A Taste of Materials

Spoons used in tasting experiments, made from diverse metals. From left to right: copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome and stainless steel.

From left to right: copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome and stainless steel. Picture © Zoe Laughlin

It’s not enough to choose your wines to go with your food – for the full gastronomic experience, choose your cutlery as well. Dr Zoe Laughlin and Prof Mark Miodownik at the newly UCL Engineering affiliated Institute of Making have brought their interest in the experience and learning potential of materials to bear on the age-old human preoccupation of stuffing your face.

One of the Institute of Making’s research projects is to explore the sensoaesthetic properties of materials – how do they feel, sound, or taste? Does the gap between the traditional engineer’s quantification of material properties and the subjective experience of them have to be so large? Linking these two diverse areas could improve how people interact with the world around them, leading to innovative and pleasing design. 

To address the experience of tasting materials, Dr Laughlin created the same spoon in seven different metals, ranging from zinc to stainless steel and gold. Analysis with colleagues including Prof Miodownik of UCL Mechanical Engineering has looked at possible relations between the perceived experience of eating from different metallic surfaces, and their quantifiable properties. Results are varied, but it does seem that the enjoyment of eating is affected by the choice of cutlery and the group have, to date, two scientific papers published on the subject.

As the culmination of this project, Dr Laughlin hosted a meal this week at Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon for gourmets, molecular gastronomists and commentators for these trained tastebuds to assess the properties of different spoons. The conclusions seem to be that a spoon of gold allowed the taste of the food to shine through: but for those who can’t afford a precious set of irons, Dr Laughlin comments:

“Tin was a surprise hit: but, as was found in our study, the zinc and copper spoons had a highly metallic, acquired taste.”

The Institute of Making will continue their experiments into what materials mean to us, alongside events and workshops dealing with all things materials and making. They will be based in a purpose-built space in Malet Place Engineering Building, currently in the planning stages, which will be the home for both their Materials Library, and a MakeSpace open to all to construct and experiment.