How much meat has to be in food to be able to smell it?
September 22, 2016 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm anosmic (born without the sense of smell) and I have weird smell-related questions pop into my head sometimes. Usually I ask whoever's around, but it's late and no one is presently available so I'm turning to you: how much meat has to be in food to be able to smell that there's meat involved?

I'm vegetarian and obviously can ask or visually inspect food to tell if there's meat involved, but it just occurred to me that perhaps people can tell without asking if it's, say, chicken ravioli versus spinach. Or if there's shrimp hidden in the spring roll. And so on. Please advise.
posted by vegartanipla to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on the meat and what else is in the food. With some kinds of fish, for instance, it's obvious. On the other hand, chicken doesn't have much of a distinctive smell and it would be easy to hide behind spices. And other times (very hungry times), I've definitely gotten halfway through a plate of beans before realizing, hold up, is there pork in these beans? That smoky smell...that hearty flavor...

Yes, I recognize that I just outed myself as underthinking a plate of beans.

Anyway. I haven't eaten non-fish meat on purpose except in super-special occasions since before puberty so sometimes it doesn't occur to me that meat might be in something if I don't see it. And in those cases I might not tell right away from the smell. It's definitely not always obvious.
posted by the marble index at 11:17 PM on September 22, 2016 [17 favorites]

I'm sure it depends on the sensitivity of one's sense of smell, but I personally cannot usually tell either of those things from a normal distance. If I broke open the ravioli or spring roll and held it up to my nose, maybe, depending on what else was in/on there that might mask the odor.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:19 PM on September 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For me, I can easily smell beef because it has a very distinct smell, almost game-y. Beef is the easiest for me to smell. I can smell it from 4-5 feet away, even. Beef stock soup or steak in sauce is immediately clear to me.

Chicken is harder because many chicken dishes use spices that hide the relatively mild scent of poultry. It's borderline impossible. I can however,smell chicken stock in soup. I have a weird nose.

Fish is obvious, but shellfish not so much. This is a problem for me because I'm allergic to lobster, and was once served a "tomato bisque" that had lobster/fish stock in it.

Pork just smells kinda sweet and fatty to me, so I don't notice it by smell. To close to a lot of other ingredient combinations. Also, every vege product with MSG smells like pork to me for some reason *shrug*.
posted by InkDrinker at 11:23 PM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is interesting information, thank you. What spices in particular are the ones masking the chicken scent?

Also, relatedly - can you smell the difference between fake meat and meat? Does Morningstar Chik'n smell the same as, approximately the same as, or quite dissimilar to normal chicken nuggets, for instance? Do fake hot dogs smell like real hot dogs?
posted by vegartanipla at 11:40 PM on September 22, 2016

Fake hot dogs do not smell much at all from afar, although it varies a little by brand. Real hot dogs smell strongly like burps to me (and I don't eat any meat but fish, so the closest I have come to them is my husband's plates). Chik'n smells like "breaded/fried" more than anything else to me, as do actual chicken nuggets.

I usually see something has been inadvertently meated before I smell it, though.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:09 AM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Vegetarian data point: I have never successfully spotted meat in a dish using smell, and my sense of smell isn't bad - it's always been visual or textural first. Once in a dish meat is often subordinate in scent to the other ingredients (especially spices, herbs, strong sauces like bbq, etc) - I think once plated the only dishes with really obvious animal smells are those with big bits of meat/fish on them, smoked pork stuff, and anything in a meat broth.

Generally faux-meat/fish doesn't smell like the original product, with the possible exception of some of the fish/seafood replacements, especially super-processed things like crabsticks, but I suspect that might be because of artificial scents in the origina, rather than the 'natural' smell of lobster, or whatever. Some fake sausages are close, but again I think that's the herbs, spices and fats cooking, rather than the meat content.

For reference, though, I found my sense of smell re. meat shifted *significantly* over the course of being a vegetarian. cooked meat to me now has a rather off putting smell that I can only describe as 'dead animal', it's a strong 'not food' scent - the worst being (to my surprise!) bacon, which now has a very strong old sweaty sock scent, which is not present at all in faux bacon or 'bacon flavour' things. I sometimes find that dairy products, especially fancy cheeses, can smell a bit... farmyard-y? Cow-y? It's hard to describe, but it's a pungent whiff of animal - same for eggs sometimes. I never noticed that before I stopped eating meat. Generally the more organic, free range, straw fed, blah blah blah the dairy is, the more likely I am to smell animal in it. It's quite odd!
posted by AFII at 12:30 AM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

My sense of smell is epically keen and I love meat and hate many vegetarian dishes that copy meat- in other words, the smell of meat is very appealing to me and I would choose a meat thing over a non-meat thing any day. Unfortunately, I cannot use smell to tell with certainty if a given dish has meat in it. Often you can tell, but at least 20% of the time, it's impossible to tell by smell, so if avoiding meat matters to you, smell isn't a good way to make the call.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:45 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

For me, the cases in which meat has an unmistakable smell are also the cases in which it is most obviously on display, like steak, fried bacon, or a roast. But I find that if the meat is mixed into something or smothered in sauces and the like, it's hard to pick up by smell unless I'm actively trying to smell it. In other words, the dishes that would be most concerning to a vegetarian in terms of sussing out "hidden meat" are also the ones where any meat smell is more likely to be subdued by other components of the dish. Thus, smell isn't a very reliable measure. (Having said that, I'm not vegetarian, so maybe if I had more skin in the game, so to speak, I'd be better at smelling meats in mysterious stew situations?)
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 3:17 AM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can definitely smell if there is meat in a dish, and mostly but not always also which meat it is. Fake meat has a completely different smell - mostly off-putting to me, though I like tartex vegetable paste, which I think is supposed to be like a chicken paté or something.
I am an omnivore, and I think to some extent, it is the smell that makes me eat meat, more than the taste. I can easily maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet for ages, vegetables are so rich in taste and variation. But then I miss the fumes of a stew on the stovetop, or a chicken roasting in the oven, many meat smells are filled with good memories for me and are comforting.
posted by mumimor at 4:23 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Shrimp definitely has a kind of seafoody smell I tend to notice in things. Fish vary a lot. Oilier fish like salmon and tuna will be more apparent than white fish. Meat more or less reveals itself by a scent of umami, which can be very appetizing unless you're a longtime vegetarian, and then texture. Chicken I notice if it's been grilled with the skin on, mostly. Without the skin you don't really pick it up.

I don't find that spices, onion or garlic mask these aromas. They can be present but they register differently, to my nose.
posted by zadcat at 4:37 AM on September 23, 2016

Best answer: ups, I got a bit carried away there; more specifically to your question: I'll often base an otherwise purely vegan minestrone soup on a light chicken or pork stock, and I can both tell the difference between the two and between them and a purely vegan soup. FWIW, I once forgot to tell a vegan friend about it, and I was so embarrassed, he said he hadn't noticed at all which made me feel even worse. Maybe as a vegan for many years, he had forgotten the smell and taste of chicken broth and confused it with mushrooms?
posted by mumimor at 4:37 AM on September 23, 2016

I haven't eaten red meat in 22 years, and I eat very, very little (none if I can avoid it) poultry or fish.

I could tell you what meat is in which dish, and what kind (basically) it is, and probably what stage of cooking it's at. I'm very sensitive to meat smells, which is unfortunate for me. I wish I lived in a world of only grains, legumes, fruits, veggies and berries, lol.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 4:57 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't eat seafood, and I used to think that shrimp in particular had an incredibly strong odor that I'd easily be able to detect and avoid. I find that that is usually true (and to answer your other question, the fake shrimp I've encountered in potato chips in the UK still smelled shrimp-y to me ... though with a whiff of pet shop mixed in), but once I was happily through my second or third prawn cracker before anybody told me what I was eating. I've been similarly unpleasantly surprised by dishes with fish in them on occasion - so even with what to me is usually a very strong-smelling food I find I can't rely on sense of smell to avoid 100% of the time.

Plus, with seafood anyway it seems the whole point is that it goes into a dish without adding fishiness - I don't think I've ever seen a cooking show where someone added an anchovy without the chef saying "don't skip the anchovy! It won't be fishy, I swear!" Lots of things have very small amounts of fishmeat in it - Caesar salad dressing, Worcestershire sauce, etc. - where I think the point is that most people are not expressly going to be able to smell it.

FWIW, I will eat land-based meats, and like a number of others have said already, I can't reliably smell it in a dish if I don't already know it's in there. Roasts, burgers, ribs, etc. cooking - yes, and they often smell enticing; chicken vs. vegetable broth in a minestrone soup - nah, they both smell indistinguishably good.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:39 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

A lot of folks have mentioned various seafoods but I wanted to also note here that lamb tends to have a pretty distinctive smell (at least to me) and is usually instantly identifiable in a dish, even in relatively small amounts, like say as little as an ounce or so within a big pot of soup.
posted by saladin at 6:21 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

My take on this is that it is very easy to make things smell like meat therefore evaluating whether or not a dish has meat via smell is not likely to be reliable or accurate.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:52 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I cook lentils in chicken stock. I can smell the stock when it's cooking and taste it when I'm eating it. However, were I to pull the leftovers out of the fridge cold, I could not ID the smell as chicken stock. Chilling makes everything different.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:58 AM on September 23, 2016

I have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and though I can usually smell pretty much any amount of meat that is large enough to have been deliberately put in a dish, there are lots of secondary smells that (at least to my US American palate) I immediately associate with meat. Mirepoix makes me think of chicken stock. Cumin smells "like" beef, and Worcestershire sauce "like" hamburgers even though it's made with anchovies and not beef. But yes, I could tell you what is in ravioli and whether it's meat based on its smell.
posted by capricorn at 7:13 AM on September 23, 2016

Response by poster: I am fascinated that you guys can smell stock in soups that aren't just stock (so like french onion, sure, but like a minestrone with a chicken base is blowing my mind). I would have thought that was one of the harder things to smell since it's one of the harder things for me to taste, but upon reflection that's actually typically how it goes in that what's hard to taste that people eat anyway is often due to it smelling strongly...

Anyway, thank you for satisfying my curiosity!
posted by vegartanipla at 9:15 AM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a sense of smell, at least I think I do, and I too am amazed at some of the things people smell. Until reading this thread, I do not think I even notice most of the smells mentioned. I do know that my sense of smell has changed as I have aged. Onions, smell very different to me than they used to.

I did not post an answer right away because my answer was going to be, and still is, I smell meat mostly when it is going bad. I guess if I came home and there was a steak or a roast cooking, I would notice it, but I would not associate it with a meat smell. Chicken, by itself, unless it is rancid, has no smell to me. Fish can by very fishy depending on the fish and the freshness.
posted by AugustWest at 10:38 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

In a house, if it's hot I will be able to smell it once I enter the room, cold from 1-5 feet away. In a restaurant with a lot of other smells it would be harder though. And I dont think I could smell stock in all soups, some smells cover up other smells.

I have a freakishly good sense of smell though and I do a lot of cooking.
posted by fshgrl at 11:16 AM on September 23, 2016

A lot of meat is processed with nitrates, or smoked. I find that processed meat has a much more obvious and distinctive odor than regular meat.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:26 AM on September 24, 2016

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