One of the greatest chefs I ever worked with once said unto me, ‘Roach, your tongue can only taste five things, so make sure all five flavors are present in whatever you do.’ Wise words that have always served me well. If you are looking for more complex and interesting flavors in your favorite dishes, take a look at how many of the five flavors are represented. Chances are that a couple are forgotten. By subtly adding the missing flavors, you make the dish deeper and more satisfying. Don’t like the bitterness of greens? Try adding a splash of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar at the end of cooking and a pinch more salt. Clam chowder a little heavy? Lime juice and worcestershire sauce to the rescue. Just having the five flavors in mind as I experiment in the kitchen has led me to many a fine recipe/meal. Here are the flavors.
Pretty much self explanatory. Salt is good. The right amount of salt in a dish makes all the other flavors play together as a delicious team. Salt is known as an appetitive taste, one that drives the appetite and makes it crave more food.
The other appetitive taste, also pretty common. It comes from sugar in all it’s amazing forms–from molasses to agave to just plane sugar. A hint of sweetness is a nice surprise to the palate that makes the appetite crave more.
Sour & Bitter
Sour and Bitter are thought to have developed as early warning signs to protect us from harmful foods. Now days we can look to them for adding a touch of dissonance that makes Sweet and Salty all the more appealing. While these flavors can take center stage on occasion, always make sure they are well supported by the more pleasant flavors.
Sour, in my opinion, is best represented by citrus fruits–limes, lemons, grapefruit, and even oranges. A touch of sour will make heavier dishes, like split pea soup or beef stroganoff, feel lighter and “cleaner” on the palate. I discuss this in a bit more detail here. Vinegars are the primary source of sourness in many dishes from cooler climates. Other sources are tamarind, green apples, fresh ginger and cranberries. Any flavor that makes you perk up and pay attention is likely to be sour.
Bitter is the ugly stepbrother of the flavors, the one most avoided in polite company. Kale, collards, and greens of all sorts tend to fall into the bitter category, as does coffee. If you taste something and you instantly look pissed off, chances are it was bitter. If you’re asking yourself, Why on god’s green earth would I ever seek out that flavor? Keep in mind, Bitter is the dominant flavor of beer!
Umami is the latecomer to the party. The other four flavors have been known for literally hundreds of years, but umami didn’t come on the scene (in Western cultures) until the early 1900’s. Many great sources of umami are staples of Asian cuisine. Umami flavor can most easily be identified as savory or meaty. It is the taste that makes the body crave protein-rich foods and it lends a satiating quality to dishes. It’s the taste of soy sauce, demiglace, fish sauce and shrimp paste. It’s what makes cheese so appealing and refried beans delightful. Adding a touch of umami to your dish is a great way to make even the lightest gazpacho as satisfying as stroganoff.
Armed with these flavors, look at your favorite recipe. Does it maybe need a couple teaspoons of salt? A squeeze of lime, or a drizzle of honey? Could you maybe sacrifice a beer for the good of the cheese sauce? These small additions create balance within a meal and an overall more satisfying dish.
One of our favorite meals that encapsulates this idea is Apple-Stuffed Pork Chops. The pork chops are glazed in sweet molasses and stuffed with tart apples. We always serve the stuffed pork chops with hardy, bitter greens cooked with a dash of lemon juice and corn bread and honey. In this dish, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.