But they now know why.
Common knowledge suggests that it is the cleansing sensation people appreciate in astringent foods such as a vinegary salad, a cup of tea or a lemon sorbet. Wine acts in the same way.
But a team from Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Monell Chemical Sense Institute – a Philadelphia-based nonprofit scientific organization focused on the senses of taste and smell – says it's more.
The research is published in this week's Current Biology.
"We were not setting out initially to determine why steak and wine go together. It was more theoretical," said Paul Breslin of Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.
"Fat makes the mouth overly lubricated and astringents make the mouth underlubricated," Breslin said. "So we wanted to test the idea that these two sensations were at opposite ends of oral lubrication sensations. And if this were true, they should oppose one another the way hot water cancels out cold water and vice versa when they are mixed."
The problem is, wines and teas aren't as astringent as researchers would expect to counteract the slipperiness of fatty foods.
So, to figure out what is going on, Breslin and his team enlisted 80 volunteers to sip astringent foods, such as grape seed extract, an extract from green tea and aluminum sulfate.
"It has been known for some time that astringents grow in their sensory intensity with repeated sampling," Breslin said. "The sense of astringency builds with sips of tea or wine. So we wanted to know how much does it grow and could something weakly astringent grow to a sensation of strong astringency and would this overcome strong fattiness."
What they discovered is that the perception of astringency grew exponentially over time. So as the subjects took more sips and spent more time sipping, the cleansing sensation grew.
The researchers then had the volunteers alternate samples of astringent sips with fatty tastes. And over time, the slippery, fatty perception was reduced.
"We have observed that astringency grows to different levels and at different rates depending on the compound stimulating the astringency," Breslin said." So we wonder if different types of fats and different sources of astringency might make for ideal pairings and that the wisdom of culture or gastronomy has paired certain foods together for a reason."
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