In flight meals: Why food tastes terrible on a plane

No matter how fancy our in-flight meals are, food always tastes bad at 34,000 feet - blame aircraft design, safety and science

Airline food leaves a lot to be desired. Photo / Getty Images
Airline food leaves a lot to be desired. Photo / Getty Images

Airline food, with a few exceptions, is generally terrible.

The only reason we eat it is because when you're 34,000 feet in the air, and hours from your destination, you don't have a lot of options - except to go hungry.

But when so many airlines recruit top chefs to prepare their in-flight menus, why are our meals so much more in the sky?

There are a lot of factors at play here, from the design of the plane through to safety and, of course, science.

BECAUSE YOU CAN'T TASTE SO WELL UP THERE

Our senses of taste and smell are significantly dulled in a pressurised cabin. This especially impacts our sensitivity to sweet and salty flavours, which can be diminished by as much as 30 per cent during a flight.

So clever chefs know they have to compensate for that loss of flavour - if they can.

In a recent interview with Quartz, chef Alfred Portale from New York's Michelin-starred Gotham Bar and Grill said "aggressive seasoning" was critical when he developed recipes for Singapore Airlines.

"Simply, [we use] salt and pepper but very often we use a lot of aromatic spices, sweet spices, to jack up the flavours," Mr Portale said.

"Or we put elements on the dish, like condiments, that will jar your tastebuds."

And he must be doing something right. Singapore Airlines offers some of the best in-flight fare you can get, according to Nikos Loukas from the food review blog In-Flight Feed. He told news.com.au curries were always a great option on a flight because the flavour still packed a punch despite your muted tastebuds.

BECAUSE YOU CAN'T TECHNICALLY COOK ON A PLANE

Open flames can't be used on aircraft, so your meal isn't cooked from scratch in the air.

Instead, it's pre-prepared on the ground, chilled and reheated during the flight with the use of steamers, microwaves and convection ovens in the galley.

Spicy food travels better than most other flavours. Photo / Getty Images
Spicy food travels better than most other flavours. Photo / Getty Images

And the whole process has a special knack of seriously drying out the ingredients, making for a pretty sub-par dish.

Mr Portale said using lots of sauce was key to maintaining moisture, as well as braising ingredients in broths.

This is also the reason you'll see fattier cuts of meats, such as pork shoulder and salmon, on the in-flight menu - they don't dry out during the reheating process as much as leaner proteins do.

The low air pressure in the cabin can also have a slowing effect on the cooking process, which is another reason why airlines typically don't bother to cook from scratch.

"It's actually very hard to cook at those altitudes," John Hansman from the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the BBC.
"They generally are just doing reheating."

BECAUSE WE CAN'T BE TRUSTED WITH SHARP THINGS

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand why passengers are not handed steak knives during meal service.

So it works quite well that the over-boiled, over-steamed food we get on planes is perfectly compatible with the use of blunt-edged cutlery sets - sometimes without knives.

"Airlines have discovered that, if you also precut the meat, you practically don't need a knife," Guillaume de Syon from Pennsylvania's Albright College told the BBC.

If you can cut it with a fork, it's perfect for the plane. Photo / 123RF
If you can cut it with a fork, it's perfect for the plane. Photo / 123RF

"Because it's been so overcooked, you can cut it with a fork."

So that's why most of your food comes scoop-ready or on the verge of mush - neither of which make for an appetising meal.

BECAUSE IT'S NOT THAT MUCH OF A PRIORITY ANYMORE

A recent report by the BBC looks at how food service on flights has evolved from the lavish affairs of the 1960s to the more grab-and-go standard of today.

Decades ago, planes had smaller passenger manifests - with sometimes as few as 50 people - and that allowed flight crew to offer a more personalised meal service to each person on board.

Now, passengers planes carry more than 300 hungry people and the crew have to get on with feeding the masses quickly.

And as more and more airlines focus on squeezing more and more seats on their flights, we may see hot food become less of a focus as passengers literally take over the space formerly reserved for a fully functional kitchen.

Even the size of tray tables are shrinking in the interests of maximising space, John Hansman said.

"Because of the interest in reducing cost, many airlines have tried to put more seats on aeroplanes," he said.

"That's part of the reason you see some airlines not having any hot service: because it reduces the size of the galley and that gives room for seats."

- news.com.au

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