Food storage and taste

We are all familiar with the maturing of cheese and the ripening of wine over time. Enzymes and benign mold cultures can do their work to make delicious tasting cheeses. Also many prepared dishes markedly improve in taste when they are stored for a day or two and then re-heated. We all make our soups, stews and sauces that taste so much better the next day. What is causing this?

Dishes that benefit from one or two days storage are characterized by the fact that they are thick (viscous), contain some fat and/or are spicy or herby.  Often these foods are actually emulsions or dispersions of fat in an aqueous phase, stabilized by proteins, starches or even food particles. Examples: lentil dishes such as dahl, pea soup,  fish soup, lamb stew, shrimp sauce, mayonnaise etc.

I believe the taste development has nothing to do with enzymatic reactions, as these will be suppressed in the refrigerator,  but more with the redistribution of aromatic compounds and other taste enhancers over the food.  In potato loving countries, it is a well known kitchen secret to add some potato to a simmering stew when the cook inadvertently added too much salt. The salt is preferentially absorbed by the potato and removing the boiled potato reduces the salty taste.  A spicy dish when freshly made can sometimes taste sharp, but may mellow into a delicious aromatic dish after one or two days storage.  Re-distribution of aromatic compounds may be a continuous process and may take more time in viscous emulsions and dispersions (i.e. the thick soups, stews and sauces). Keeping this in mind may help the cook to create  excellent tasting soups, stews and sauces.

time period to reach optimum taste food or drink examples
decennia strong liquor whisky, maotai, cognac
years wine
strong refermented beers
Belgian trappist beers
month most cheeses old matured Gouda cheese
weeks certain pickled dishes Maroccan perserved lemons
1 – 3 days herby, starchy or spicy stews
starchy or fatty (fish) soups
ragouts, pickled fish in vinaigrette
oil in water emulsified sauses
pea soup, pumpkin soup
mackerel in vinaigrette
mayonaise, tartar sause
10 – 30 minutes most fried and grilled meats after having been taken away from the heat source

Table 1. Time to reach optimum taste for various foods and drinks.