Monday, February 01, 2010

Understanding how to control and adjust flavors

The key ingredient to successful cooking isn't a secret sauce or a rare spice or even a tender piece of meat. It is getting the flavors right -- flavor profiling is what chefs call it.

Anyone who cooks knows how to do it, at least in the most basic ways: To make something sweet, add sugar; to make something sour, add lemon juice; to make something salty, add salt.

Flavor profiling as we are learning in culinary school is instilling the five flavors -- salt, sweet, bitter, sour and the one that borrows from all the others, umami -- in combinations or sometimes in contrasts.

In reviewing a cooking assignment in class last week, Chef Dan Fluharty talked about the flavors and how we played with them in one way or another to the betterment of the dish. It was a simple dish -- chunky tomato soup, a good one with which to play the flavors off one another.

The key was the tomatoes' acidity and how to minimize it. A little sugar could do it easily. So could salt, because salt stifles bitterness and sourness, allowing a little sweetness to come through. That's what I did -- it's also what I do most often to tame the acidity in hand-made vinaigrettes -- and it worked well.

That's flavor profiling, in the simplest manner.

It can be complex, as with multi-ingredient sauces and broths. Take tortilla soup, for example. We made it in class last week, and I made a pot of it at home this weekend. I built the broth with several strong agents, including tomato, cayenne, cumin, thyme, oregano, salt and white pepper. Any of them can be a take-charge flavor; the secret for this soup and for many other dishes is to not let any one flavor take charge, but rather to get them to work cooperatively.

That's flavor profiling, in a more complex manner.

Home cooks do it all the time: a pinch of this, a spoonful of that and soon enough, deliciousness!

Making it happen on purpose and getting a consistent result one day to the next is the trick.

(Chart credit:

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