Curious How You Can Make Incredible Tasting Food?
I wasn’t always a great cook, let alone a chef. Being raised on fast food I spent very little time in the kitchen growing up but later I took a hands on, learn on the job type of approach. After having a cake to the face embarrassing argument with an experienced chef about whether or not salt was a flavor or a seasoning (do you know the difference?), I realized that I had a lot to learn.
If you often find that your food doesn’t taste as good as it does in restaurants then this article is for you. Making food taste really good is a skill, a science, like chemistry that can be learned. This will explain the tools culinary masters use to make mouthwatering food and provide a quick to-the-point discussion on the science of balanced and flavorful dishes.
Those not very experienced in the kitchen often find themselves following recipes to a “T.” While this is an acceptable way to cook, you aren’t guaranteed to have a really delicious dish. There is just too much variability in any given ingredient or product to know for certain it will taste as the recipe developer intended. Some apples are sweeter than others so you might need more sugar and salt in your pie. That avocado might be fresher then the last so you don’t need as much lime juice in your guacamole. One chili can be hotter than the next so you may need more or less then that kimchi recipe calls for. You get the point. When cooking it’s important to taste while completing each step of the process so you can identify the dominant flavors.
Finding balance in a dish refers to all the flavors working together. Your tongue has receptors to basic tastes including sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the newly discovered umami. Every dish you make doesn’t have to specifically target each type of taste all at once but these tastes are key to making something really flavorful and pleasing to the palate. Below are brief examples of each.
Bitterness is the taste we are most sensitive too. It’s why little kids (and some adults, let’s be honest) don’t always love foods like broccoli, brussel sprouts or coffee. However, a little bitterness can go a long way in creating balance. Think brussels with maple glaze and coconut bacon, or broccoli with cheddar cheese. The bitterness in the vegetables is balanced out by the sweet and savoriness of the other ingredients.
Sweet ingredients like fruit, carrots and sugar help bring out the other flavors of food as well as balance out the taste of sour and bitter. Think sour patch kids or coffee with cream and sugar. Sweet ingredients can also subtly round out a savory dish. Think sweet carrots or corn in a chili.
Sour foods like lemon juice or vinegar are used to brighten a dish and give it the “oomph” you are looking for. Think adding lime juice to your avocado toast or lemon to your vegetable noodle soup. Sour ingredients can also help balance out foods that are too sweet or spicy. Try adding lime juice to a spicy salsa or lemon juice to a cake batter.
Umami is savory and naturally occurs in foods like nutritional yeast, mushrooms, soy sauce or marmite. Even tomatoes can have umami. When a dish tastes good but needs just a little something, often it’s missing a little umami. Think sushi with soy sauce or pasta with a little nutritional yeast (or parmesan) on top.
Adjusting the flavors in a dish is where tasting as you go comes into play and brings us to our discussion on salt.
Salt and tasting as you go
I dated a highly trained chef a couple years ago and he’d always cook us dinner. Throughout the entire cooking process, he would constantly be adjusting the seasonings and salt to taste that by the time dinner was done he was no longer hungry and I’d be left eating alone. Althought I wasn’t thrilled about this, it taught me the importance of salting to taste and tasting throughout the entire cooking process.
Salt not only enhances the flavors of other ingredients it also reduces bitterness. When adding salt to a dish we aren’t looking for the dish to taste salty. We add salt to reduce bitterness so other flavors can shine. When salting to taste, as many recipes instruct, you want to add salt and taste while examining what flavors are coming through. Can you taste the sweetness of the sweet potatoes, are the eggplants still bitter, or is the dish just meh? You can use ingredients other than salt for this too. Tamari or nutritional yeast can all help accomplish the same thing.
As we’ve discussed, adding salt to a dish can really bring out the flavor of the other ingredients, but the other secret weapon is using a type of acid to make the food pop. Brightness is often the term used and when used together with salt magic can happen. My personal favorites are white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar and lemon or lime juice. Together salt and acid work to make your food shine.
Hitting the right notes
When adjusting to taste chefs often break down flavor into low, mid, and high notes.
Low notes refer to deep lingering flavor that are the backdrop for others. Think earthy or umami beans and mushrooms.
Mid notes are much more subtle and they don’t linger much at all. This is why raw vegetables or tofu often taste boring without a sauce or other flavor to make them enjoyable.
High notes are the crowd pleasers and make you go ‘wow’ over a dish. This is that splash of acid (citrus or vinegar) or freshly chopped herbs and green onions.
Pinpointing the various notes in a dish will help you determine where balance and enhancement is needed. While tasting the food try to determine what you are actually tasting and work from there.
The art of layering
Cooking is the art of layering all the components of flavor and notes to create a well-rounded dish. But there is one last area of making a great meal that we didn’t discuss: texture balance. Texture is another element not to overlook. It can not only effect the taste and mouth feel but also the visual presentation. You eat with your eyes first, remember? Think micro greens on avocado toast, nuts on top of pad thai, or crusty bread with your tomato soup. Adding texture is important to elevate it and achieve restaurant quality dishes.
Like any skill in life the key to getting better is practice. Get in the kitchen and start cooking, tasting and adjusting. If you are looking for an opportunity to work on your skills with the help of a seasoned pro then check out my upcoming workshop in Los Angeles: http://caraskitchen.net/workshops/