Knowing the difference between a julienne cut and a chiffonade is an easy way to impress guests at dinner party. But does preparing your vegetables with fancy—or not-so-fancy—knife work really affect the way they taste? Your gut instinct may tell you no: a vegetable’s flavor will remain the same whether it’s diced, sliced, or grated. According to a story from NPR, however, that instinct would be off-base. Chefs and food scientists both agree that the cut of a vegetable has an impact on its final flavor, and the reason why can be explained with a bit of chemistry.
The chemical makeup of a piece of produce is what makes it taste so flavorful. When a vegetable is crushed or sliced open, those ruptured cells release enzymes that trigger a chemical reaction, which to some diners may take the form of a pleasant taste or aroma.
Charles Forney, a physiologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, told NPR that every fruit and vegetable has a different response to being cut. Tomatoes, for example, produce a fresh, pungent scent when first sliced open. According to Forney, this chemical reaction isn’t too different from the one behind the smell we associate with freshly cut grass. The finer a vegetable is cut, the more enzymes it releases, resulting in a more intense flavor.
This is especially noticeable when chopping up onions or garlic. If you take a whiff of a clove of garlic while it’s still whole, you won’t smell much. But slice into it, and that strong garlic scent will be hard to miss. That’s due to a specific type of enzyme called alliinase. Alliinase converts molecules into allicin, a sulfurous, unstable compound that breaks down into other stinky compounds that cling to our breath and skin. More allicin is produced each time you chop up a garlic clove, so a dish with roughly chopped chunks of garlic will actually taste milder than if the garlic has been finely diced. Grating garlic, on the other hand, creates a flavor so strong that it may be enough to turn off even the most extreme garlic lovers.
Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are also examples of vegetables that grow more intense in taste the more you cut them. If you’ve ever experienced a burning sensation when eating finely chopped cabbage, you can thank a chemical reaction for creating compounds that contain sulfur. So even though diners do eat with their eyes first, the prettiest cut may not always end up being the tastiest for some.