There are a number of reasons why airplane food has been speculated over the decades. For starters, it, in itself, is a culinary enigma all on its own, involving some very scientific processes behind why it actually tastes good. While not every airline is providing food that tastes akin to a luxury meal, there are some airlines that have nailed the art of in-air dining.
So, why - and how - does this food manage to taste so distinctly, well... normal? The reason it works has quite a lot to do with the conditions of the plane cabin as well as the technique involved in altering the food's flavors.
Plane Food Is An Exact Science
This exact science has everything to do with how a human's tastebuds are affected while in the air. Many travelers might notice that air travel gives them a serious case of nose stuffies, which is attributed to the dry air in the plane cabin. This, of course, is due to the air conditioning that's constantly cycled through the plane which leads to a serious drying-out of one's sinus cavity. Additionally, this can also dry out the food that's served which is why sauces are usually such an integral part of a meal. At least, they used to be, prior to the art of perfecting airplane food that can now be tasted on most airlines.
Another surprising factor to consider is the air pressure, itself. While the cabin of the plane is pressurized, those who have had the misfortune of a popped eardrum can attest to the fact that it's still quite apparent. This, coupled with the ongoing vibrations of the plane itself, affects a nerve found in the middle ear. So, while dryness can account for some of the lack of taste, it's this stimulation of the middle ear nerve that causes food to taste dramatically different. When this occurs, it's more likely that savory flavors will come through much stronger while sweet flavors are mellow and non-existent to some.
- Fun Fact: This is where umami has come into play to save the day for most airlines and their food menus.
So, How Does Food Manage To Taste 'Good?'
As it turns out, the science behind creating and reheating the food is just as imperative as understanding the science of how it's affected while being consumed. Chefs have managed to work out some tricks (such as adding umami) in order to counteract the lack of flavor balance, and it has worked out pretty well thus far for many airlines.
A Little Extra Seasoning
When meals are first made, it's not uncommon for chefs to add more salt than usual to the dish. While this would taste akin to dumping half of the Atlantic Ocean into one meal on the ground, in the air, it's tastes like the perfect balance of flavor to seasoning. Since our tastebuds are dulled with that frustrating middle-ear vibration, this allows travelers to have some semblance of flavor for savory meals. Sugar is also used in very much the same way due to the need to boost whatever underlying flavors might go undetected. According to the American Airlines culinary team, it's not uncommon for someone to lose up to 30% of one's sense of taste on a plane.
Reheating Is A Specific Process
The food consumed on planes - at least, in the case of American Airlines - is usually prepped and made the day of the flight, in most cases, according to Vox. The chefs or catering groups responsible for preparing the food also need to include specific instructions for reheating, since the additional dryness of the cabin conditions does a meal no favors. Therefore, depending on the meal, the cabin crew may need to go through a very specific list of things prior to serving a meal - and most people just think it's a 'reheat & eat' process!
Another thing many people don't realize is that cabins on planes are equipped with special ovens that are designed specifically for plane food. This heating equipment does so in a way that brings up the temperature of the food without drying it out even further. Additionally, the heating system must be gentler than that of a typical oven in order to avoid changing the flavors of the dishes.
The Future Of Airplane Food
While plane food was once something that was regarded in a negative light, many airlines are working to change that, and some already have. With five-star and Michelin-rated meals being served onboard flights nowadays, plane food is now a luxury rather than an unappetizing necessity for some.