Flavour is the be all and end all for any chef, and having a deep understanding of how flavour works and how to bring it out is essential if you want cook food that will really get people talking.
With that in mind here are 14 tips from chef Paul Sorgule that will help you to have a deeper understanding of flavour, kicking your cooking up a level. He has some interesting ideas on how we should actually define flavour too. Be sure to check out more of his writing over on the Harvest America Ventures blog. This is an edited version.
14 tips for understanding flavour
1. SEASONALITY AND MATURITY OF INGREDIENTS IS IMPORTANT
When restaurants serve items out of season or prior to maturity then the consequence is something that fails on the flavour scale and does little to build a restaurant’s reputation for exceptional food. Allowing Mother Nature to do her good work will always serve a restaurant well.
2. SEASONING CHANGES WITH THE APPLICATION OF HEAT
Seasoning a dish to the end game before the cooking process is complete will result in a dish that clouds the palate with excess. Many spices, in particular, increase in potency through the cooking process. In particular, peppers and spices such as curries, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice will act differently through the various stages of cooking. To this end, many seasonings are best applied at the end of the cooking process where they can be controlled.
3. DRIED SPICES LOSE THEIR AROMA AND FLAVOUR WITH TIME AND HEAT
Proper storage of dried spices and herbs is as important as proper storage of more perishable foods. Heat, light, and time is not a friend of dried herbs and spices, yet in most kitchens these items are stored where all of these factors are present. That gallon container of dried oregano or basil that sits on your shelf for a year or so is not a bargain at any price.
4. HEAT IS NOT ALWAYS A FAN OF FLAVOUR
Flavour should not hurt! Some peppers are not appropriate for anyone to consume. Ghost peppers that burn your mouth, oesophagus, and stomach are not part of food enjoyment; they are really more a part of a game of dares. Other peppers that are more subdued on the Scovil Scale are improperly used and as such focus on the pain of heat rather than the joy of flavour. Roasting those peppers, removing the seeds and pith, will allow the true pepper flavour to come through rather than inflict discomfort.
5. THE SOURCE AND TERROIR MATTER WITH FOOD AS WELL AS WINE
Just as terroir (soil composition, exposure to sun, rainfall and rain composition, wind and temperature) impacts on the quality and flavour characteristics of grapes and in turn the wine they produce, so too will terroir impact on a tomato, peach, onion, potato, green bean, chicken, steer, pig, or fish. Knowing where a product comes from will allow the cook or chef to understand its flavour characteristics and if necessary, adjust how it is handled to reach a desired outcome.
6. “NEEDS SALT” IS NOT ALWAYS THE RIGHT ANSWER
Chefs and cooks, just like most customers, suffer from saltshaker’s elbow. There is no question that salt is not only a flavouring addition, but a flavour enhancer – bringing out or accentuating the natural flavour of other ingredients. But, salt, like alcohol, can cloud a person’s tolerance. The more salt you use, the more you will require in the future to achieve the same result. Chefs and cooks with great palates will use salt sparingly as an enhancer rather than a flavour in of itself.
7. CONSISTENCY IS THE GOAL OF A COOK
Flavour consistency is one of the greatest drivers of return business. Standardised recipes can help, but they fail to account for variances in ingredient quality and taste. Cooks and chefs must build an experienced palate if consistency is to be the foundation of a restaurant’s flavour reputation.
8. TASTE AND FLAVOUR ARE NOT THE SAME THING
Often misused interchangeably, taste is really one portion of the flavour experience. Flavour includes aroma, texture, taste, and even the visual aspects of a dish. How food looks will paint a mental picture of flavour perception.
9. AROMA COUNTS
Never lose sight of the fact that we have 10,000 taste buds, while we have the ability to distinguish more than 1 trillion smells with our 400 types of olfactory receptors. Taste cannot stand alone without the introduction of smell. In fact, our flavour memory is more based on aroma experiences than taste. When asked to visualise foods like fresh bread from the oven, a recently baked apple pie, roast chicken, or a grilled steak, it is the memory of how each item smells that brings a smile to a person’s face.
10. YOUR PALATE CAN BE TRAINED
Some individuals are certainly born with more acute “buds,” but most of us have the capacity to train our palate to recognise and adjust flavour. It is experience and time that allows a palate to grow and mature. A cook without a well-developed palate will struggle to understand or create positive flavours.
11. FLAVOUR MEMORY REQUIRES EXPERIENCE
Everything that we experience with food is imbedded in our subconscious – this is where our flavour memory is built and stored. In the process of building a palate an individual must learn how to bring those memories to the surface and out of the subconscious. For those without the gift of nature’s taste buds the best way to accomplish this is through repeated experience with a flavour. Cooks and chefs must try all foods – repeatedly. These same cooks must experience how these items change with the application of heat, through the use of different cooking methods, from ingredients of different quality, and with the addition of a variety of seasonings. There is no other way to reach this goal. Recipes with flavour experience equal success.
12. GREAT COOKS AND CHEFS DO NOT LIMIT THEIR PALATE TO FOOD
All career cooks and chefs must invest the time in not only developing their flavour memory with food, they must also invest the time to understand those items that complement the food – wine, beer, coffee, tea, bitters, fresh herbs, floral introductions, etc.
13. CONTEXT IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF FLAVOUR MEMORY
One of the interesting variables with regards to flavour is the environment and the people associated with eating certain foods. Knowing that this can cloud a guest’s perception of flavour, it is important for cooks to work with the front of the house to create an environment that protects and enhances a flavour experience. Many people do not consider that the service staff can have an impact on food flavour, but in the process of understanding context a server can do a great deal through food description, recommendations based on a guests previous experience, presenting the food with flair, and simply understanding how important it is to capture the best of the food placed in the kitchen pass.
14. FLAVOUR ANTICIPATION IS AS IMPORTANT AS ACTUALLY TASTING
Restaurant food is part of theatre. Chefs and restaurant managers are trained to build anticipation. The ambience of the room, the menu wordsmithing, the introductions by service staff, the recommendations of the sommelier, and the exciting presentation of the first course are all designed to build flavour anticipation. This anticipation becomes the memory that ends up embedded in a guest’s subconscious. Taste and flavour are important, but the thought of what an item is likely to taste like is equally, if not more important.