Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an important cooking concept that will allow you to create flavorful dishes every time you cook.
When I was a kid, my job in the kitchen was to season and tenderize the meats that would go into our family’s stir-fries, stews, and curries. I would sprinkle pieces of chicken, pork, and beef with salt, white pepper, and sugar. Yes, you read that right, we always seasoned our meats with just a bit of sugar. My grandmother explained that the sugar wouldn’t make the meat taste sweet but rather create balance and enhance the effect of the salt.
Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an incredibly important cooking concept, and it’s especially evident in Asian food.
I think this is why just about everyone enjoys Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Japanese cooking (they’re definitely the most popular meals in our meal plan archives). Every dish is so dynamic in flavor. A Thai curry has sweetness from coconut milk and sugar, savoriness from fish sauce, spicy and earthy notes from herbs in the curry paste, and sour from the finish of lime juice. All these different flavors combine to achieve a delicious balance on our taste buds.
Luckily, you don’t need to go to culinary school to learn how to do this. We’re here to give you a graphical study of flavor profiles as part 3 of our ‘How to Maximize Flavor’ series.
First, let’s review the basic flavors. Up until 2002, scientists recognized 4 ‘official’ tastes: 1) salty; 2) sweet; 3) sour; and 4) bitter. However, in 2002 umami was crowned the fifth flavor. Umami simply means yummy in Japanese, and it’s hard to describe what the flavor of umami tastes like. For simplicity sake, we are lumping it with salty in this lesson because they share a lot of the same flavor attributes.
If you are offended by this, you probably should be attending culinary school because your taste buds are far more refined than ours are. For the purpose of this flavor lesson, we’re also including spice as our fifth flavor because we love a little heat.
By the end of this cooking lesson, you’ll understand how to balance and enhance flavors and also have a lot of new ideas for how to add any of these five flavors to your meals. Let’s go!
The Flavor Star
Because so many of us learn graphically, we created a Flavor Star to show you how these five flavors work to balance or enhance each other.
If a flavor balances another flavor, it means it counteracts or offsets that flavor to achieve an even more harmonious taste. For example, spice balances sweet and sweet balances spice. It’s why Mexican hot chocolate is finished with a pinch of cayenne pepper – the spice works with the sweet to produce a more dynamic flavor.
Or if you have a dish that’s too spicy, you can also balance the heat with something sweet. So if you ever over-spice a curry or sauce, just add a bit of your preferred sweetener (or use one of our ideas below in the sweet section), to neutralize the heat.
Flavors can also enhance each other. If you look at the Flavor Star, you see that salty enhances sweet and vice versa. This is why there are sea salt caramels or sea salt chocolate chip cookies. That light addition of saltiness actually amplifies the sweetness of those caramels and cookies.
If you keep this Flavor Star handy, you can learn how to create more dynamic flavors, rescue dishes that have been overly flavored, and also how to amplify certain flavors. Now let’s dig a bit deeper into each of our five flavors.