A matter of taste

Meet the professionals who are responsible for testing the products we all eat.

Taste tester 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Taste tester 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
You begin your day with cheeses, for lunch you eat schnitzel and humous, and for dessert some nice ice cream. Was it tasty? You can thank the tasters at food manufacturers who taste the same foods every day before they are given the signal to be mass produced and shipped out. Were you disappointed with the way the food tasted? You can send your criticism to these very same people.
Each taster’s personal taste is what determines how the product turns out. Their main goal is to formulate a product that the largest possible number of consumers will enjoy.
When Avi Wilk of Kfar Tavor, who heads the technological development at Of Tov, eats in a restaurant, you probably won’t catch him ordering schnitzel. “I usually order a chicken steak or grilled chicken breast.
That’s what I love most. Schnitzel is a children’s food,” Wilk smiles, since he has tasted tens of thousands of schnitzels during his 22 years of working for the company. “I only eat schnitzel at home. At work I taste the schnitzel and hotdogs, but I don’t swallow them. I chew them to get a feeling of the flavor and texture.”
Wilk explains that tasting food is really not a big deal. “Everyone who works in this field took many courses and seminars on the subject and passed a test that checks sensitivity to salt, sugar and spices. People who were not found appropriate were screened out.
“You need to get a certain score to pass. People who work in this field are sensitive to different tastes: salty, sweet, spicy, bitter.
“For example, we can estimate the amount of salt that we want in product. Over time you acquire this knowledge and your skills keep improving. We also take into consideration that we are adults tasting children’s food, because schnitzel is a children’s food.
“We always need to keep in mind which flavors children prefer, especially when it comes to saltiness. We, as adults, are already at an age where we eat less salt. The product, though, needs to be manufactured according to kids’ tastes.
“For example, adults like spicy foods more than children do. We also have different preferences regarding texture – we like foods that are more fibrous, whereas children prefer foods that are ground.”
When you work in a job like this, is dieting a necessity?
In general, everyone gains weight when they start working in the food industry, because they are eating the food instead of just tasting it, since it’s enjoyable to eat tasty food. Later on, you learn how to chew without swallowing. Doing the tastings after a meal helps you just taste the food instead of eating it in place of meals.
Are there specific guidelines for tasting?
“Of course. You shouldn’t eat just before a tasting, nor should you do tastings when you’re hungry, because sometimes the food tastes good because you’re very hungry. I wash my mouth out with or drink water between tastings so that there’s no taste leftover from the previous food.
And how do you know when you’ve finally reached the ultimate taste?
There are 18 people on the tasting team. After the team has decided that the product is good, we send it out for outside sampling with focus groups, mostly to population centers near where we want to sell the product. Usually, we include another item that is already on the market – either ours or a competitor’s – and we check the smallest details: saltiness, sweetness, and coating coloring. There are numerous questions, and when we receive the feedback gathered from 100 children, we move on to the next step: reaching the ultimate product.
Sometimes we need to make minor changes, change the level of sweetness, spiciness or flavoring. If the product receives a low rating, we start again from scratch.
What part of the job gives you the most satisfaction?
The tasting is the last stage. The creative stages are much more interesting. We strive to create schnitzel that tastes homemade and hamburgers like you make at home. We try to find which equipment and components are needed to end up with a product that is as close as we can get to homemade food. Satisfaction comes when the whole process is successful, a goal that is not easy to reach.
Which moments are less enjoyable?
When I have a great idea for a new product, but it doesn’t come out like I wanted, due to lack of necessary equipment or additives that I’d like to use that are not kosher. For example, a few years ago I wanted to produce chicken Kiev, which is a schnitzel filled with butter and garlic. We cannot mix milk and meat, and we couldn’t find a suitable non-dairy butter substitute. The product we created did not pass the test.
Give me an example of something interesting that happened at work.
A while ago, chef Eyal Shani visited our factory. There was a dinosaurs h a p e d schnitzel on my desk and Eyal asked me if children eat the head or tail first. Despite my many years of experience, I had no idea what the answer was.
Does work sometimes carry over to your home?
For example, do you ever critique your wife’s cooking? I am unworthy of critiquing my wife’s cooking. She is a professional chef. But many times I express my opinion of the meat dishes she prepares. For example, I give her my opinion of the goulash meat’s texture. I give her my expert opinion as a technologist specializing in meat.
IF YOU want to know which mozzarella cheese is the best, just ask Rafi Yihya of Ashdod, who is in charge of cheese production at Gad Dairy. He spends most of his day tasting mozzarella cheese.
“There are many types of mozzarella cheese. We are talking about fresh mozzarella in water, and not the kind used on pizza,” he says.
“Mozzarella is split into two categories: Excellent mozzarella, and bad mozzarella. There is no medium category. Excellent mozzarella is slightly salty and when you take a bite it should be saturated with milk.
You should feel the aroma of the milk in your mouth, and when you take a bite, the piece of cheese should dissolve quickly in your mouth without crumbling. It shouldn’t leave any little pieces in your mouth and should feel silky on your tongue.”
Yihya has been selling mozzarella for 20 years. He is responsible for the entire mozzarella production process, from receiving the milk to packaging the product for the consumer. “Good mozzarella can only be made with the highest quality milk,” he says. “We only use milk that was milked from a cow that same day. Milk that went from the cow to the container, from the container to me, and from me to production. We check sourness, percentage of water, protein, fat, and other materials like antibiotics, that heaven forbid shouldn’t be there. First we test the milk’s chemical makeup, then we carry out a taste test, which I personally do.”
How much milk do you drink each day?
I don’t drink it as a drink. I just taste it. A small drop on my tongue is enough for me to know if it’s good or not. I don’t need more than that. After that, the milk is pasteurized and then undergoes more laboratory testing. I taste the milk during each stage until the mozzarella is packaged and sent to the store. I am the one who decides if the product is good enough to be used.
YIHYA OFTEN travels to Italy, the birthplace of mozzarella. “I’ve been to Italy 15 times to visit select dairies. I learn something from each one, and as a result we have succeeded in creating a process through which we have created the perfect product. Each time I go I learn new methods from their technologists and receive quality tips, which I then incorporate into our process.”
After tasting milk and cheese at work all day, are you able to eat cheese at home?
Yes, of course. I eat cheese at home too. I bring samples of all the good cheeses home; my wife and daughters also love them. Cheese is an important component in our kitchen.
Which aspects of work do you like the most?
I love the fact that every day I create products. We’re talking about tons of cheese each day. If I don’t reject a cheese, that means that the process is working properly. The moment I take a little bite of cheese I know if it’s good or not. If something bothers me, such as a morsel in my mouth, or if the taste is a little different, then the product is not shipped out. I do not compromise. The satisfaction comes when the product receives approval from the quality assurance department, from me and from the owner. That means that we did good work that day. Tomorrow’s a new day and we’ll start the entire process over again.
If you weren’t a cheese tester, what would you want to do?
I might be a vintner. You have to be very professional to make good wine.
ADI ORLITZKI, of Tel Aviv, is food technologist and taster for Feldman’s Ice Cream. When she began working there, she immediately gained four kilograms.
“That’s because I was so excited,” she says with a smile.
“I gained weight because it was so delicious. I used to eat ice cream outside tasting sessions too. And then summer came around and I wanted to go to the beach in my bathing suit. So I took control of myself and stopped eating ice cream outside tasting sessions. Nobody’s used to ice cream at seven in the morning.”
Every morning, Orlitzki tastes every product that is slated to be manufactured that day, and checks that the color and additive levels are correct. She samples and checks all the raw materials, including chocolate and candies, as well as any new packaging materials. Later in the day she checks that the products are being pasteurized properly. In addition, she develops new products.
How many different types of ice cream do you taste every day?
In the summer, I taste 30 ice creams and popsicles that are currently on the market. In the winter, we only make 15 to 20 different types, including Krembo. I taste the ice creams to make sure they taste good, but also to check that the taste remains the same. We compare the ice cream’s color, sweetness, and sourness. Normally I taste only one teaspoonful, but if I have a doubt, then I take another spoonful or two.
In addition, there are also new product tastings, which normally take place at development meetings in which the CEO, the marketing manager, the plant manager, the lab manager and the quality assurance manager also take part.
And when our competitors launch new products, we also hold tasting sessions so that we can “know our enemy” – and then we tell each other that ours is better. Of course our competitors also have quality products. We check them so that we can stay updated, and so that heaven forbid we don’t come out with the same product.
Orlitzki, who has a degree from the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, admits that in her work, “It’s not all fun and games. The work is physically hard – I have to walk around and check the production lines and to be on the alert at all times. I wake up extremely early to get to the factory on time. The satisfaction comes from producing a quality product that is tasty and has everything in it you wanted.
People enjoy eating it. I love seeing people walking around the streets licking our popsicles.
When creating new products, how do you know when you’ve created the best flavor?
It’s a matter of experience, as well as being able to accept feedback from all of the other tasters. You try a little bit of this and little bit of that, and at some point you just know it’s perfect.
Are you able to enjoy eating ice cream outside work?
Believe it or not, there is ice cream in my freezer. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I still enjoy eating ice cream outside work. But I would never order ice cream in a restaurant.
How do people react when they hear what you do for a living?
They are totally surprised and jealous too. In a good way, of course.
Which one of your products do you think is the absolute best?
Our vanilla-lemon ice cream.
Don’t you get tired of tasting sweet things all day?
Not yet. I’ve been doing this for three years, which is not very long. Come back again in 10 years and we’ll see what my answer is then. Even if I weren’t an ice cream taster, I have a feeling I’d be a chocolate taster since I just love sweet things. I don’t think I’d enjoy working in a salad plant though.
ITZIK DAHAN, of Holon, has been a humous taster for Tzabar Salads for 17 years, and loves working in a factory that makes salads. Dahan is an authority on humous and he makes the round of humous restaurants throughout the country, and eats at people’s homes in Israel and overseas constantly in the search for new and interesting flavors.
Dahan spends most of his time tasting humous at the Tzabar factory. “I just finished tasting a few types of humous,” he says. “We taste it to check if any changes occurred during production and to make sure everything is okay. Sometimes we also taste the competitors’ humous.
We’re tasting all the time. I consume quite a large amount of humous – about 500 grams a day.”
Dahan did not complete any formal schooling in food-related fields – he has learned everything he knows about tasting through experience.
“I managed a Tzabar Salads factory store before I became a taster,” he says. “When I worked in the store, I used to try out different tastes and then tell them that they should try to implement some of them. I’m not a food technologist, but I am a connoisseur and an amateur chef. I know how to appreciate, smell and taste food. The thing I love most about this profession is that I can create something new and watch consumers grab it off the shelves.”
And you haven’t gained any weight?
I’m 180 cm tall and I weigh 80 kg. No, eating that much humous has not affected my weight.
Have you become friendly with humous restaurant owners?
With most of them. I introduce myself to them when I arrive. And some call to invite me to come try their humous and critique it. Everyone thinks they make the best humous. Sometimes people who make humous at home invite me to come taste their product before making a decision whether or not to open a humous-based business.
Are there any specific humous restaurants that you would recommend?
Halil in Ramle, Abu Hasan in Jaffa, Abu Marwan in Jaffa, Said in Acre, Abu Shadi in Shfaram. There are so many – the list is endless. What’s funny is that the best humous I ever had was actually in a Lebanese restaurant in London. The texture of the humous was phenomenal – I think because of the different kind of water there. Water plays an important role in making humous. I also had amazing humous in Jordan – it was made with yoghurt. At first it tasted sour and I couldn’t figure out why, but once you get used to it the taste is wonderful.
When you’re at a restaurant for pleasure, do you ever order humous?
I never order humous when I go out to eat, but my friends do. There are a few places, though, where I can’t help myself and I’ll order humous, like at Halil or Abu Shadi. I really do love humous, but I can't sit down and eat an entire plate of humous. I prefer tehina.
What’s the secret to making great humous?
There’s no secret. Today almost everyone makes the same kind of humous. A few boil the chickpeas and only afterward peel off the skin, which makes it lighter. In general, to make good humous, you need to use the correct beans, cook them properly and use quality tehina.
Give us a few hints on how to make good humous at home.
“Actually, it’s not worth making at home. The humous available in the grocery store is excellent, and you can just add paprika and parsley if you want. You can also heat up a few chickpeas and add them on top, with a splash of olive oil, and a bit of spicy sauce. It’s a nightmare to make your own humous.” ■
Translated by Hannah Hochner.