Why does oil make food taste better?

By | December 5, 2023

Despite its seeming simplicity, oil has amazing power in the kitchen. When used by talented cooks, it serves as more than just a cooking lubricant—it can also be a taste enhancer, texture transformer, and artistic medium. But why does food taste better when oiled? Science and sensory perception interact closely to provide the solution.


Flavor Carrier: A Solvent for Taste

Oil serves as a flavor carrier, giving food its unique flavor.

When food is cooked in oil, the aromatic compounds present in the food dissolve into the oil. These aromatic compounds are responsible for the distinctive smell and taste of the food. Upon eating, the oil, now infused with dissolved aromatic compounds, forms a coating on your tongue and the interior of your mouth. This oil mixture is then transported to the taste receptors on your tongue. As you chew the food, aroma molecules are released and travel up the back of your throat, reaching your olfactory receptors. Subsequently, these smell receptors transmit signals to your brain, where the information is integrated with taste signals from your tongue. When all of this is combined, you get a whole flavor experience that lets you smell and taste the aromatic components, which makes the food taste even better.

The kind of oil you use might also have an impact on the food’s flavor. The flavor characteristics of various oils vary. Sesame oil smells nutty and roasted, while olive oil has delicate buttery aromas. Different oils have distinct flavors.

When cooking with oil, the flavors of the ingredients mix to create a powerful combination that improves the food’s flavor quality overall. For instance, sautéing veggies in olive oil gives a light olive flavor, while stir-frying in sesame oil gives the meal a rich, nutty flavor. Similar to this, marinating meats in herb and spice-infused oil allows the tastes to find their way deeper into the flesh, resulting in a more flavorful and aromatic dish.

Water, on the other hand, does not dissolve aromatic molecules as well as oil. This indicates that food cooked in water usually has a lighter taste. Furthermore, browned flavors and fragrances do not develop in water since the Maillard reaction does not take place there.


The Maillard Reaction: A Flavor Symphony

Oil’s promotion of the Maillard reaction is one of its most important contributions to flavor enhancement. At high temperatures (between 140°C and 250°C), reducing sugars from carbohydrates and amino acids from proteins react to produce this chemical reaction, which bears the name of the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard. The end result is a series of complex chemical reactions that generate a wide range of flavor compounds, giving roasted, grilled, and seared meals their distinct aroma and flavor.

Due to its ability to act as a medium for heat transfer and encourage even cooking, oil is essential to this reaction. In addition, it dissolves and distributes the flavorings throughout the dish in its ability to act as a solvent. The nutty aroma of toasted bread, the caramelized sweetness of roasted vegetables, and the delicious brown crust on grilled meats are all products of the Maillard reaction.


Texture Transformation: Crispy texture and moisture within

Oil has an impact on texture in addition to flavor. It can provide a variety of textures, from crispy to tender, based on the type of oil and cooking technique. Oil also plays a crucial role in retaining the moisture within the ingredients during the cooking process, where the oil forms a protective barrier, preventing the escape of water from the food. For example, pan-frying results in a sear that seals in juices and intensifies flavor, whereas deep-frying in oil yields a crispy surface and a moist interior.

Creamy, silky textures are also influenced by oil. Oil helps make cakes and muffins softer when baked, and it emulsifies components in sauces and dressings to keep them from separating and give them a smooth taste.


A Sensory Journey: Increased Palatability

Oil affects flavor in a way that goes beyond chemistry and involves sensory perception. Foods are more tasty and appear sweeter due to oil’s ability to coat the tongue and lessen bitterness. Additionally, it prolongs the taste sensation and produces a more satisfying gastronomic trip by slowing down the release of flavor compounds.



Despite being often overlooked, oil is a kitchen chameleon that has the power to influence the flavor, texture, and aroma of food. It enhances the whole eating experience by stimulating our senses, delivering flavor, and creating a range of textures. It also integrates the Maillard reaction. From the crispy sear of a grilled steak to the silky smoothness of a rich sauce, oil is the hidden hero of cooking, adding depth, complexity, and joy to our meals.


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