What is Building Flavor?
When cooks talk about building flavors, they don't talk about putting layers on top of one another, like a comforter over a sheet. They mean building flavors into one another, taking a foundation and adding more to it, linking parts together to make one cohesive dish. Building flavors is a lot like making art. Sure, you could paint with a single color and you'd still have a painting. A cobalt blue line on a piece of paper is technically art but throw different shades of blue and you can see a stormy sky approaching on the canvas. This is the kind of art that really makes you feel something. Take a bunch of different flavors that work well together and it's just like using a bunch of different shades of blue to paint a stormy sky. Build up those flavors to create a dish and you too will have a beautiful piece of art, but this one will be on your table!
Think about making a soup. You start with a base, probably something like a boxed broth you purchased at the grocery store. Full of salt, this is a tasty broth, but only because of that sodium. If we were able to remove the excess salt from this broth, you would immediately notice that it's bland and lifeless without manufacturers' favorite flavor enhancer that works well to mask how little taste there is in the food otherwise. There's something missing from this salty broth, so you throw in some spices maybe, or a chunk meat and some vegetables. After your soup has fully cooked, you have an okay bowl of something relatively average. Or worse, you have a hot, salty broth populated with chunks of cooked meat and blasé vegetables. What would make your soup sing though? Like music to your ears, eating a truly delicious bowl of soup is an enveloping sensory experience. That's what you want for dinner, not just a bowl of bland flavors that make you regret trying to cook dinner from scratch in the first place. The good news is, flavorful meals are totally achievable even if you've never cooked anything more challenging than a boxed macaroni and cheese before.
How You Can Build Flavors
Where do you start building flavors? First you want some good ingredients, which are the building blocks of a particularly tasty meal. Having quality ingredients is the easiest way to ensure you will have good flavor. If you start with ingredients that are poor in quality, you may have a harder time coaxing rich flavors from them no matter how good your cooking techniques are because they didn't have the flavor capacity to begin with. The tongue has over 10,000 tastebuds on it, each one built for receiving flavor and sending signals back to the brain that say everything from "I hate this" to "I want to eat this every day until I can't eat anymore." Good cooks understand this and want to activate as many positive signals as possible. Once you have your ingredients, the next step to building flavor is establishing good cooking skills, followed closely by getting to know how your ingredients interact with one another.
Understand how water works. Water is great for drawing flavor out of ingredients, but it does nothing to infuse flavor into the ingredients. When cooking something like a mushroom, which has a very high water content, you want to get as much water out of the mushroom as possible. This often means letting the water fully cook off the mushroom until it will even start to brown. Because its presence detracts from flavors, water is useful in diluting undesirable tastes. When you have an extremely salty soup for example, you may be able to save it by adding some more liquid! This may mute the other flavors, but in most cases, you can add more herbs and spices to make up for that dilution.
Reduce liquids. If you are working with a recipe that contains a lot of liquid, like a sauce, it is likely that you will need to reduce the water in the ingredients to concentrate the flavor. This means simmering it until the liquid has been cooked down and what's left behind are the thicker solids. This works the same way when you are making your own stocks or broths.
Season early. This doesn't mean add spices, this means add salt! When a chef says "season to taste" they really mean, "add enough salt that when you taste it, you like it." Use plenty of salt and make sure to give it enough time to penetrate the ingredients and distribute itself throughout the food. If you add salt too late in the cooking process, even the same amount of salt you may have added at the beginning, the food may become unbearably or uncomfortably salty. If you forget to add the salt at the beginning of the cooking process, you can add it at the end, but you must add a smaller amount and season to taste once it has been incorporated. If you are following a recipe, use about a quarter of the amount of salt that should have been incorporated at the beginning and then add more if needed.
Get your ingredients as flavorful as they can be individually before you put them into the main dish. For vegetables, this may mean roasting them in the oven or browning them in a skillet before you cook. For meat, this means searing it to establish a good browning. What happens when food is cooked, browned, or seared is called the Maillard reaction. This is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually with heat. The Maillard reaction is what makes meat sear and bread toast, but it is also what makes cookies smell so delicious. Maillard reactions have a lot to do with how we taste and smell food.
Roast vegetables before cooking with them, especially when making broths, stocks, or soups. This is another example of a Maillard reaction taking place, and it is necessary to create extremely deep flavors in your food.
Space! It's easy to get impatient and give into the urge to crowd your pans when browning vegetables. Keep an even layer across the bottom of your pan with plenty of visuals of the pan between the vegetables. This will ensure they are evenly cooked and browned the same way across the board.
Let your meat rest. While cooking, a lot of the juices from the meat will be pulled to the surface. Before you cut into the meat, let the meat sit and let the juices have a few moments to redistribute again for a tastier cut.
Use acidic ingredients to add that little "something missing" in the dish. Acids make nearly any vegetable or meat dish much perkier, with a brighter flavor that tastes deeper than it would without the acid. Sometimes when you cook there's something off and you just can't put your finger on it. Take a small portion out of your finished dish and apply an acid and taste. If that's what was missing, apply the acid to the rest of your dish. Baked chicken is okay, but baked chicken with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice? Divine.
Roast or fry spices before using them to release full flavor. The only spice you really won't roast or fry in Western cuisines are black sesame seeds, as they taste quite bitter once roasted. You may however see these are called for in some Japanese recipes. There are Japanese chefs who enjoy that bitter flavor a roasted black sesame seed releases, though most western palates aren't accustomed to this flavor.
Don't be afraid of fats. Oil, butter, avocado, and other types of fat add a creaminess to food that you can't get from spices or herbs. Your favorite mashed potato recipe is full of creamy goodness and that's because there's probably a lot of butter in those potatoes. As with anything, enjoy in moderation but don't punish yourself by making bland food because you're worried about too much fat.
Pay attention to temperature- there's a fine line between browning and burning. Understand how temperature works with your food. When producing a Maillard reaction, you often need a high heat to accomplish the chemical reaction, but too high and your food with burn! Every food is different and requires a different type of heat, so this is an extremely important skill to master. You can always heat something up more if it's not cooking the way you want it to, but once those proteins have been broken down in the food they can't be built back up! Be patient and enjoy how long it takes for the food to cook.
Notice the aroma of your dish. You can tell a lot about how food is cooking through smell alone. This is a good indicator of temperature as well, because if you start to smell something burning it is likely that you need to quickly reduce the heat being applied to the food.
Understand how flavors complement one another. For example, adding lemon zest to a pizza to balance the brightness of the tomato with the heaviness of the fat that comes with cheese. When you are looking for good flavor pairs, remember that things that might not sound complimentary can actually work together. You wouldn't intuitively add bacon to your ice cream for example, but the saltiness of the bacon works so well with the sweetness of the ice cream that this exact flavor pair was a big food trend for a while there. Salty and sweet, sweet and bitter, and salty and bitter are common pairings that work exceptionally together.
Once you've mastered these skills and learned how to make ingredients work for you, you will be able to manipulate recipes in new ways to suit your own tastes versus sticking to the recipe exactly. Building flavors is a science that we can all learn, and it starts with developing cooking skills, understanding the way food interacts through experimentation, and having ingredients that work with us, not against us.
But Wait, What Are the Flavors?
The tongue can taste four confirmed flavors, but for the last few decades a fifth flavor has been circulating the culinary circuit. This flavor, umami, is now widely recognized as the "fifth flavor" and often cooks, cookbooks, and resources about food science will talk about umami as a distinguishable flavor the tongue can perceive.
Sweet. Things like ice cream and cookies are obviously sweet, but sugary foods aren't the only place where sweetness helps bring out the flavor in a dish. Carrots for example are often used in savory dishes but have a wonderful sweetness of their own that helps round out other flavors in the dish.
Salty. Hot sauce, potato chips, or cheese all impart saltiness to a dish. Salt is often a chef's number one flavor enhancer in savory cooking.
Sour. Lemon juice, vinegar, and dill pickles are examples of sour flavors. Typically, this would be the acid in a dish. Sour flavor enhancers are necessary for sweet and savory applications.
Bitter. Our tongues are extremely sensitive to bitterness, even when it's a very small amount. Think dark chocolate or coffee. Bitterness is necessary for balancing excess sweetness in a dish, and it is useful in cutting the flavor of particularly rich dishes, but too much can render a dish inedible. Be extremely careful with the use of bitter flavors.
Umami. This is the fifth flavor that is sometimes just described as "yumminess" or "savory flavor." Identified by a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda, this flavor is present in earthy foods like mushrooms and seaweed.
In addition to flavors, it is important to note that the mouth also has sensors that signal to the brain other distinct parts of tasting a dish.
Temperature has a lot to do with how we perceive taste. Coldness mutes sweetness, so letting ice cream sit out for a few moments before you eat it will enhance the flavor. Warmth signals "comfort" to the brain in the wintertime. Reheated leftovers that settle into a lukewarm temperature on the inside but fiery hot on the outside tend to displease us, as we love to have our food an even temperature all throughout.
Texture is another key to our enjoyment of a food. Typically, we associate creamy foods, like macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes, with wholesomeness. Crunchy, crispy foods are snack foods like hard pretzels, or fun, interesting foods like kimchi. There are a wide variety of textures that our mouths can experience, and they are a crucial part of the flavor experience.
Piquancy is also known as spiciness, which is technically not a flavor but a sensation in the mouth. When we eat something spicy, like a chile, the pain receptors in our mouths are stimulated and they send signals to our brains that say, "we are in danger! The mouth is on fire!" Part of the joy of eating piquant foods is that we aren't really being harmed, and the dopamine rush that comes to soothe the burn is a thrill many people enjoy.
Astringency is a mouth puckering sensation that we get from red wines, cranberries, or extremely strong teas. This is not to be confused with sourness.
Chemesthesis is the tingling sensation we experience when we consume carbonated drinks or when our brain tricks us into believing something is there and it's not really. For example, a peppermint candy tastes cold and refreshing even though it's not cold at all. This is chemesthesis.
The nose too is heavily involved in how we taste a food. Ever notice how when we are sick, the food we eat tastes dull or lifeless, no matter how well it is cooked? The nose is responsible for picking up on these things.
Aroma is believed to be a huge part of flavor, with many scientists arguing that smell alone accounts for about 80% of how much we taste. The better a dish smells, the better it tastes.
Pungency signals the brain that an unpleasant taste is to follow. This is something you can smell in foods like mustard and horseradish.
What's a Good Way to Practice Building Flavors?
Make soup! We were talking about it as an example of what can go wrong, but making a good soup is a perfect way to learn how different flavors interact with one another. Whether you are going for a classic chicken noodle or doing something a little more exotic like a spicy Thai tomato soup, practicing with flavors is always easier in a pot full of liquid. After all, adjusting the taste and fixing flavors is another thing you will have to eventually get used to! That is another blog post all together, however.
If you lack the confidence to build your own bases right now, try reaching for the signature bases of various cuisines
Mirepoix is a Cajun and Creole base called "the holy trinity" of those cuisines. It is made up of onions, celery, and bell peppers. This is a good savory base that can be used in soups, stews, sauces, etc.
Sofrito/Soffrito is a base used in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Latin American cooking. It is also sometimes called a refogado. This base is a sauce that is usually prepared in a huge quantity and then split up into batches and frozen for future use. It is made up of aromatic ingredients which are cut into small pieces and sautéed or braised in a cooking oil. This base can also be store bought in many places, if you are unsure of what aromatics appeal most to you. Sofritos can be either red or green.
Suppengruen is similar to a mirepoix, but it trades bell peppers for carrots. The name of this base translates from the German word to "soup greens" in English, and that's exactly what it's best used for- making a delicious, colorful base for all kinds of soups.
How to Describe the Flavors of Food
Once you've mastered some of these cooking techniques, you will begin to appreciate how your food tastes a little bit more. Instead of wolfing down your food, take a few moments to enjoy the flavors and see which linger and which disappear quickly.
High Notes are those bright flavors we associate with citrus or fresh herbs. These flavors are an explosion in the mouth and don't stick around for as long as low notes.
Low Notes are those lingering flavors, often described as "deep." Mushrooms, beans, seared meats, and foods with a lot of umami are foods with great low notes.
Mid Notes come from foods like chicken or raw vegetables, anything that's bland and doesn't leave a big impression on your palate. These flavors aren't as easily identifiable, memorable, or as long lasting as foods with good low notes or high notes.
Roundness is a quality a dish has when all three of the notes can be brought together to form one cohesive flavor experience that can be equated to a musical performance. All the pieces of the dish make one beautiful taste for your mouth
Even knowing about the notes and how different flavors perform on different levels in your mouth makes for better tasting food. You notice something a lot more once you become aware of it. When you are cooking, work on incorporating all these parts into your dish so you can establish a fuller, more satisfying flavor. Getting all the notes in there is the difference between a bland dish and a dish so perfect you will have a hard time leaving leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
Building flavors comes from mastering cooking techniques. When you master certain cooking techniques, you can begin to build your own dishes without needing to follow a recipe. Much like learning to paint, learning to build flavors takes practice and patience! Don't become impatient or give up if you don't get it right the first time. Try again!