Tangy, tart and fruity: talking about flavours

Trevor Adeline / Caiaimage / Getty Images

by Liz Walter

Food is one of life’s great pleasures, and it is useful to know how to describe its flavours. By the way, note that ‘flavour’ is the UK spelling; the US spelling is ‘flavor’.

The simplest way to express whether or not we are enjoying the flavour of something is to say it tastes:

This soup tastes lovely/horrible.

The sauce tasted slightly sweet.

Something that tastes very good is delicious, while something that looks as though it will taste good is appetizing or (for more emphasis) mouth-watering.

The strawberries were absolutely delicious.

They served an appetizing/a mouth-watering selection of cheeses.

Tasty is another positive word, and implies that the food has a strong, pleasant flavour:

Try one of these pies – they’re really tasty.

We often describe degrees of flavour. Mild is a neutral word for something that does not taste strong, while bland is more negative, meaning that a flavour is boring:

Use a mild cheese in this recipe.

I thought the risotto was a bit bland.

At the other end of the scale are strong flavours. Tangy and pungent both describe strong, sharp flavours, but while ‘tangy’ is a positive description, ‘pungent’ could be positive or negative:

Fresh lime juice makes a delicious, tangy salad dressing.

The pungent flavour of garlic overpowered the stew.

Another way to say that a food has a very strong or sharp flavour is to say that it has bite:

I like mustard that’s got some bite.

Food with strong  flavours from spices are spicy or hot. Piquant is a rather formal, positive word for a sharp or spicy taste:

The curry was too hot/spicy for me.

He added some piquant jalapeño peppers.

The adjective sour describes flavours like lemon juice and bitter describes flavours such as strong coffee. Both these words are usually (but not always) negative:

You can add some sugar if the fruit is too sour.

The coffee had a strange, bitter taste.

If you want to widen your choice of adjectives to describe flavours, it is useful to know that many food words can be made into adjectives by adding -y to the end. Some examples are cheesy, meaty, chocolatey, fruity, nutty, buttery, fishy, salty, peppery and garlicky:

They gave us a fruity drink.

The food was too salty for me.

Finally, we call the flavour in our mouths after we have eaten something the aftertaste:

The olives had a strange, metallic aftertaste.

Can you think of adjectives to describe your favourite food?

20 thoughts on “Tangy, tart and fruity: talking about flavours

  1. Maryem Salama

    Some words describe the shape or the content not the taste, but they connote something relevant to the taste. Spongy cake is a case in point.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, I think so. You might describe a texture as ‘spongy’ – for example a piece of tofu, but with cakes, there would be the confusion with the actual cake, a ‘sponge cake’.

  2. sabrina

    Thanks for your post!
    I am thinking ‘aroma’ is also a quite popular word in many cooking/food related TV shows.

      1. Boret

        Hello Liz,
        What about sour cream. Is il a negative word? I’ve lived in Canada and il was a cream which did’nt taste like lemon juice.
        Thank you for this very interesting blog.

  3. The definition of TART in the Oxford dictionary is “sharp or acid in taste.”
    May I say, “the lemon cake is tart,” “The lemon cake is acid,” and ” The lemon cake is sour?”
    I know it’s difficult to describe flavors. I feel tart and acid are the same, but sour means the cake is spoiled?

    1. Yes, you can use those words, but they describe different shades of sourness. Tart is extremely sour, like you taste the raw lemon juice (no sugar added), acid is just tasting like acid (I’ve never tried it so I don’t know exactly how it tastes, but I guess it is kind of creepily spine-chillingly sour), sour is just normal sour, like a plum.

      1. I think your idea on ‘sour’ is better than mine. 🙂
        Somehow, I feel ‘acid’ doesn’t need to be very strong. After all, anything with a PH of less than 7 can be considered an acid. Here is an example from the Longman: a juicy apple with a slightly acid flavour. I think it carries a positive meaning. Do you agree? Thank you for the response, Duy

    2. Liz Walter

      I think we’d be unlikely to describe a cake as ‘sour’, even if it was a lemon cake! And re ‘acid’ – the example that prudent260 gives is a good one, but it’s also quite unusual to describe food flavours as ‘acid’. Whether it is positive or negative would have to be inferred from the context.

    3. Liz Walter

      I don’t think we’d be likely simply to say that a food/drink ‘is acid’. But as in the example you give below ‘a slightly acid flavour’ would be fine. I would interpret that as a positive description, but equally, if someone said ‘The soup had a slightly acid flavour’, that could well be a criticism! ‘Sour’ is usually a negative word, except for a limited range of foods where sourness is desirable, like ‘sour cherries’. And ‘sour cream’ is a particular type of cream that is supposed to taste a particular way, so that isn’t negative, but if you say ‘the cream is sour’, that would usually mean that it has gone off. It’s rather complicated, I’m afraid, and I think that a lot depends on the context and the tone of voice!

      1. So among tart, acid, and sour, only can tart be put like this: the lemon cake is TART, just to my taste.
        Thank you for your detailed explanations.

  4. Emilio, Francisco

    for the case of a taste that one can still feel after some time, I use to say in my mother language (Portuguese) the equivalent of “trace”

  5. By God, this is awesome. This is awesome, indeed!

    I am particularly impressed with the penultimate point of adding -y to the end of food words to make them into adjectives. Yet another very useful post from About Words which has never failed to impress me.

    Thanks a lot.

  6. Hayly

    It made me laugh that prudent260 had to use an Oxford dictionary because the word tart (which is in the title) was not mentioned in this Cambridge dictionary blog.
    Yum and yummy are words that are also used if something tastes good.

  7. pickledredonion

    so in the end no one agrees on one definition between the words tart, sour, tangy and acid. Everyone has it’s own definition about the level of acidity of each terms. Even the dictionnary doesn’t help to differentiate those terms.

    In the end can we that “this food is tart and tangy, with a sweet fruity acid flavor” ? And what would it really mean to you ?

Leave a Reply