Guacamole Theory: Ultimate Palate Training Wheels
Or “I needed a brief respite from startup-land — specifically a respite involving a non-technical creative output — and so I settled on writing about guacamole.”
Disclaimer: This entire article is opinion, and my sole personal opinion at that.
Guacamole: so simple, but to make it taste friggin’ great requires careful attention to a subset of important dimensions of taste. One must pay careful attention to:
Failure to overlook one of these dimensions during production will result in depressing or gross tasting (sometimes even looking) guacamole. Pay attention, and you’ll be rewarded with ultimate delciousness.
To be clear, I do not proclaim to have an ultimate recipe for guacamole. Far from it. It’s a highly improvisational dish. And that’s what makes it great for anyone learning to cook. It’s so simple, but there are so many dials one can turn to tune the dish to one’s tongue’s mood. Yet — despite taste being subjective, there are still clear objective boundaries (for the average person at least). No acid? No depth and color will quickly brown due to oxidation. No salt? Bland.
There are three (3) fundamental ingredients to making “good” guacamole:
- Acid (e.g. Lime Juice)
If one cannot make a good tasting guacamole with just these three ingredients, one has no business making guacamole at all. If one wants to get serious about guacamole (and I’d argue cooking in general), making a simple basic guacamole is a first step.
It’s not about recipe. It’s about palate and process.
Step 1: Avocado Selection
The avocado itself matters. Greatly. Its ripeness in particular. If it’s not so ripe: it will taste bland and be difficult to mash. If it’s super ripe: one’s guacamole will quickly become mushy and lack texture. When one is at the market, it is important to lightly squeeze the avocado to determine its state of ripeness.
Note that I am being careful with my words. I am not claiming that there is a fundamentally correct ripeness. Even if one’s avocado is near the extremes — short of the avocado being so unripe it’s rock hard or so ripe it’s moldy — as long as one strikes the right balance with one’s other ingredients, one should be able to produce something that the average guacamole lover will proclaim as “good” (though perhaps not “great”).
When selecting an avocado at the market, one must also consider when one intends to make the guacamole. The selection of avocado available to a person may also provide guidance as to when the guacamole should be made. If the avocados at the market are all unripe, all is not lost — for leaving the avocado out for a day or two will enable it to ripen further. If the avocado is subjectively deemed “just right” in its ripeness — then producing the guacamole should be an imminent affair.
By selecting and determining when to make the guacamole, one is controlling texture.
Step 2: Avocado Preparation
When the avocado is deemed to be appropriately ripe, it is time to make the guacamole. Begin with the avocado. I will not go into the fine details of how to prepare it, short of that cubing the flesh is — in my opinion — most appropriate. Further, making it into the biggest possible cube size that one would be willing to eat such a cube by itself or on a tortilla chip is appropriate here.
Next is mashing — another dial for controlling the fundamental dimension of texture. This is entirely subjective and to taste. One may wish for a chunky guacamole, in which case one might not mash even at all. Alternatively, one may wish for a smooth spreadable guacamole, in which case one might mash significantly. Or perhaps somewhere in between is the sweet-spot. But take note: subsequent steps will require some degree of mixing, which will further soften a mushify the guacamole. So, like avocado selection, a future outlook matters.
Step 3: The Salt
Salt brings out the flavor of the guacamole. Salt must be added sparingly and in increments with tasting in between. Add some salt. Stir. Taste. Repeat this process until a desired level of saltiness has been reached. It’s purely subjective, but I did enjoy David Chang’s rambling on the topic in this Wired article.
Under-salting is recoverable. Add more salt. Over-salting is sometimes recoverable (e.g. adding more stock to a soup, or adding more avocado to the guac), but much more difficult to mitigate.
I prefer using Kosher salt, because it’s easy to sprinkle with my hands and I like how it distributes. There are no set rules here as to technique and type of salt.
Step 4: The Acid
Acid adds some much needed depth to the guacamole. Importantly, it also helps to stave off oxidation of the guacamole — turning it brown. I personally like to add acid (lime juice) after the salt. My tongue sometimes mistakes the two, and this can lead to adding too much acid.
Similar to salting, the acid should also be added in small increments with frequent tasting. Too much acid will overpower the guacamole and can destroy the texture.
Advanced Techniques and Ingredients
Once one has mastered a basic guacamole and respects the fundamental process and ingredients, it is then appropriate to explore further. For then, one will understand the implications of how one’s additional ingredients and techniques will impact their guacamole. Some examples of additional ingredients commonly seen:
- Onion — adds to the texture (gives some crunch) and a bit of additional acidity+bite.
- Tomato — adds some tang, sweetness, and a bit of additional acid. But be careful: tomato skin getting caught in one’s teeth is lame. Too much or improper preparation can make the guacamole watery.
- Cilantro — if one’s into that sort of thing (I am, but some people aren’t)
Some less common, but awesome ingredients to try:
- Queso Fresco — particularly sprinkled on top. If one can find it. It’s like a less salty version of feta, and adds some nice saltiness. Credit to Torchy’s Tacos for introducing this to me.
- Parmesan — Umami/MSG punch + salt in one go.
- Lime zest — impart more lime flavor without the additional acid + liquid.
And the rabbit hole goes far deeper than this. While I want to say the sky’s the limit, I’m still in the midst of a philosophical crisis over NYT’s pea guac — but I can’t knock it til I try it (if I ever will).
My Favorite Version
I like it simple. Avocado (slightly underripe/chunky), lime juice, salt, maybe some fresh black pepper, diced white onion for a bit of crunch (not too finely chopped nor too thick).
A Closing Hack
My wife’s family mixes avocado with chunky salsa. Surprisingly, it gets the job done. If it’s good, it’s good. No need to be pretentious!