When you think about a scrumptious meal, airline food does not come to mind.
There are plenty of challenges to tasty airline meals, like the fact that many airlines now charge you for anything more than a tiny bag of chips and a plastic cup of non-alcoholic drink, at least on domestic flights. Plus, you can't cook on an airplane, so anything you're served has probably been chilled, then reheated. And flight delays certainly don't help with the freshness factor.
But the bigger obstacles to palatable fare in the air are biological: Our senses are scrambled at high altitudes.
Lack of humidity in the pressurized cabin dries out our nasal passages, dulling our sense of smell — a key component to how we perceive flavor. Background noise — like the roar of a jet engine — can lessen our ability to perceive sweet and salty tastes, research from the U.K.'s University of Manchester has found. Separate research from Lufthansa suggests our sweet and salty sensors might be off as much as 30 percent while in flight.
So what's a traveler taking to the skies this holiday season to do?
Don't despair, says Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast, who has looked into the challenges of mile-high meals. He shares a few tips for foodie flyers with Weekend Edition Sunday Host Rachel Martin.
"First, if you're given the choice," Pashman says, "go for saucy pasta dishes over big cuts of meat — they tend to hold up better to the chilling and reheating process."
And don't be afraid to ask the flight attendant for extra peanuts or pretzels, he says – "those extra snacks can be crucial." Crushing them up over your meal can add much-needed texture, he notes. And that's important, because the same study that found noisy jet engines can dull taste buds also suggested that the clamor heightens our perception of crunch — so why not make things more interesting by upping the crackle in your meal?
Of course, airlines are well aware of the culinary challenges in the sky. At Delta, chefs are usually instructed to add more spices to counteract dulled senses, says Peter Wilander, the airline's managing director of onboard services.
The efforts to overcome airplane food's bad rep are even more intense when it comes to service for business and first-class passengers, whose meals are increasingly being designed with the aid of celebrity chefs. Qatar Airlines, for example, has enlisted the help of culinary superstars like Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of New York's acclaimed Nobu restaurant. And Qatar's master of wines, James Cluer, went so far as to climb Mount Everest to explore just how altitude affects the taste of vino.
"One of the things when you are selecting wines for service up in the sky is you want something with some richness and some power, nothing too sharp and acidic," Cluer says in a video documenting his Everest tasting. He chooses stronger wines for in-flight consumption than he might on the ground.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports, the chefs at British Airways have begun experimenting with umami — that savory fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Turns out, umami flavors keep their kick even at high altitudes, the airline's research has found. Among the first-class dining recipes tweaked with umami in mind: pork cheeks served with a sauce packed with lime and lemon grass, the paper reports.
Alas, don't count on encountering such a fancy feast if you're flying coach class. If that's where you're sitting, here's one last bit of advice: Slip on some headphones and play some of your favorite tunes while you dig into that tinfoil-covered dinner. That British study on background noise we mentioned? It also found that pleasant sounds can actually enhance how much you enjoy your food.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are just days away from Christmas and then New Years. For one reason or another, it's likely either you or someone you know is going to be in the air. Stuck in a pressurized cabin, tens of thousands of feet above ground with nothing good to eat.
Amidst the holiday season, we wanted to know if Sporkful.com's Dan Pashman could shed any light on why airplane food is so completely not delicious. So we called him up. Hey, Dan.
DAN PASHMAN: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, I remember a time - I mean granted I may have been really little and the novelty of all this was just overwhelming. But I remember being kind of excited to unwrap my little tin foil container of pasta with meat sauce on the plane. But now - now, now Dan, it's just bad. The food is horrific.
PASHMAN: Yeah, it's not great, especially if you're flying in coach. Although I have to say, Rachel, in defense of the airlines, I think people just need to cut them a little bit slack.
PASHMAN: I mean you, first of all, for safety reason, they can't cook. You can't have a grill and a Frialator on the back of an airplane. So the food has to be made in advance, then chilled, then reheated. So that's already...
MARTIN: That's not good.
PASHMAN: That's already working against you. You got to deal with flight delays, which are obviously going to do more damage to some foods than others. Plus, they're up against science. The lack of humidity in a cabin dries out your nose, so you don't smell as well.
PASHMAN: And the air pressure in a cabin at altitude has been shown to reduce your taste perception by 30 percent. And even the sound of the engine, the loud noise of the engine reduces your ability to perceive taste in the same way that, like, you know, when you're driving and you get lost and you turn down the radio - even though it doesn't help you see. Well, noise can be distracting and it distracts your taste buds.
MARTIN: OK. So my taste buds are distracted but that doesn't mean that as passengers we don't deserve delicious food, right? Sounds like you're blaming this on my taste buds.
PASHMAN: No, I'm not blaming.
PASHMAN: No one is at fault here, Rachel. No, it's not your taste buds' fault and there are things that can be done to help your taste buds out. And, you know, I talked to Peter Wilander. He's the managing director of onboard services for Delta and he says they take this into account.
PETER WILANDER: In the development of specific menus, we usually instruct our design chefs to add more spices, for instance.
MARTIN: So, I'm getting on a flight - tomorrow, in fact, all the way across the country. It's going to be a long flight. What can I do to go in armed so that I can have a good culinary experience?
PASHMAN: Well, I'll give you a few tips. First, if you're given the choice, go for saucy pasta dishes over big cuts of meat. They tend to hold up better to the chilling and reheating process. Also, when the flight attendants are coming through, don't be shy about asking politely for, let's say, the whole can of soda or extra pretzels or peanuts. Those extra snacks can really be crucial. Crush up the pretzels or peanuts and you can sprinkle them over your entree to add flavor and, even more importantly, texture.
That extra texture is especially helpful because, remember that study I mentioned about how engine noise reduces taste perception?
PASHMAN: Well, the same study said that engine noise increases crunch perception.
MARTIN: No, it didn't.
PASHMAN: Yes. You know, when you're on a plane do you ever, like, talk to yourself? Or when you're eating crunchy foods, the way it sort of like reverberates in your head?
PASHMAN: So, you know, if you love crunch, just bring the crunchiest food you can find on a plane and just go to town.
MARTIN: OK. Any advice about drinking on the plane? I'm also bringing my toddler on this journey.
PASHMAN: I was going to say, I know you're flying with your kid. And so, my first advice about drinking is: Do it.
MARTIN: It's a contained space. How much trouble can he get into?
PASHMAN: Famous last words. Yeah, tell that to the judge. Wine is the same deal as far as taste goes, as the food is. So that's also, so that the sommeliers who consult to these airlines also take that into account; the issues of cabin pressure when they're picking wines to get maximum taste experience and pleasure.
MARTIN: Nice tips. Very helpful tips, Dan Pashman of the Sporkful food podcast, Dan, thanks so much.
PASHMAN: Thanks, Rachel. Happy holidays, good luck on that flight.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.