When you think about a scrumptious meal, airline food does not come to mind.
There are plenty of challenges to tasty airline meals, like the fact that many airlines now charge you for anything more than a tiny bag of chips and a plastic cup of non-alcoholic drink, at least on domestic flights. Plus, you can't cook on an airplane, so anything you're served has probably been chilled, then reheated. And flight delays certainly don't help with the freshness factor.
But the bigger obstacles to palatable fare in the air are biological: Our senses are scrambled at high altitudes.
Lack of humidity in the pressurized cabin dries out our nasal passages, dulling our sense of smell — a key component to how we perceive flavor. Background noise — like the roar of a jet engine — can lessen our ability to perceive sweet and salty tastes, research from the U.K.'s University of Manchester has found. Separate research from Lufthansa suggests our sweet and salty sensors might be off as much as 30 percent while in flight.
So what's a traveler taking to the skies this holiday season to do?
Don't despair, says Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast, who has looked into the challenges of mile-high meals. He shares a few tips for foodie flyers with Weekend Edition Sunday Host Rachel Martin.
"First, if you're given the choice," Pashman says, "go for saucy pasta dishes over big cuts of meat — they tend to hold up better to the chilling and reheating process."
And don't be afraid to ask the flight attendant for extra peanuts or pretzels, he says – "those extra snacks can be crucial." Crushing them up over your meal can add much-needed texture, he notes. And that's important, because the same study that found noisy jet engines can dull taste buds also suggested that the clamor heightens our perception of crunch — so why not make things more interesting by upping the crackle in your meal?
Of course, airlines are well aware of the culinary challenges in the sky. At Delta, chefs are usually instructed to add more spices to counteract dulled senses, says Peter Wilander, the airline's managing director of onboard services.
The efforts to overcome airplane food's bad rep are even more intense when it comes to service for business and first-class passengers, whose meals are increasingly being designed with the aid of celebrity chefs. Qatar Airlines, for example, has enlisted the help of culinary superstars like Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of New York's acclaimed Nobu restaurant. And Qatar's master of wines, James Cluer, went so far as to climb Mount Everest to explore just how altitude affects the taste of vino.
"One of the things when you are selecting wines for service up in the sky is you want something with some richness and some power, nothing too sharp and acidic," Cluer says in a video documenting his Everest tasting. He chooses stronger wines for in-flight consumption than he might on the ground.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports, the chefs at British Airways have begun experimenting with umami — that savory fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Turns out, umami flavors keep their kick even at high altitudes, the airline's research has found. Among the first-class dining recipes tweaked with umami in mind: pork cheeks served with a sauce packed with lime and lemon grass, the paper reports.
Alas, don't count on encountering such a fancy feast if you're flying coach class. If that's where you're sitting, here's one last bit of advice: Slip on some headphones and play some of your favorite tunes while you dig into that tinfoil-covered dinner. That British study on background noise we mentioned? It also found that pleasant sounds can actually enhance how much you enjoy your food.