Managing Your Flavor Profiles
Have you ever made a recipe and the finished dish was lacking something but you just couldn’t put your finger on it? Or maybe you dumped too much salt or vinegar in a soup and decided your dish was ruined because you didn’t know how to fix it? Maybe you want to cook without recipes but don’t know where to begin with your amounts.
I’ve definitely been there but the good news is I can teach you how to address those problems with just a little bit of science and some basic knowledge on flavor combinations. However the biggest thing that will help you is to taste as you’re cooking. Try to start discerning what you’re tasting in your dish. It takes practice but it is key to figuring out how to fix or better your food.
Let’s start with the basic flavors that can make up a dish. Everyone is at least mildly familiar with these basic flavors. You probably had a chart in an old science class with a tongue sectioned off, showing how you taste different things on different parts of the tongue.
Well here’s the flavor chart I’d like to present:
Sour, sweet, salty and bitter are the typical four tastes. Spicy is more of a sensation (some people enjoy that sensation, others don’t) and so is Umami. If you haven’t heard of Umami it is basically an essence that certain foods have, I would describe it as an almost “meaty” quality. For example mushrooms have a lot of umami which makes them a prime candidate as a substitute for actual meat (think portobello burgers). Umami is a good thing to be aware of but is not as important when discerning how to adjust your dishes or create dishes without a recipe.
There are actually only a few flavors that truly compliment each other.
Salt and sweet together really bring each other’s flavor out so when cooking heavily with one flavor such as soy sauce, you might consider adding a small amount of the other. A great example of this is in Thai cooking. They add a lot of soy or fish sauce and cut it with coconut sugar. The combination is phenomenal. You’ll also find this a lot in baking – A pinch of salt in a sweet recipe or pinch of sugar in a savory one goes a long way.
Next we find that Sour and Salty also complement each other. Sour can be any acid such as lemon, lime, tomato and assorted vinegars. An example of salty and sour together is squeezing a lemon wedge on roasted fish. The fish is salty, the lemon is sour and by themselves they’re not going to knock anybodies socks off, but together they bring a lot to the table. So next time you’re making a dish that’s heavy on the acid or salt, try a small amount of the other.
Ok! That’s it for flavors that compliment each other. The rest of the flavor combinations actually contrast and balance each other. This is great news for when you have too much of something in a dish.
This is a classic, most everybody has made lemonade at some point in their life. And what do you do when it’s too lemony? You add more sugar! The same goes for if it’s too sugary (although let’s be real, when we were kids it could never be too sugary), add more lemon. How simple right? It’s really going back to the basics. When trying to balance a dish, figure out what you’re tasting too much of and add the opposite.
Sour and spice – When you combine vinegar with hot peppers you get hot sauce! The world’s best breakfast food with a side of eggs and bacon (That would be the Sriracha addict in me talking). But not everyone has to be a hot sauce lover to appreciate this flavor combo, the classic hot and sour soup is another great example of these two flavors living in harmony. Next time your soup is too sour, add some heat! Food too spicy? A dash of vinegar might do the trick.
Would you like one lump or two? Adding sugar to bitter coffee and tea goes way back and now there’s a billion dollar industry out there all based around adding different types of sweetener to coffee. But I digress – Other well-known combos are candied walnuts, honey-mustard, dried cranberries in a kale salad..Delicious.
Bitter and salty foods you will find less of in American Cooking. The combo is usually very strong and is used more in German style cuisine. However some examples most people have probably had are salted bitter melon, or kale roasted with salt.
Spicy and sweet, can you say BBQ sauce? As someone from Kansas City I know a bit about the spicy, sugary goodness that is KC BBQ. Other combos are jalapeno jams, curries, peanut sauce and gingerbread. Sugar and spice together might be such a popular combo because sugar releases endorphins (a feel-good hormone) and spicy foods create a sensation when you eat them. Sounds alright by me!
Our palates have been trained to look for salt and sugar. You can mask anything with these two flavors and that is primarily what has been put into the processed foods you find today. To really begin to cook well you need to train your palate to identify all the flavors. Then you’ll start noticing that cheap ice cream taste like the sugar bomb it is and that store-bought ramen’s only flavor is a lot of salt. They have to do this because there isn’t enough quality ingredients for good flavor to come through in their dishes.
If you’ve read this far you’ve already taken the first step, the next is to slowly start identifying what you’re tasting and go from there. So in summary:
Salt + Sweet – Compliment
Salt + Sour – Compliment
Sour + Sweet – Contrast
Sour + Bitter – Contrast
Sour + Spice – Contrast
Sweet + Bitter – Contrast
Sweet + Spice – Contrast.