Article: Building on the Basics -- October 2009
What are the basic building blocks of any cuisine? At the simplest level, they are the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and the newest member, umami. It is important to distinguish the difference between the terms “taste” and “flavor.” Taste is perceived solely by taste buds, which contain chemical taste receptor cells that relay chemical messages to the brain and classify the item being tasted as one or more of the basic tastes. Flavor is the brain’s association of many factors, with the basic tastes being only one component contributing to an overall “flavor.” Other contributing factors, such as aroma, texture, consistency and temperature, also play into the overall flavor impact of an ingredient or dish. Aroma plays the largest role in the perception of flavor. A human’s sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than the sense of taste, and it is believed that more than 80% of the ability to taste flavors is due to smell. Thus, it is easy to understand that food is not as flavorful to people who have a cold and have lost their sense of smell.
Each Taste is Complex
For a product developer, there is much complexity within each of the basic tastes. Sweetness can obviously be used as a building block to add a sweet component to a dish, but sweet ingredients also tend to enhance other flavors, add body and mouthfeel, and can mask bitterness, astringency and sourness. Sweet flavors can be created in a dish in many different ways. Besides the addition of white sugar, ingredients such as honey, fruit, caramelized vegetables, maple syrup or molasses can all impart sweetness to a dish in very different ways.
Sourness in a dish can be created through the use of acids. Acids can add a tart or sour note, but can also enhance other flavors. To add a sour element to a recipe, developers can try using yogurt, citrus fruit, vinegar or tart apples. These are just a few simple ways to incorporate a sour component; there are many options.
Salty (sodium chloride) notes really help boost the overall flavor of a dish by opening up the taste buds, allowing greater access to the taste receptor cells. Salt is also known to mask bitterness and sourness and can be found in many other ingredients besides the table salt that immediately comes to mind. To add a salty impress, add soy sauce, fish sauce, and bacon or cured meats to enhance the flavors.
Bitterness is found in many ingredients, including coffee, unsweetened chocolate, olives and many dark leafy vegetables, such as escarole or broccoli rabe. While originally acting as a warning signal that a food might be poisonous, today, bitterness can be used to balance out a dish in a pleasing way.
That leaves umami, the most recent taste classified as one of the basic tastes. Umami is a Japanese term that loosely translates as “deliciousness” and was unearthed by Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda. Ikeda found there was a flavor common in foods like tomatoes, cheese, miso and roasted meats that could not be described as one of the four recognized basic tastes. He extracted the flavor compound responsible, glutamate, and coined the flavor associated with glutamate “umami.” Umami was accepted as one of the basic tastes only recently, in 2002, and is commonly found in aged or fermented foods. Umami rounds out and expands or enhances other flavors, while adding a savory note. It is obvious that the complexity of combining these five basic tastes into delicious meals provides endless options; when considering the variety of ingredients available and their complex interactions, the flavor possibilities become vast. To make matters even more confusing, there are many other factors contributing to flavor besides the basic taste components. Texture, color, temperature, mouthfeel, heating/cooling sensations, fat perception and astringency also can play a role in the overall flavor profile of dishes.
Changing Flavor and Cooking Techniques
The taste building blocks can be translated into specific ingredients that can be combined to create a huge variety of dishes typical to each cuisine. Ingredients that are identified with a specific ethnic cuisine are generally based on the ingredients traditionally available to the inhabitants, from which grew a cuisine that defined a culture. The “building block” ingredients of each cuisine are the core or basic flavors found within each cuisine. When imagining a great Italian feast, images of brick oven-baked pizza, steaming plates of pasta smothered with rich hearty tomato sauce or a steaming bowl of spring vegetable risotto topped with fresh basil may come to mind. These dishes linked to Italian cuisine all have a base of common ingredients that are core to Italian cuisine. Tomatoes, garlic and basil are just a few of the foundation, or building block ingredients, of Italian cuisine, and, while they can be combined in many different fashions to create unique dishes, they are at the heart of Italian meals. The dishes all start with basic ingredients, the building blocks, and are combined or translated into a dish by adding unique combinations of flavors, ingredients or cooking techniques, according to the chef’s particular style. (See chart “Building Blocks of Ethnic Cuisines.”)
It is easy to recognize there are some of the same ingredients in different cuisines, but they may be utilized in very different ways. An Italian chef from Naples may take the basic local ingredients to create the classic Margherita Pizza, with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh Buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, all on a cracker-thin, blistered crust. Meanwhile, across the globe, a Thai chef may take some of the same ingredients, Thai basil, garlic and coconut milk, to create a traditional Thai Green Curry served over steamed Jasmine rice. The similar building block ingredients combine in very different ways to create completely unique dishes, maintaining a distinctive ethnic flair.
To add another level of complexity, changing the cooking techniques used on the building block ingredients and basic tastes results in dishes that are significantly different. Similar in the way specific ingredients form the foundation for various ethnic cuisines, cooking techniques are also based on the equipment and fuel available in the specific area or culture. Over time, these techniques were honed to maximize the flavor and texture of the available ingredients.
Grilling, poaching, stir-frying, pit BBQ, smoking, sautéing, clay pot cooking, the confit method and steaming are just a few of the hundreds of cooking techniques, so it is easy to see the variation they have to offer the building block ingredients and basic tastes. The French developed the technique of en papillote cooking, where food is enclosed in a paper pouch with a liquid and then baked, creating a fragrant dish that is cooked by steam. The entrée aromas envelop the diner as the dish is opened tableside, also providing a dramatic presentation. High heat stir-fry wok cooking is a Chinese cooking technique that takes bite-sized pieces of food and cooks them very quickly in a small amount of fat. These two very different cooking techniques easily utilize the same ingredients and building blocks, while creating very different meals authentic to each individual cuisine.
What are the fundamentals of creating new, exciting dishes from these building blocks? The first rule is to keep it simple. Start with a main or base flavor profile and build on the base to add unique ingredients or techniques to create something special. Use the best ingredients possible, within budget and other limitations. A recipe can be an inspiration for a dish, but developers should try to make it their own. This leaves plenty of opportunity to experiment and try new ingredients.
Chefs and developers should also try to be creative. While the tried-and-true flavor combinations are classic for good reason, do not be afraid to branch out, once the classics have been mastered. Chicken with a sweet chile sauce glaze combines sweet and spicy flavors in a savory dish, but how about a chocolate cherry brownie with a hint of ancho chile peppers? It features the same building block tastes of sweet and spicy, but in a sweet dessert. Finally, developers should taste the food as they cook. Understand how to balance basic tastes by experience. Is the sauce a little too sweet? Try adding something sour to bring it back into balance. Is the flavor bland? Pop it up by adding something salty or an umami ingredient. Taste throughout the cooking process to completely understand how flavors interact and change over time.
The building blocks of flavor are complex when combined in a dish, but are easier to understand when broken down into the basic taste components of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. After mastering the basic components of taste, the next steps of understanding ingredients, cooking techniques and the elements that collectively define flavor are key in using these building blocks to create new and exciting dishes. Finally, get into the kitchen and create! pf
Allison Rittman, CRC, is owner of Culinary Culture, a culinary consulting company located in Austin, Texas. Contact information: 512-992-4501, email@example.com, www.culinary-culture.com.