Season to Taste

Chefs must master the ability to develop flavor in order to produce great tasting cuisine. Flavor is created through balanced combinations of complementary foods, seasonings, and cooking techniques. The perception of these flavors comes together through all of the senses when we eat, but particularly through taste, aroma, and food textures. Each person’s ability to distinguish flavor is different and some people are more sensitive than others. While critical analysis of a dish comes naturally to some, most chefs must train their palates to distinguish ingredient characteristics, learning how to combine them in certain proportions to to achieve a harmonious result.

What we find pleasing to eat is largely a cultural experience that develops at a very young age and is ingrained in us throughout our lives. The spread of ethnic cuisines around the globe is directly related to the desire of immigrants to recreate their native foods and cultural experiences. It also leads to culinary cross-pollination as local foods are often substituted for native ingredients that are not available in foreign countries.

The flavor profile of each ethnic cuisine is identified through unique food combinations, seasonings, and cooking techniques. Whether it is the distinctive spice mixtures (masalas) of Indian cuisine, the flavor combinations of corn tortillas, beans, and chilies in Mexican cooking, or the unique technique of wood-smoked barbecue, the successful recreation of authentic-tasting ethnic foods happens by following a few fundamental guidelines when preparing them.

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What is Flavor?

Although flavor perceptions are often discussed in terms of taste and smell, all of the senses play a part in the gustatory experience. The taste detection threshold differs from person to person based on our taste buds and personal preferences. We are familiar with a few basic sensations (sweet and sour, salt, bitter, and umami) on the tongue, but experience many more aromas through the olfactory passage of the nose and throat. The unique aspects of a dish, primary ingredients along with supporting flavors and seasonings unified through particular cooking techniques, all contain the five basic taste sensations that must be manipulated to balance the dish. Understanding the practical aspects of this process are fundamental for all cooks.

The Science of Flavor

The taste experience involves all five of the senses including sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Our first impressions are through sight and smell. If something looks appetizing to us, like a roast chicken or a chocolate cake, it triggers cravings based on emotional or physical needs. Aromas can be pleasantly inviting, like the smell of a soup cooking on the stove, or powerfully repulsive as in the odor of spoiled meat. The tongue is the physical connection to taste that works together with smell to distinguish basic flavors. Touch enhances our experience of flavor through mouth-feel and how textures are perceived on the palate such as crunchy, smooth, fatty, or gelatinous. Sound enhances flavor satisfaction, for example, when we hear the pleasurable crunch of a French fry or crisp pastry as we bite into it.

A direct link exists between aroma and taste because the nose and mouth share the same passage. Flavor is first detected through aromas received in the olfactory cells of the nasal passage. The majority of flavor, approximately 80%, is actually experienced through smell, and this ability to smell aromas is more important than tasting food on our tongue. Although our palate can detect a few basic elements of flavor, we sense over a trillion different aromas through our nasal passages. The unique flavors of foods and spices are lost without the ability to smell.

The diagram illustrates the interaction between the various senses of sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch (also referred to as mouthfeel). We smell odors through the nasal cavity, then as food is introduced through the mouth, flavors are perceived in the brain via taste buds on the tongue while co-mingling with aromas in the retro nasal canal in the back of the mouth. The flavor experience is further enhanced through the physical act of chewing food, stimulating receptors in the oral cavity and providing further information about texture, temperature, and spiciness.

Fungiform papillae are small bumps or nodes located on the front, sides, and back of the tongue that house taste buds. Each taste bud has a variable number of receptors or pores, with the highest concentration of these receptors located in taste buds towards the back of the tongue where the mouth and nasal passages meet. This is where aroma and flavor come together to provide a complete taste impression. Each person’s ability to detect flavors is different because we possess a variable number of taste buds and receptors. Some individuals, known as supertasters, are very sensitive to foods (especially bitter flavors) because they have a high number of papillae (and taste receptors) on their tongues, while non-tasters have a lower number of taste receptors and are able to tolerate highly seasoned or spicy foods. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Regardless of where you are as a taster, you can train your palate to detect tastes and aromas through sampling individual ingredients and finished dishes to build a memory bank of flavors to guide you during the cooking process.

Basic Taste Sensations

Taste sensations are categorized into five basic elements of flavor—salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (a Japanese term also defined as savory). These elements appear in most dishes to varying degrees and are manipulated to create balance and harmony in the final taste. We are born with an affinity to sweet tastes, presumably associated with the sweet flavor of mother’s milk. Salt is an acquired taste but one that we crave because our body needs some salt to survive; salt also gives foods a more desirable taste. Perceptions of sour and bitter flavors as pleasurable, meanwhile, are learned. Human evolution likely predisposed us to sweet tasting foods, which are more likely to be safe to eat than bitter or sour foods. Sour and bitter tastes are more complex than sweet or salty, and are often tolerated when combined in minimal quantities with the other elements to create complexity in a dish. Umami, the savory fifth element of taste, comes from naturally occurring glutamates found in meats and vegetables. We are born with this craving because it too is found in mother’s milk. Foods rich in umami include mushrooms, tomatoes, fish, and fermented or aged products including tea, cheese, soy sauce, and bread.

Flavor is further defined by secondary sensations (flavor nuances) including pungent, spicy or piquant, astringent, metallic, cool, fatty, or even neutral (think of water) that are not recognized as true tastes but are used as cultural descriptors. Pungency, spicy, and piquancy are words used to define similar tastes. Pungency is anything with a strong sharp taste. For example, sage and rosemary are two herbs with very strong aroma and taste that are described as pungent. Spicy refers to foods that are either seasoned assertively, or it may be used to describe the spicy heat from foods prepared with peppercorns or hot chili peppers. The spicy-hot sensations we get from chilies and peppercorns are actually touch and temperature perceptions transmitted by nerve receptors to the brain. Piquancy is defined as foods that are pleasantly pungent, tart tasting, or spicy. Astringency refers to foods, including unripe fruits that contain tannins, which cause a puckering sensation in the mouth. Examples of astringency include tea, red wine, and rhubarb. Metallic taste is generally identified as an off flavor in foods. Examples include the taste sensation from medications or from certain artificial sweeteners. Coolness is a fresh sensation from plants including peppermint, spearmint, and camphor that is a neural reaction similar to spicy heat. Fatty tastes are derived from animal fats (butter, lard), and from oils (olive, sesame oil). Fatty nuances are related to umami and mouth feel.  

Balancing Taste

The basic taste elements work in concert, and when used in the correct proportion achieve a sum that is greater than the individual parts. Sugar, a deeply primal taste that creates euphoria when consumed, balances bitterness. Sourness, also referred to as acidity, livens up dull foods (especially starches), reduces salt sensations, balances spicy heat from chili peppers, and is a counterpoint to sweetness. Salt is important in cooking because it is a cheap spice that brings out flavor, reduces bitterness, and accentuates sweetness (salted caramel is one example). Bitterness, found in herbs and spices as well as coffee and chocolate, provides complexity and depth of flavor. Umami is the savory sensation we crave in foods including meats, fish, dairy, and certain vegetables. Spicy heat is a stealth sixth element that when used in a minimal amount creates a warm lingering effect on the palate. For a preparation to be complete, a cook should ask whether the basic taste sensations are in balance. If they are not, what does the dish need? By walking through a checklist of the basic taste elements and adjusting as needed, foods can go from average to outstanding.

Developing Flavor

Flavor is developed by pairing complementary or contrasting foods in a particular order, with seasonings and specific cooking techniques, to produce a complex layered effect. Classic food combinations found in cuisines around the globe follow a logical and often similar process in their preparation because there are a limited number of cooking techniques. Some flavors are more robust while others are subtle and work in the background to round out the overall preparation. Food pairing must also be given proper consideration when plating the dish becuase each element can add or detract from the final composition.

Building Complex Foods

Food flavors are composed of primary ingredients like meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables that are paired with secondary ingredients like aromatics (onions, garlic), wine, or fats (olive oil, butter, cream), and seasonings that accentuate and define the dish. These elements are also described as low, middle, and high notes. Ingredients are layered in specific combinations during the preparation process starting with a flavor base that provides a foundation for the dish.

Each food element adds a layer of flavor that contributes to the final outcome of the dish. Stocks, soups, sauces, and stews develop color and flavor by a combination of searing or sweating ingredients in fats and the addition of aromatic vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, garlic), seasonings, and liquids (wine, stock). Flavors are refined by the choice of ingredients.  For example, shallots, green onions, or leeks may be substituted for white onions and each aromatic will affect the flavor of the final dish in a slightly different way. Color and flavor is further developed through smoking meats, charring peppers, or toasting spices.  Flavors concentrate and meld together through prolonged cooking and the evaporation of liquids. Cooking foods in fats or finishing a dish with cream or butter adds fullness to the flavor base. In the cases of cold uncooked preparations like brines, marinades, cold dressings, and sauces, ingredients need extra time to develop and come together. 

Composing a Complete Plate

A completed plate is a composition of preparations that are paired or layered for taste or textural purposes. Each component of the plate should be critiqued for flavor and seasoning, and then critiqued as an ensemble. A beef braise, for example, will be rich and tender but will seem one dimensional without added garnishes. Pairing foods with a variety of textures, whether they are crisp, crunchy, smooth, or juicy, provides ways to contribute flavor, create layers, and keep the palate engaged during the tasting process. Juxtaposing hot and cold can have a similar effect, such as when a warm sauce is served over cool greens. The addition of fresh herbs or a squeeze of lemon are flavor boosters that liven up a plate of grilled or sautéed fish. Individual elements may not always possess a balance of flavors and seasonings, but when combined with other components on the plate they should contribute to the final balance.

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Simplicity often presents a more coherent presentation when developing a plate concept. By starting with ingredients at their peak of perfection, applying proper culinary techniques, and adding the right amount of seasoning, a balance is achieved with the various elements on the plate.  A chef will analyze each component to determine if it contributes harmony in flavor, seasoning, texture, or color, eliminating anything unnecessary in the dish.

Flavor Profiles

The term flavor profile is used to describe the composition of primary and secondary ingredients along with specific seasonings and cooking techniques. How we achieve a balance of these elements has to do with the particular dish that we are preparing. While the primary elements play a major role, seasonings will steer the direction of the plate. Salt for example may be used in the form of sea salt, soy sauce, bacon, or brined capers, and sour can be added through vinegar or citrus juice. Each of these components carries a different flavor profile that adds elements further defining the dish. The desired end result determines what ingredient we use in the beginning to achieve that particular taste sensation.

Different theories on flavor development have emerged that provide a more scientific approach to cooking.  Flavor Pairing or Food Pairing, the result of the scientific analysis of common flavor molecules across different foods groups, has discovered that foods with similar aroma compounds tend to pair well together. Classic flavor combinations like mozzarella cheese and tomatoes on a pizza, chocolate and coffee, and strawberries and cream, pair well together because they contain common flavor components. Chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in England has used this approach to create new classic combinations including caviar with white chocolate (see chart).

While the concept of positive food pairing is a common approach in Western cooking including Europe and North America, scientists in India, through an analysis of thousands of recipes, discovered that in Asian and Southern European cuisine the opposite is true, and coined the term Negative Food Pairing to describe their theory. This approach, common in Indian spiced curries, is thought to have evolved from the traditional use of herbs and spices to prevent bacterial spoilage of foods. Negative food pairing can be thought of as the yin and yang approach to cooking in which one ingredient enhances opposite qualities of other ingredients to create unique and memorable flavor combinations.

Regardless of negative or positive food pairing theories, the classic food combinations found in ethnic and international cuisines are time-tested and serve as a useful starting reference for aspiring chefs. These classics work because each ingredient possesses certain flavor compounds that, when combined with others, creates harmony through the basic taste sensations we perceive on our palate. A savvy chef, through experience, understands this concept, and is able to experiment with new flavor combinations to create original and unique dishes.

Practical Application of Flavor Profiles

Developing a nuanced understanding of taste sensations, along with a mastery of flavor pairings and cooking techniques will allow a person to intuitively and spontaneously cook based on regional or seasonally available foods. The inspiration may be authentic regional cuisines, contemporary trends, or a cultural fusion.  Regardless of the desired outcome, a cook should always ask the following questions when creating a menu item:

  • What is the flavor profile (ethnic, contemporary, or a fusion)?

  • What are the primary ingredients and what is its intended use (entrée, side dish, sauce, soup)?

  • How is the dish developed (grilled, braised, poached)?

  • What seasonings complement the preparation?

  • What accompaniments will complement the dish to complete the presentation?

  • Are the flavors, taste sensations, textures, and colors balanced?

Answering these questions first will lead to successful food compositions and also helps focus and refine the outcome.