As our pro tasters will tell you, it’s not all about eating.
Hear the job title ‘professional taste tester,’ and you might picture someone who gorges on chocolates all day, taking breaks between bites only long enough to scribble down notes before indulging again. But as our pro tasters will tell you, it’s not all about eating after all.
Take Lisa Schroeder, associate sensory scientist—i.e. professional taster—for Mars Wrigley Confectionery U.S. In between bites of M&M’s, Snickers, Dove, and Skittles, Schroeder takes time to create computer programs to evaluate products, plans trainings ahead of product launches, runs team taste-testing panel sessions, and continues her own tasting education.
When she’s not slurping soup, Jane Freiman, the director of the Campbell’s Soup Co. consumer test kitchen, is evaluating new recipes, giving feedback to chefs, and running taste panels.
Elizabeth McCall, master taster for Woodford Reserve, doesn’t sip bourbon all day long. McCall also spends time speaking at various events, hosting personal tastings for clients, and auditing the brand’s procedures and production facility to find ways to improve both.
If you’re still on board to become a taster, these three women can tell you how to do it.
1. Have a superior sense of taste. Newsflash: you can’t become a taster without a strong sense of taste—one that allows you to focus on multiple layers of flavors and differentiate them. In fact, when you apply for a job as a professional taster, your tongue—for all intents and purposes—is the real interviewee, says Schroeder. “You [will] go through multiple screenings that focus on your experience with food and how you taste things,” Schroeder describes. “And there are also screenings that test your ability to identify [the] basic tastes.”
2. Learn to speak taste. A superior sense of taste won’t get you very far as a professional taster if you can’t characterize what you’re experiencing. “Learning how to describe foods and their attributes is a key part of the role,” Freiman says. “For example, I cannot just say a product tastes ‘good.’ But I can describe a lemon with ‘it’s sweet but tart with a harsh bite.’”
3. Take palate training. Whether you’re tasting candies, soups, or fine wines, you’ll need to complete “in-depth palate training,” says McCall, which—in addition to learning to identify specific tastes—will include learning the different kinds of mouth feels, she describes. For example, here’s what McCall’s palate training looked like: “We had aroma jars with different attributes and worked on creating the sensory memory of the different flavors,” she recalls. Schroeder says she underwent six months of training. “I was trained to identify and refer back to specific tastes, textures, and other aspects of the ingredients we use,” she describes. “The training is more intense than people think, so some people do drop out of the training process—but everyone who makes it through the training gets to become a taste tester.”
4. Skip culinary school—if you want. In case you were curious, “contrary to what many people might think, you do not need to go to culinary school to become a professional taste tester,” says Freiman. “I didn’t.” Of course, Freiman admits she works with people who did graduate from culinary school. “But,” she says, “I find it more important that a candidate is hard working, curious, and has a passion for food. This career takes years of dedication and training—and having such a love for this [career and for food] really makes the difference.”
5. Understand the ever-changing consumer. As a professional taster, you know what you like—but it’s also important to stay in touch with what consumers are demanding. “In this role, you must regularly talk to consumers about their taste preferences, learn how they cook, and what new foods they are interested in,” says Freiman. With this information, you will be better able to recommend changes to recipes based on taste and consumer demand.
6. Never stop learning and developing your palate. According to McCall, “there is always an opportunity to improve” as a professional taster. So, she advises, “really pay attention while you are eating and drinking, think about the flavors and always work on describing what you are eating—in and out of work—even if you are just describing it to yourself,” she says. “Attend trainings when you can, even on products outside of your area of expertise.” Schroeder agrees. “Overall, my No. 1 piece of advice for an aspiring taste tester is to expand your food horizons and to try all kinds of foods,” Schroeder says. What a tough job, folks.