Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cooking Class 4: A Matter of Taste

In this class I will be tackling the issue of flavors. Understanding how flavors work together will go a long way toward feeling confident when experimenting with cooking.

There are five main flavors that the tongue can discern: Sour, sweet, bitter, savory and salty. There are a ton of tongue "maps" out there claiming that sections of the tongue only taste certain flavors, but that is not true. There are receptors all over the tongue (taste buds) and they appear to be randomly placed, mixing different abilities all over the tongue, rather than "just sweet" or "just salty".

Each of these flavors affect the others in different ways.  When I was a little girl, I would watch my Grandmother make applesauce when there were apples in season. She would simmer the peeled apples until they were soft, then squish them through a cone shaped strainer. When the bowl was filled with the light colored fruit, she would add a pinch of salt. When I said "ewww!" because my four year old brain didn't understand how salt and sweet could ever go together, she would give me a spoonful of the unseasoned applesauce, and then another with a bit of salt in it. It was amazing how that teeny bit of sodium would bring out the sweetness and flavor of the apples. They actually tasted more like apples with that little pinch of salt. I suppose that was my very first revelation about how flavors work with each other to make a better one together.
Try it yourself. If you don't have unsweetened applesauce on hand, try a little salt on your cantaloupe  or other melon. This is one of the reasons salted caramel has become so popular, because the salty and sweet play off of each other so well.
Salt is also good at combating bitter flavors. A bitter flavor is not sour. Bitter is the flavor found in many greens and also in things like citrus pith (the white part between the peel and the fruit). Bitter flavors are believed to be distasteful to us as protection against poisonous plants in the wild, as many poisonous fruits and vegetation will have a bitter taste to it. Salt will trick your taste buds by attaching to the receptors that sense bitter.

Some cooking styles require a balance of all of the flavors, and I think that is always a good place to start when you are wondering what seasoning a dish needs. Is your red sauce too acidic? Adding a little sweet (I use carrots in the mirapoix) and a bit of savory (the anchovy paste) brings all of the flavors in line to create a full flavored dish.
One of the most important pieces of advice I have ever been given is to taste your food as you go. There are some recipes that I have done so many times that I omit that step, but even then, it is always a good plan to give it a try before serving it.
Your assignment, should you chose to accept it, is to experiment combining these basic flavor components. Take out some sugar, vinegar, soy (a good savory condiment), salt and something bitter, like endive or other bitter green. Try different combos with the bitter, or try them with a slice of sweet melon to experiment further. Really try to get a feel for how the flavors play with (or against) one another.

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