Unlike the four basic tastes the number of flavours individuals are able to sense and taste are as numerous as the melodies on a Steinberg grand piano. The key distinguishing feature between taste and flavour is that the four basic tastes can still be identified by an eater pinching their nose. Flavours are totally dependant on olfactory air flow. No air flow – no flavour. Those suffering from a bad cold and bunged-up nose will become aware of the texture of food, they will probably be able to discern sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness but miss out entirely on the more subtle, pleasurable and delightful flavours present in the dish. Just another reason to dislike the common cold!
It is worth spending some time considering how food adds taste and flavour to our dishes. The flavouring of a dish, after all, begins and ends with our choice of ingredients. The success of a dish begins and ends with how it will taste.
de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum, tastes and colours are not open for discussion
Taste and flavour are, by definition, subjective which is why when it comes to individual tastes and flavour preferences in food there is no such thing as a prescribed list of do’s and don’ts. Some like it hot, others not. Some like is sweet, others neat. For this reason Master in the Kitchen is not going to set out what flavour combinations taste best. Rather, it is going to discuss why ingredients add flavour to dishes and how. But before we start it is vital to address some of the challenges the everyday cook faces when considering how to add flavour to their dishes.
The vilification of traditional ingredients
First, many modern, everyday cooks have been conditioned to believe that ingredients traditionally relied upon to add flavour to dishes are unhealthy and should be avoided at all cost. This has led many everyday cooks to eliminate the very ingredients that add flavour to our meals.
The acceptance of fake flavours
Second, having been instructed, on pain of ill-health to abandon all natural ingredients that add flavour to a dish, the everyday meal has to compete with that of the industrial cook who happily and generously spices his dish with synthetic flavourings that mimic the taste of the natural produce we naturally desire.
The vanishing act of traditional flavours
Third, since the rise of convenience food many have become accustomed to the standard, uniform tastes (salt, sugar, MSG) provided by the industrial cook and as such can smart at some of the natural flavours of real food. Take the sour taste of fermented food by way of example. Where once ferments featured as an important part of a balanced diet, modern generations, having rarely consumed such foods, find them too tart to include in their daily diet and shy away from consuming them. Consider too a mayonnaise prepared with extra virgin olive oil. The depth of flavour from the olives is intense and delightful, yet so many are now conditioned to oils from which all taste has intentionally been removed that they shy away from the intensity of the olive flavours present in cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Learning to re-engage with real flavours
Those preparing food with real, not fake, ingredients have to persuade their audience to reconnect with the flavour of nature not the flavour of artifice. In some cases this is easy. Once the joy of adding pork drippings or goose fats to dishes is rediscovered there is no looking back. Adding bone broths to soups and sauces is a hit time and again. Persuading modern eaters to enjoy natural sour ferments such as sauerkraut, raw yoghurt or kefir, on the other hand, is another matter all together. That takes time, persuasion and (in the case of children) bribery.
Flavour and Nutrition
Nutrition and flavour is a marriage made in heaven not in hell. A statement which many may regard with great suspicion – and for good reason. The kind of nutritious, health food peddled to consumers in recent years is indeed quite vile. No wonder many shudder at the thought of having to eat “traditional-healthy” food. Boiled Brussels sprouts, dubious bubbling ferments and dry, hard, whole-meal brown bread with the texture of saw-dust and the taste of cardboard is indeed quite unappetising.
Given that many everyday cooks, the world over, have been instructed to abandon the very ingredients traditionally relied upon to add depth of flavour to their dishes it is fair to assert that modern “health” diets should remain the preserve of the righteous. In reality natural ingredients prepared the traditional way would, without a shadow of a doubt, receive approval from Epicurus himself.
How flavouring works
From a biological point of view there is no doubt that tastes and flavours sensed by both our mouth and nose help the omnivore distinguish the good from the bad. All toxic foods, by way of example, tastes bitter – a clear warning signal to back off and stay away. Burnt food, too, tastes bitter, yet another example of our senses warning us not to consume damaged goods. Rancid fats and oils are particularly vile precisely because the fats have deteriorated and as such are harmful once ingested.
It would be tempting to say that all nutritious food tastes delicious but there are a some exceptions to this rule. Firstly, sour ferments are highly nutritious but they are not a taste that sits comfortably with many if they taste it late in life. Once acquired, however, many find they crave rather than reject ferments. Secondly, bitterness signals toxicity and many grimace just at the thought of a bitter taste. At the same time many bitter foods can be rendered safe to consume, nutritious and the source of great pleasure – think coffee, dark chocolate and quinine based tonics. Thirdly, the organs of animals are packed with nutrients but many – children especially – find the flavours of nutrient dense organs too robust to be palatable. Like ferments learning to appreciate organs is acquired rather than innate.
Non-nutritious food that tastes appealing.
The flavour of processed sweeteners such a white table sugar, isoglucose, high fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose is highly appealing and pleasing, yet it contains next to no nutritious value.
Love at first bite – nutritious flavours we instinctively desire
Then there are all those traditional, natural flavours that the omnivore desires without batting an eye-lid. Drippings, goose-fat and rendered pork fat, (all used for generations – certainly ever since man first went out to hunt) add flavour to any dish. Traditional French ragouts, by way of example, which can still be eaten today in deepest rural France are an explosion of delight. Why? Because goose-fat, a key ingredient in many French savoury dishes is used liberally in rural France to this day, and goose-fat is packed with natural nutrients, delivered to the eater in the exact proportions required of the healthy omnivore.
Steamed vegetables taste so much better when served with a pat of melted butter precisely because natural fats help the body absorb the very nutrients gifted to the eater by the vegetables in the soup. Our taste buds tell us that butter is such a delight when mixed with cooked vegetables because it is, in fact, the best way to absorb the carrot’s nutrients. No fat – no nutrients.
A soup, sauce or gravy will taste so much better when a good bone broth has been added precisely because such a broth is literally heaving with natural nutrients in the form of calcium, minerals and vitamins that derive from the bone not the meat. Our natural desire for a properly prepared chicken broth drunk on a cold winter’s day is a reflection of our body’s desire for as many nutrients as possible to keep the immune system in tip-top shape.
Tough cuts of meat marinated for up to 24 hours and slowly cooked on a low heat will taste so much more tender than meat taken chilled and frigid from the fridge and thrown into a high heat pan to speed up cooking. The enzymes present in a good marinade are excellent at pre-digesting tough meat. Allowing the meat to warm-up to room temperature before preparation will result in the meat relaxing before it is thrown into the pan. The effect of both methods is to render the dish more palatable precisely because it is more nutritious and advantageous for us to consume.
The Great Pretender
When it comes to flavour, make no mistake, the absent cook is a con artist relying on smokes and mirrors to flavour his lousy dishes. It’s the only way he can convince the eater that they are eating something nutritious. Since the rise of the food industry in the last century the industrial cook has devised a veritable cornucopia of contrived tastes and flavours that mimic our bodies natural craving for nutritious foods. Synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the mix to give the impression that the final product is worthy of consumption.
Rather than spending time and money in a kitchen, the industrial cook spends time and money in an office researching “novel” flavours that he can patent. Take the artificial flavours out of the equation and the sour cream potato chips fried in rancid oils would taste bland and flavourless at best, unpalatable and vile at worst. No one eating dried vegetable soup with added boiled water would go beyond the first mouthful were it not for the addition of some MSG-derived flavouring. Chocolate spread without isoglucose or hazelnut flavourings would be a hard nut to swallow.
Whilst the taste buds may be easily fooled by such tricks the brain is not. Five minutes after eating such artifice and it will send out hunger signals demanding more of the missing links. The result – a spiral of consumption based on addictive fake food products as the body searches, in vain, for the missing nutrients. Thus begins the vicious spiral of consuming foods that are low in nutrients but high in energy. Is it any wonder that modern populations suffer from chronic modern malnutrition?