Balance is one of the terms that bartenders and cooks throw around all the time. But if you ask what balance is, you will get many different answers, and none of them have been satisfactory to me.
This is a question that has perplexed me for a long time and I started looking into it when I started The Spiffy Dapper. This article lays out my theory on balance and how I came about deducing it.
Basic Flavour Profiles.
For a long time, we only had sweet, sour, salty and bitter in the arsenal. But then the guys who made MSG came up with the idea of umami (savoury) as a taste profile and it has recently been adopted in the west. And for the most part we take these five to be the basic taste profiles.
But that is not all, the five are only the most prominent ones, and there are other sensations that we can feel with our tongue. Shown below are some other sensations that we are able to decipher.
- Pungency (chilli spice)
- Piquancy (cinnamon / nutmeg / anise type of spice)
- Astringency (tannins like in tea and red wine)
- Kokumi (mouth-feel/heartiness/density)
- Numbness (Like when you eat szechuan pepper corns)
- Coolness (minty / fresh)
While these sensations are significant, the five basic tastes are more common; and so for the purposes of coming to a definition, I decided to focus on the five basic tastes; sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
Experimentation, Memories and Questions
I started my experiment by drinking stuff that expresses a basic favour overwhelmingly; Simple sugar syrup (sweet), saline solution (salty), lime juice (sour), Fernet Branca (bitter), MSG solution (umani). I started looking at how my body reacted to it. While I had the lime juice, saline solution and the Fernet Branca, my face puckered and muscles tightened as though my brain is telling me to stop consuming the substance. But with sugar and the MSG, my face did not pucker up. I found this interesting and started thinking about it.
Thinking back to my childhood, I remember liking all things sweet and I believe that it is pretty much the same for all of us when we were young. Then I started liking a bit of saltiness, sourness and umami. Bitterness was the last taste that I started liking. I remember finally getting to it in my late teens.
And based on this memory, I started talking to my friends and funny enough, most people has a similar experiences with flavours. Pretty much everyone loved sweetness at the start, and the next taste that people developed an affinity to was umami (this came as a surprise to me) and from there depending on the cultures the rest of the flavours came into play.
Assumptions and Deductions.
Upon further thought I came up with this reasoning for it. The reason we like sweetness is because of survival. Harking back to our hunter-gatherer days, sweetness is nature’s way of telling us that something is safe to consume. Most fruits are safe to consume when they are ripe. That must be the reason that we like sweetness as kids, nature’s way of protecting us for eating things that are bad for us.
That brings us to umami, which I thought was funny that we have any affinity to so early on our life cycles. But it is actually not surprising at all, because research has shown that breast milk has pretty much the same umami flavours as broths. So umami is one of the first flavours we come in touch with when we are born and hence I would assume that the brain is programmed to accept umami as a safe taste.
Sourness is interesting. Some fruits have a fair bit of acidity (sourness), but some stuff that have been spoilt or fermented also have high acidity. My guess is that understanding acidity is something we have learnt to accept as we have evolved as a civilisation. So I believe that acidity is something you learn as you grow as opposed to something you have an affinity for in your basic state.
I believe that saltiness is also something that we grew to like because human beings started using salt to preserve food. I suspect that the early man would not have had an affinity to salty things as the most commonly available form of salt is in the sea and drinking sea water would be harmful to the body.
Bitterness I believe is the most evolved. Bitterness is nature’s way of warning us away from something poisonous. That is why it must take a very conscious decision to develop an affinity to bitter flavours.
I felt that this reasoning explained my body’s reactions to the experiment I did. And I started getting an understanding of how balance is perceived by the brain.
It seems to me that balance is our brain’s way of telling us that something is safe for the body to consume.
It think it is a very important survival trait because pretty much everything in nature has a multitude of flavours in different concentrations.
So when you have a ripe strawberry, your brain is kinda cool with it, as even though there is sourness, it is accompanied by sweetness which tells the brain that the strawberry is not rotten/fermented/poisonous and is probably safe to eat. So you will only pucker up a bit, not like when you are drinking fresh squeezed lime.
Balance and Concentration
Things do get kinda wonky when it comes to concentration. For example you take 25ml of lime juice and drink it, it tastes pretty damn sour. But if you add a cup of water to it, it becomes a mildly sour and a pretty refreshing drink. While you would not think that the flavours are balanced in the drink, you will not find it horrible. This is the body telling you that this might be a bit rotten, but it is still ok enough to consume.
The effect is similar with the rest of the flavour profiles as well. So concentration is a big player in the game of balance.
Based on what I have learnt I have put together this simple theory.
The Theory of Balance of Flavours
Balance is the synchronised stimulation of the basic flavour profiles in a concentration that does not overpower the taste receptors. The basic flavour profiles being sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
Application of the Theory
For something to be balanced, there must be at least two of the basic flavour profiles present in similar concentrations.
The easiest example of this is a liquid with equal parts of (30ml) lime juice and (30ml) simple syrup. The sweetness balances off the sourness and the resulting drink is rather pleasant.
This is very much the basis of the sour tradition in cocktails where you use citrus and sugar to balance the flavours in a cocktail.
To make it more balanced, you can add a dash of an amaro like (5ml) Fernet Branca. You will see that you will find the drink more pleasurable. Adding a pinch of salt will make the liquid even more palatable. And you can add umami with a wee pinch of MSG or celery extract.
Another example of this is the Old Fashioned Cocktail. In this drink you use sugar and bitters to bolster and build on the flavour profiles of bourbon whisky.
Balance as a Perspective.
I believe that balance is based on perspective of flavours. When you are a child and you have not been exposed to certain flavours, the brain’s idea of a balance in flavours is different. When you have grown up and have been exposed to many flavours, then your understanding of balance changes. Hence balance is not a constant. It is subjective for each and every person and it is subjective to the flavours each person has been exposed to.
It is especially true in the world of cocktails, most people who are new to cocktails will prefer the sweet cocktails. But those who are seasoned, tend to gravitate towards the bitter end of things. It almost seems as if we gravitate to understanding and conquering what that we do not understand or might even kill us.
Understanding balance will lead to a better understanding of what we are looking for in cocktails and food. It will give us an idea of the destination so that we may carve the path towards it. It can also be seen as the path that leads us to new and amazing destinations.
Hopefully this theory helps to demystify the idea for balance for the people who work with us and enjoy what we create.