Combining and Balancing Flavours
Combining and balancing flavour is both a science and an art. Developing flavour and understanding the importance of it, is essential to make delicious food. Professional training, intuition and experience will help you to understand the science better and to find balance in what we call the art of cooking.
Always taste, observe and smell ingredients before, during and after cooking. The best way to learn and test your senses is by following the recipe step by step. After a few rounds of practice, you will optimise your knowledge and get a better feel for the recipe and maybe you will get confident enough to improvise a little and still have a harmonious result.
Throughout our travels, we have often seen that expats or immigrants search for their native foods and ingredients to recreate their favourite dishes. This, together with local cultural habits, often leads to what is called fusion cuisine, even in a simple way.
What is flavour?
Each person experiences flavour and taste in a different way. Flavour is developed by combining ingredients in a complementary or contrasting manner. The taste is important, but it goes hand in hand with the texture and the cooking technique that is used.
Classic cuisine usually uses classic limited techniques when preparing recipes while others use more complicated new techniques to create different textures. The final composition and flavour experience is a combination of perfect food pairing.
The 5 basic tastes
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami are the five basic tastes. As a cook it is important to differentiate between these to find the right balance in recipes.
Sweet comes from fruit and vegetables as well as from honey or refined added sugar. It gives savoury dishes more depth and helps to balance bitter and sour flavours. In addition to the flavour, it also gives an energy boost.
Sour is mostly found in citrus fruit and vinegars. Sour comes with a certain acidity and is not always appreciated when too much is added to a dish, but if used in a subtle way, it will brighten and freshen up your dish. The acidity counteracts sweetness and heat in recipes.
Saltiness is delicate but very important to flavour dishes. It particularly enhances flavours in dishes, it brings out the softest aromas, from starters to desserts, and it can also balance against bitterness.
Bitter is the most difficult to balance because it is generally not a popular flavour and we all have different tolerances. It can be found in some vegetables, grapefruit and some beers and helps to cut through the richness or sweetness of a meal. Bitterness is gaining in popularity and is nowadays found easily in all kinds of food and drinks.
Umami is the hardest to describe and is the newest flavour which was only recognised worldwide as a real flavour in 1985. The word umami is Japanese and means “a pleasant savoury taste”. You can find a touch of this taste in soy sauce, mushrooms, oysters and some cheeses. It is used to complete other flavours and finish dishes.
Some quick fixes if flavours go wrong
You can’t take out the sweetness once baked but if your batter or baking mixture is too sweet you can add some acidic flavours such as sour cream or yoghurt to better balance the flavours.
This is the most difficult one to fix and that’s why we always recommend seasoning a little bit at the time. Some state that adding potatoes or rice help to take out the saltiness but we are not fans of this approach. Firstly, potatoes or rice will never absorb all the salt and secondly these ingredients might not fit in with your dish. However, a splash of lemon juice or any other acidic ingredients will brighten the flavour and balance out the salt in your dishes.
Sugar and honey are your best counterparts to balance with sour flavour. If ever your dish can’t be fixed with adding a little sweetness, add a pinch of baking soda to make the dish more alkaline.
Dairy is the best ingredient to neutralize spicy food. Cream, milk, yoghurt and coconut cream will help to balance your flavours again. For some recipes, a touch of sweetness will also take away some of the spiciness.
When an ingredient is bitter by nature, you can only mask the flavour a little by adding sweetness or acid to the dish.