“Look, I’m just saying it’s missing something. I don’t know what, but it needs something else.”
The conversation next to my bench had been going on for close to 20 minutes. Our manager had just tried a spoonful of soup that we were going to selling tomorrow. It was a spicy African Peanut soup- dried ancho peppers had been infusing the pot with a smoky flavor, carried on the fat of the peanut butter and oil the veggies had been fried in. There was a suggestion for salt, but the recipe already had a lot.
Black pepper, sage, garlic, more cayenne, it went round and round. The owner looked over the pot and called me over. “Matt, taste this- what do you think it needs?”
I grabbed a spoon and took a taste. Smoke, peanut, and fried veggies washed over my tongue… but no heat. The heat from the anchos needed something to cut through the fat. “It’s good, but dull… you need some kind of acid in there to carry the heat and brighten it up. Got some lemon juice?”
The hot pepper might give the soup bite, but acid gave it jaws to bite with. When you become a cook, you start learning a different vocabulary for flavor, which is itself the vocabulary of food.
Far More Than Five- Flavor vs. Taste
Salty, Sour, Bitter, Sweet, Umami.
These are what people might call the “alphabet” of flavors- the simplest ways our taste buds react to the substances in food. Virtually every flavor is some combination of these five tastes– and that is the difference between taste and flavor:
- Taste is the basic experience of food on a physiological level– how your tongue reacts to the different compounds in food.
- Flavor is the cumulative combination of different tastes and other sensory experiences (including smell, texture, and temperature)
Just like a painter can mix up three or four pigments into a rainbow of colors for a painting, cooks mix and match the substances that have certain tastes, scents, textures, and temperatures to make the flavor of a bite of food be precisely what they want. Just like “red” can describe a spectrum of hues and tones in visual art, descriptions of flavor go far beyond the basic alphabet.
Going Into Your Gallery
“This tastes like a campfire.”
“Mmm… this tastes so green and bright.”
“Ok, so this beer tastes like an old sock… but in a good way?”
“Ugh… this tastes like my grandma’s perfume.”
“This is just really confused- it tastes like everything and a bowl of a hot nothing.”
I didn’t make any of those statements up. Every single one was used by someone I worked in a kitchen with or is in the industry, and reading them you probably knew exactly what I was talking about every time. Campfires are smoky, woody, and warm. Fresh garden veggies and citrus are green and bright. Old socks are funky, and “grandma’s perfume” is probably overly floral.
The more you work with food, the more you find yourself reaching for similes and metaphors to get across what you are experiencing. The basic vocabulary won’t cut it- you can’t tell someone what a potato is just by spelling “p-o-t-a-t-o.”
Instead, you dive back into your “gallery”- your memories of experiences, foods, flavors, and moments for something to relate it to. With this, you can access to a deeper, more nebulous vocabulary- the vocabulary of memory and emotion. In an ideal world, a chef can tell a story on a plate using the diners own taste and memories.
It’s not an exact science, but magical when it happens.
How I Match Flavor
Have you ever wondered why tomatoes and basil taste so good together? Or why strawberry and basil also really work?
It’s because they are all related- strawberries, tomatoes, and basil are all part of the “nightshade” family of plants. Rose, almond, peach, and apricot also work together for the same reason.
Marco Pierre White made the observation that cooking an animal or fowl with some of its favorite food made sense- partridges with apples, rabbits in hay, etcetera. Having some knowledge of natural science (as well as physiology, chemistry, and zoology) can be an absolute boon when it comes to selecting flavors that work well together- but the very best skill set you can have is just trying everything.
Break yourself loose of “making sense” and explain what you are tasting, then find something to work with it. “This tastes really vegetal and green, like an herb garden. It could use something deep and rich to back it up.” “This tastes like a cup of black coffee early in the morning- maybe I should add something a little sweet and creamy.”
Don’t be afraid to try new ingredients and methods. Salt and pepper are great, but salt is what is called a “flavor potentiator”- all it does is make things taste more like themselves. Instead of salt (and all the extra sodium that comes with them,) try thinking of acids or spices you could use to highlight specific tastes rather than just making everything saltier.
What are some interesting ways you’ve described a flavor experience? Drop it in the comments!