don’t get enough water near the end of their growth cycle.

Cucumbers produce a chemical called cucurbitacin, which makes them bitter so that insects leave them alone. The amount produced in the fruit depends very much on the growing conditions and the following will help reduce bitterness:

  • keep soil evenly moist—mulching can be very beneficial
  • pick smaller fruit—they get bitter as they grow bigger
  • cucumbers are heavy feeders, and soil with a high organic matter level will reduce bitterness
  • grow in full sun

Temperature also affects bitterness. Cucumbers grow best in temperatures from 65 to 75°F (18–24°C) with a minimum temperature of 60°F (16°C) and a maximum of 90°F (32°C). High fluctuations of temperature in excess of 20°F (11°C) will cause more bitterness, as will growing at cool or hot temperatures.

You have limited control over temperature, but regular watering and mulching will keep the soil cool. In cool climates they want full sun, and in hot climates some afternoon shade will be better.

Food Myth: Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides Make Food Bitter

Research has compared the taste of tomatoes grown with organic fertilizer, ammonium-based fertilizer, and nitrate-based fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizer produced higher yields, but the taste of all three systems was the same.

What about pesticides; surely they affect taste? A study of twenty-eight herbicides were tested on a variety of crops. At normal application rates, eleven reduced the flavor and two produced a slight off-taste. The rest had no effect on taste. The taste test was done by professional tasters and the effects were minimal. The researchers felt that a consumer panel is unlikely to detect a difference.

How does Cultivar Selection Affect Flavor?

Cultivar selection has the most important impact on flavor and is even more important than the growing conditions. Having said that, it is important to match cultivars to the growing conditions you have. There are thousands of different tomatoes and they can all taste great if they are grown in the environment that meets their needs. Just because a cultivar has a high flavor rating in one location does not mean it is flavorful in another.

In your own backyard, you can select cultivars that grow well in your conditions and have great flavor. The problem with selecting cultivars is that the descriptions in seed catalogs or online are not much help because you don’t have full details about the environment in which they were grown. Other gardeners in your hometown are a much better resource for information.

It is commonly believed that heirlooms have better flavor than hybrids, but scientific testing shows that this is not true.

Harvesting Also Affects Flavor

Knowing when to harvest is a bit of an art form and quite honestly depends on your goal. Do you want green beans or dried beans? Are you going to make pickles or salad from your cucumbers? In each case, you would harvest at a different time.

Here is some advice for new gardeners. Start harvesting sooner than you think. If the food tastes good, keep harvesting. If it doesn’t taste great, wait a bit longer. Many gardeners wait too long and end up with tough, stringy vegetables.

yellow cucumber
Yellow cucumbers are usually over ripe for eating, but the seeds are still developing, source: The Gardening Cook

Remember that flavor is a combination of several factors, including taste, aroma, and texture. A very small, young carrot has great texture, but the best flavor won’t develop until the plant is older and has experienced some frost. On the other hand, when the bean pod is nice and plump, showing bean seeds inside, it is already losing flavor and is getting stringy and hard to eat. Start picking radishes very early because by the time they have formed a nice-sized round ball they get woody.

There can also be a big difference between ripe fruit and ready-to-eat fruit. Nature’s goal is to produce seeds, and once the seed is biologically ready to be on its own, the fruit is ripe. On the other hand, we want things to have great flavor. The green bean is tastiest just before you can see seeds forming in the pod, but it is not ripe until the seeds are large and dry.

The tomato is interesting in this regard. As the fruit ripens, it goes from a green color to a slightly red blush color, the breaker stage. The tomato is ripe at that stage. You can test this for yourself by collecting some seeds. They will germinate, indicating that the tomato is ripe as far as the plant is concerned. We think tomatoes taste much better when they are way overripe and have a nice juicy red color.

When it comes to cucumbers, we prefer an unripe fruit. We don’t want a mushy, yellow, ripe cucumber full of large seeds. We humans are a fickle bunch.

Storage Affects Flavor Too

When two or more foodstuffs are stored together, one can affect the flavor and ripening process of the others. Food can transfer odors to each other. For example, apples and pears take on a disagreeable color and taste when stored with potatoes. Here are some general guidelines to prevent odor transfers:

  • do not store apples and pears with celery, cabbage, carrot, potato, or onion
  • do not store onion, garlic, citrus, or potato with any other type of produce

The other concern with mixed storage is with ripening. Some food produces ethylene gas, which is known as the “fruit ripening hormone.” It speeds up the ripening process of certain fruits and vegetables. Placing something like a banana next to an apple will speed up the ripening process of the banana. This is discussed in more detail in Food Science for Gardeners.

Slice or Dice?

Slice, dice, chop, or julienne—the way food is cut also affects flavor. For example, a radish that is sliced thin provides the taste of the radish but loses most of its crunchy texture.

As food is cut, the knife damages tissue along the cut edge, which releases enzymes. These enzymes trigger chemical reactions that are responsible for much of the aroma that is given off. The liquid contents from damaged cells spill out into the sauce. Cutting smaller pieces generally adds more flavor than using large pieces. Large pieces cook more slowly so that their texture is more likely to be maintained in the final dish.

Cutting can also have a negative effect. When cut, food such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage release enzymes that produce sulfur-containing compounds that are pungent. The more you cut these vegetables the stronger the flavor gets, and most people don’t like it. The exact same reaction happens when onions and garlic are cut, except that their flavor is perceived as enhancing meals. It is the reason for crushing garlic cloves and sautéing onions.

I have never liked the flavor of julienne cut potatoes, but I like eating any other form of potato. There really is some science behind my madness.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

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