I’ve been curious about the topic of flavor lately – what are its elements? How can I fully appreciate the flavor of a certain food? How can I enhance the flavors in something that I cook? I picked up a copy of The Flavor Bible, and did some internet research to help me better understand the topic.
The first element of flavor, and the one we are all most familiar with, is the concept of taste. Taste comprises the sensations your tongue can perceive – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (I wrote a bit about umami in a couple of prior posts). Although you are almost certainly familiar with taste, these sensations make up only a relatively small fraction of the larger notion of flavor.
Typical examples of tastes in food:
- Sweet – sugar, banana, grapes, fennel seeds
- Salty – soy sauce
- Sour – citrus, vinegars
- Bitter – all greens, such as dandelion, radicchio, eggplant, coffee
- Umami – mushrooms, green tea, tomato
Mouthfeel is the collection of pressure and pain sensations perceived by the nerves in your mouth. Elements of mouthfeel include temperature, texture, piquancy (a “hot” sensation that is not the same as heat, such as produced by piquant spicy peppers), and astringency (a drying sensation, as produced by dry red wines or cucumbers).
Crunchy mouthfeels contrast with and complement soft mouthfeels. I like to throw crunchy almonds or seeds into a fluffy rice dish to give the eater a variation in texture, for example. Another great contrast in mouthfeel is that between oil and vinegar, as in a vinaigrette. Oil is smooth and silky while vinegar has a sharp “bite” to it.
Aroma accounts for the largest part of the perception of “flavor.” Your nose perceives aromas from the countless array of food molecules which evaporate from the food and rise to contact the olfactory nerves in your sinuses. This is why metal has no odor usually – it’s molecules are very stable and do not evaporate at normal temperatures (1).
Putting it Together
The; key, I believe, is finding tastes, mouthfeels, and aromas which are complementary. This is, of course, easier said than done. Research is being done on why some flavors integrate better than others, and it is quite fascinating.
One must also consider other non-flavor aspects to food such as heat and color, to present an appealing presentation. The architecture of the dish, or visual presentation, is helpful to consider. It is said we “eat with our eyes” and a jumble of ingredients is less likely to be appealing than a thoughtful arrangement. Being mindful of the atmosphere in which the food is presented is another part of the complete picture of Food as an Experience.
Sometimes I think of melding flavors like music: For a successful composition, you must allow each instrument to have it’s own space. Otherwise, similar instruments and sounds will get in each others’ way. When each element of flavor has it’s own distinct part to play, then the overall dish can really shine.
For example, a dish of room temperature quinoa, lima beans, tofu, and oats would not be very interesting, since their elements are all so similar (soft textures, pale colors, muted aromas). But warm quinoa, toasted pecans, dried cranberries, and cool green onions would be vastly more interesting. Sweetness from the cranberries, the coolness, tartness and boldness of the onion, softness, warmth and subtlety of the quinoa, and crunchiness and fats in the pecans would all blend together in a perfect marriage of flavors.
Another example of how this all goes together is the napa cabbage salad I wrote about not long ago. The salad is a true festival of fascinating flavor elements:
- Taste: Sweet from the sugar in the dressing, sourness in the vinegar, umami from the soy, saltiness from the soy, perhaps some slight bitterness from the cabbage
- Mouthfeel: Creaminess from the tahini, tartness/astringency from the vinegar, crunch from the cabbage and carrot
- Aroma: Sulfurous “freshness” from the cabbage, toasted sesame aroma, fresh ginger aroma, “soyness” from the soy 🙂
What are your favorite foods? What flavor elements do you notice that make the dish so successful?