In many of our posts we talk about or reference flavor. It determines whether we love or hate a food, and is the basis for judging any dish. But what does it mean exactly? And more importantly, how do you achieve it?
Photo by: André Robillard
All About Flavor
What Flavor Means
The technical definition of flavor, as noted in the dictionary, is “the blend of taste and smell sensations evoked by a substance in the mouth.” Quite literally flavor is dictated by both senses, where they work harmoniously together in our mouth, to provide us a personal interpretation of taste.
In laymen’s terms, flavor means our personal recognition and interpretation of food. And how food tastes to us, depends on many factors. But one thing is certain, flavor is key to how and why we eat.
Types of Flavor
We obviously all recognize different tastes, and have varying preferences. However it is generally accepted that there are a five main flavor elements. These include: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
Chefs have far more advanced palates, and their profiles expand well beyond these, but the five gold standard elements are where all flavor stems from.
Let’s review the basics of each flavor:
This one is probably pretty obvious, since it is the most easily recognized and typically elicits the most positive response. Examples of sweet ingredients are sugar/sweeteners, fruit, and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and squashes.
Sour is a great addition that brightens a dish and brings everything together. It is easily distinguished by its acidity. Citrus fruits, greek yogurt, and vinegar are all sour foods.
Not to be confused with sour, though it is in many cases, bitter is more of a harsh flavor. Foods like leafy greens, citrus rind, coffee, and dark chocolate are all bitter.
Salt is used in nearly every dish in nearly every culture. It comes in many forms with slightly varying flavors and textures. The most common salt used in cooking is Kosher and Sea Salt, but also appears in foods such as pickles and bacon.
Umami is Japanese for “a pleasant savory taste,” and the newest edition to the flavor basics. This is well-known in Asian cuisines, and often linked to the flavor of MSG. Fish sauce, fermented vegetables, and meat broths are all umami foods.
Some may disagree that umami even belongs on this list, yet it replaces what was a missing element. Many have embraced this flavor, and none better than, in my opinion, one of the leaders in our Paleo community, Michelle Tam.
Flavor Recognition & Response
As noted previously, flavor involves multiple senses. First, we can anticipate what a dish may taste like by how it appears. The saying we eat with our eyes is absolutely true. For instance, if you see chilies in a dish you can expect spice, fresh citrus indicates sour, parmesan cheese equals saltiness, and so on.
Next comes smell, which is perhaps the most important connection to flavor. Our olfactory is a complex system where smell ties directly into taste. It is extremely difficult to taste without smell, as can be evidenced when we have a head cold. Smelling a food all on its own does lend you a sense of its taste, just as with the sight example above. But the combination of taste and smell leads to the true interpretation of flavor.
Finally, comes taste. When food hits our tongue, sensors (aka taste buds) complete a chemical interpretation. Next, they send a message to our brain to study the taste. From a scientific perspective, various portions of our brain are involved in this flavor determination. This includes signals received from the mouth and nose, and affect the memory, speech, visual and emotional centers of the brain. This may explain why eating a dish reminiscent of something you enjoyed as a child will invoke an emotional response. Or consuming a rich chocolate dessert will render you speechless.
In a nutshell, the brain’s analysis of flavor is very complex and not altogether understood. One thing is for certain, our entire body is involved in the flavor determining process.
How to Achieve Flavor
It is an exciting time for flavor. As restaurant diners, we are exposed to combinations we may never otherwise dream of. Food-centric TV teaches us what could be possible for home cooks and amateur chefs. But all of this still leaves the burning question: how do we recreate these ideas at home?
Balancing flavor is a delicate act. It requires constant attention, meaning you have to taste your dish consistently throughout cooking, and adjust as needed.
It takes some practice, but playing with the 5 key flavors, and learning how they work together, is the key to achieving great flavor in any dish. Once you understand the connections, your culinary possibilities are endless.
Think of pairing flavor elements much like a food and wine pairing. Such as, a dry acidic white wine paired with a salty cheese. The salt in the cheese brings out the tartness of the wine, at the same time the wine enhances brininess of the cheese. A bold red wine served with a chocolate truffle on the other hand, balances the bitterness in the wine and smooths the sweetness of the chocolate.
Successful Flavor Pairings
Great pairings enhance and/or balance each other. You should never taste one predominate flavor in a dish, but instead a harmony of multiple flavors. Some examples of succesful flavor pairings include:
- Sweet and savory (salty or umami). Think fruit pies with an all butter crust, applesauce with pork, and chocolate covered bacon.
- Sweet and salty. Salted caramel, chocolate covered pretzels, and fruit and nut trail mix, are all successful sweet and salty pairings.
- Salty or sweet and sour. Classic combos such as salt and vinegar chips and sweet and sour chicken are great examples.
As stated by Chef David Chang, don’t be afraid to experiment with unique flavor combinations. What you may discover will surprise you, to the delight of your dinner guests. (Side bar: this article also perfectly explains the tricky balance of salt in a dish).
If you are as endlessly interested in this subject as we are, there are numerous wonderful resources available. These sites and publications will further your knowledge on flavor, and help you fine-tune your skill.
The Flavor Bible, is just as it sounds. A detailed guide to all things flavor. A wonderful read and stocked with useful information.
This article from Life Hacker, includes a great introduction to flavor profiles, pairings, and how-to’s.
For fellow science geeks, this research based graphic outlines flavor similarities amongst numerous familiar foods.
These cool illustrated infographics tie together taste, location, and flavor combinations.
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