[article] Airline food can take a beating on its way to the plate. It's cooked many hours before a flight, then rapidly chilled, wrapped, trucked, stored and reheated. This often leaves it overcooked, dry and tough. In the air, passengers lose about 30% of their ability to taste as a result of extremely dry cabin conditions and high-altitude pressure inside airplanes. So even food that might be appetizing on the ground tastes bland at 35,000 feet. For years airlines have added salt to give the food a semblance of flavor and ladled on sauces to combat dryness. Competition among carriers has intensified in business class and first class, and airlines now spend as much as $50 a person serving signature dishes from celebrity chefs. But for many travelers, it often still tastes like, well, airline food. People typically buy tickets based on routes, pricing and loyalty programs, of course. There's little expectation for good food in coach, where airlines still serve hot meals on long international flights. But on board in first class and business class, the first thing passengers often think about is food, airlines say. "You could certainly lose a customer," said Adrian Jaski, British Airways' manager overseeing catering performance in London. New British Airways offerings include pork belly and pork cheek with lime and lemon grass sauce and heritage carrot, pak choi and peach. Ian Macaulay/British Airways Enter umami, the savory taste found in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce and other foods. British Airways had previously worked with Heston Blumenthal, a famous London chef, known as a practitioner of scientifically engineered dishes and creator of delicacies like snail porridge. On a British television series, he first tried cooking food from scratch onboard a flight; it was chaos. He then prepared elaborate cold plates that took too long for flight attendants to serve. He even tried getting passengers to spray saline up their noses to moisten the palate. British Airways decided that wouldn't fly. Then Mr. Blumenthal hit on umami as a breakthrough ingredient for high-altitude food. Umami is an intense flavor first identified by the Japanese and dubbed the fifth type of taste the tongue can detect, along with bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Mr. Blumenthal tweaked a shepherd's pie recipe to include umami-rich seaweed, for example. "You can't load more salt but you can definitely up the umami," he said on his show. After that, British Airways began working with the London-based Leatherhead Food Research on more quantitative study. Thirty professional food tasters conducted a series of experiments on the ground and in the air and found the sense of bitterness in food was heightened at altitude. In addition to low humidity, they found that cabin lighting and temperature affect taste—cold temperatures and gray lighting have been shown to dull the experience of eating. Stress levels of travelers also affected taste. And the researchers agreed with Mr. Blumenthal that umami didn't lose its punch at high altitude and could be added to recipes to bolster flavors. Even for items like steak—notoriously difficult to serve aboard planes without ending up tough and dry from double-cooking—a crust made of umani-rich ingredients bolsters flavor. "It's a salt substitute without the sodium," said Sinead Ferguson, BA's menu design manager. -------------------------------------------- OP note: The food on BA was so disappointing in the past that I now ensure I am always on AA metal and never get re-routed on BA (bangers and mash & chicken curry, really? blah). Perhaps this might make me reconsider.