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Lessons in Flavoring

Food Scientist Melds Chemistry, Culinary Passion at McCormick

By Chris Carroll

illustration of colorful veggies in a black frying pan and beaker, soft pretzel, coconut, all flying through the air

Lisa Bird ’89, M.S. ’98 is one of about 300 “savory chemists” worldwide. She specializes in recreating the umami-rich flavors of roasted onion, grilled chicken and more in her Baltimore lab.

Illustration by Charlene Prosser Castillo; headshot courtesy of Lisa Bird

A visitor to the lab that Lisa Bird ’89, M.S. ’98 runs at McCormick and Co. experiences a moment of aromatic disorientation; it smells like a vast banquet—a ginger- and garlic-infused stir fry, a coconut cookie, a bratwurst—but all this alchemy is contained in several glass vials lined up on the kitchen-like counter.

She’s a senior principal process flavorist at the herbs and spices giant famous for seasoning mixes like Old Bay and Montreal Steak Seasoning, but she’s not powdering paprika. Instead, Bird, a chemistry major who started with the company in 1991 and returned to College Park for her master’s in food science, strives to understand at the molecular level what makes taste buds sing.

headshot of Lisa Bird
Lisa Bird

Her work creating liquid and dry flavorings for food companies aims to give that crunchy but boring wafer a peanuty crunch, or to transform an unappealing pile of pea protein into a mouthwatering vegan burger patty. “What do you think of, what sensations do you have when you bite into a steak? That’s what we’re recreating,” she says.

The magic comes together in her lab’s reactors—“really expensive pressure cookers,” she says, allowing for precise timing, agitation and temperature controls for the chemical reactions of cooking. One of about 300 so-called “savory chemists” worldwide, Bird specializes in recreating the umami-rich essences of roasted onion, grilled chicken and the like. Once she perfects a flavor, a facility down the street produces it in much larger reactors.

Bird has yet to read the bestselling novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” about a female chemist-turned-TV cooking show star (an adaptation of the book premieres as an Apple TV+ series on Oct. 13), but like protagonist Elizabeth Zott, she merges hard science with culinary art. That’s one reason she insists on living with her husband in Baltimore: to have access to the creations of city’s chefs. “I want to see who’s doing what, what new flavor combinations they think of,” she says. “When I try something new and exciting, I think I become a better chemist.”



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