Cooking Tip Thursdays: The Flavor Profile

Cooking Tip Thursdays is dedicated to making time in the kitchen quicker, easier, and just plain better…

Understanding how the flavors of a dish work together is a key component to cooking intuitively and without recipes.  This understanding wouldn’t be possible without first identifying how flavor profiles work.  A flavor profile is a sensory evaluation performed to determine the overall taste and odor characteristics of a food.  The primary flavors are: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty, and the recently added, Savory or “Umami”.  These five flavors are the only ones we can taste with our mouth.  All other flavors are actually scents. The balance of these five basic flavors and how they relate to each other is the “flavor profile” of the item.  As you cook and taste, think about each of these components and how they work with each other.  Before you know it you’ll be creating new and inventive dishes using many of your pantry and refrigerator staples.

  1. Sweet:  Adds roundness to savory dishes, and can also work with bitter, sour and salty foods.  Sweetness is the key to enhancing the flavor of baked goods and fruit.  Think sugar and honey.
  2. Salty: Foods number one flavor enhancer and the key to making savory foods delicious.  Salt, soy sauce and miso are prime examples.
  3. Sour: Lemon, vinegar and other sour notes that add brightness and sparkle to a dish.
  4. Bitter: Bitterness balances sweetness and also cuts the richness in dishes.  It can also be viewed as a cleansing taste for your palette.  Examples include herbs, coffee, dark chocolate, and bitter greens (dandelion, broccoli rabe).
  5. Umami: A savory or meaty flavor that is often described as “mouth-filling”.  It is commonly found in mushrooms, blue cheese, beans, seared meats and anchovies.

All flavor profiles have four main components:

  • Low Notes: These are the deep lingering flavors in foods that form the base or the backdrop for other flavors. Think earthy and umami.
  • Mid Notes: Flavors in this range are much more subtle. They’re not as immediately identifiable and don’t linger as long as the low and high notes.  A perfect example of this is raw vegetables and chicken – which is why they often taste bland and boring without any other flavors to fancy them up.
  • High Notes: These flavors are the showstoppers. They sparkle and zing and dance in your mouth.  This is the splash of citrus, the handful of fresh herbs, and the dash of minced hot peppers.
  • Roundness: A better term for this might be “fullness.” This is what brings all those notes together and connects them into a unified taste.  You don’t often taste these ingredients themselves because they mostly function to bring other flavors out. It can be something mellow like butter or cream, or it can be a seasoning like salt or sugar.

A few examples of common flavor profiles:

Apples: caramel, butter, cheese, cinnamon, ginger, honey, lemon, nutmeg, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, pork, pumpkin, raisins, sugar, sweet potatoes, and vanilla.

Chicken: basil, bay leaf, butter, carrots, cheese, chile pepper, cilantro, cinnamon, cream, curry powder, garlic, ginger, honey, leeks, lemon, mushrooms, mustard and mayo, oils, onions, paprika, parsley, pepper, potatoes, rosemary, salt, stocks, shallots, tarragon, thyme, tomatoes, vinegar and wine.

Cilantro: avocado, chicken, chile peppers, coconut and coconut milk, cumin, fish, garlic, ginger, lemon and lemongrass, lime, mint, rice, salsa, tomatoes, yogurt, Asian cuisine, Mexican cuisine, and Indian cuisine.

Spinach: bacon, butter, feta and goat cheese, dill, hard-boiled eggs, garlic, lemon, mushrooms, Dijon mustard, nutmeg, oil, onions, pepper, pine nuts, potatoes, raisins, salt, sesame seeds, shallots, soy sauce, vinegar and walnuts.

Tomatoes: arugula, avocado, basil, bay leaf, bell peppers, cheese, chile peppers, chives, cilantro, cucumbers, fennel, garlic, lemon, marjoram, mint, olive oil, oregano, onions, parsley, pasta, pepper, salad greens, salt, shallots, thyme, vinegar, and watermelon.

* For the most extensive list of flavor profile combinations, check out the book The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.  It is a must for every cook, whether professional or home.

DK

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One thought on “Cooking Tip Thursdays: The Flavor Profile

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