Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an incredibly important cooking concept, and the good thing is, 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, and by the end of this cooking lesson, you’ll understand how to balance and enhance flavors, as well as develop new ideas on how to add flavor to your meals.
Enhance & Balance Flavors with the Flavor Star
Combining and balancing flavors is a cooking concept that is especially evident in Asian food. It’s probably why everyone enjoys Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Japanese cooking so much. 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 tastebuds.
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’s sake, we’re 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 tastebuds are far more refined that ours are.)
For the purpose of this flavor lesson, we’re also including spice as our fifth flavor because we love a little heat!
Because so many of us learn graphically, we created a Flavor Star to show you how these 5 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. That’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 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 break down each flavor and up your cooking smarts some more!
Salty and Umami / Savory
As mentioned before, we’re lumping salty and umami together because they share a lot of the same characteristics.
If you ever end up with a bland dish, the likely issue is that it’s just under-seasoned (lacking salt or umami-ness). Any Top Chef viewer knows that an under-seasoned dish is the most common mistake made by the show’s contestants, who are all professional chefs. Clearly, under-seasoning is not just a rookie mistake, so don’t ever feel bad about a bland dish – just learn how to fix it with our tips!
Salt is the obvious option on how you can fix an under-seasoned dish, but we’ve come up with a bunch of different ideas on utilizing other condiments and ingredients that can add savory depth to your meal. Some foods also naturally have an umami flavor. Here are some ideas to add savory / umami flavors:
- Add a splash of soy sauce, fish sauce, or miso to broth or stock
- Saute veggies with a bit of anchovy paste
- Simmer soup with the rind of parmesan cheese
Sweetness is not just for desserts. According to our Flavor Star, sweetness balances sour, bitter, and spice, so if you have dishes or ingredients that have any of these flavor profiles, add a bit of sweetness to create something even more interesting. Some ideas:
- Add some honey, maple syrup, or jam to an acidic vinaigrette to neutralize the sourness of the vinegar
- Toss roasted brussels sprouts, which are bitter, with some sweet BBQ sauce
- Add some sugar to an overly-spiced curry or soup
For ingredients that are naturally sweet, you can enhance their sweetness with something salty or umami flavored, like tossing roasted carrots and sweet potatoes with some miso paste.
We tend to finish most of our dishes with a bit of sour – usually lemon juice or even a splash of vinegar. This is because sour (or acid) enhances saltiness, brightening up the seasoning of the entire dish.
Sour also balances spice and sweetness. This is why a dollop of yogurt is perfect for a spicy curry or stew. It helps to counteract that heat, creating a new balance of flavors. It’s also why sweet and sour chicken is such a popular Chinese dish. They combine to produce a delicious new taste.
Typically, you don’t want to add bitter to your meals, but if you do, according to the Flavor Star, you should use it to balance out salty or sweet flavors. You can do that with some coffee, cacao, grapefruit juice, or even beer.
Even though you rarely add bitter to dishes, there are lots of ingredients that are naturally bitter, namely our green vegetables. To make it a bit easier to enjoy these bitter, veggies, you can add some sweet, salty, or even sour. Try out these ideas:
- For a perfect combo, use a vinaigrette that’s a bit sweet, salty, and sour to accompany a salad with endive, spinach, radicchio, or kale
- Help your kids gobble down their broccoli by roasting them with a bit of brown sugar and / or balsamic vinegar
- Dip okra into yogurt for a delicious healthy treat
Even though the Flavor Star spice balances sweet, we’re going to go a bit off the diagram here. Honestly, if you like a bit of spice in your food, just add spice and some kick to your meals!
Check out the full infographic here:
Guide to Flavor Profiles
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