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I have found that after adding ground pepper (any type, color, or heat level), some dishes seem to be saltier. This sometimes occurs with other spices, as well. Note that I am not using anything else that contains salt.

I always taste as I go and something will seem to have the perfect amount of salt. But almost immediately after adding pepper or other spices the dish will seem to be too salty.

Also, I have cooked something that seemed to be perfectly seasoned, but if one adds ground pepper at the table, it seems to be saltier.

Another example is that when I cook certain types of curries and use a wide range of other spices, a minimal amount of salt is needed, and the dishes do not lack any salt flavor.

I have learned over time that when other spices are to be added to decrease the amount of salt, so it's not an issue. (I can always add more, if needed.) However I am curious as to why/how this happens.

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    That's interesting, I've never noticed that effect. Perhaps it is an effect limited in the population. – GdD Nov 12 '14 at 13:20
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It's not just saltiness, but various taste sensitivities that are impacted by pepper. Basically, piperine (the component in black pepper which causes its pungency) and capsaicin (the "hot" chemical in hot peppers) cause mild irritation and inflammation in the mouth when consumed. That inflammation leads to additional sensitivity of taste receptors. Saltiness, acidity (i.e., sourness), and feelings of hot and cold are generally the most impacted by this inflammation; all of these sensations are enhanced. (For a brief summary of some of the various impacts of pungent pepper compounds, see here.)

However, in excessive amounts, piperine and capsaicin can inhibit the normal taste receptors for the major flavors. But a small amount of inflammation, as produced by the relatively mild form of black pepper's piperine, will make parts of the mouth more sensitive and thereby enhance certain flavors, including saltiness.

(I don't know the details for which other spices you mention, but many spices have effects beyond the basic taste buds. In fact, many substances are chosen as spices for the wide variety of bodily sensations they can cause, often resulting in pain or irritation, which is why they tend to be used in very small quantities. Particularly other "pungent" spices -- ginger and cinnamon, for example -- also have mild irritating effects on the body, which might induce alterations in sensation and taste.)

  • Great answer. You mentioned that small amounts of piperine inhibit the normal taste receptors and increase the sensitivity of others, among them saltiness. Can you describe which flavors are effected in more detail (which are the normal receptors)? – Toaster Nov 24 '14 at 15:19
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    When I said "normal taste receptors" I meant the things we normally identify as major "tastes," i.e., sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. With excessive pepper, all of those receptors will be inhibited; with small amounts, salty and sour (primarily) will be enhanced. (And I call those five tastes "normal receptors" in contrast to other elements of food which may influence our sensation of the food, like sensations of hot/cold, pungency, etc. All of those influence how we perceive overall flavor and "taste" even if they aren't generally counted among the usual "taste buds.") – Athanasius Nov 24 '14 at 20:30
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Is it possible that you are confusing salty with umami? I could see pepper (and other spices) adding umami, but I don't see how it is possible to add saltiness.

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Just as cuisine is thought of in terms of sweet and savory, so too our taste receptors are subdivided into two main categories. When you taste pepper you're activating the bitter class of taste receptors responsible also for tasting salt. So it's not that the pepper brought out salt in the dish that was not already there. It's that the pepper brought out your sensitivity to that salt or, that is, your actual ability to taste it. This is a good reason to have pepper applied to one's salad, because it's pretty hard to salt a plate of salad in anything of an evenly distributed way.

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