How to blend flavors when cooking from scratch
For anyone who wants to adapt recipes to your taste or play with layering flavors, this is my unique, unorthodox understanding of flavor creation. It won me a cooking competition, judged by top NYC chefs like Jacques Pépin and Alain Sailhac.
This piece covers what I see as the key elements, how to identify what is missing and how to bring a dish to the next level. Cliff notes version: its all about smell and balance.
By way of background, I am a “make it up as you go” cook. David calls me “MacGyver” in the kitchen because I can take 4 random things and cobble together a meal. It all started as a kid with a dairy allergy. Initially I taught myself to cook because I wanted chocolate cake. From there I kept trying new dishes and loved the artistry of creating a meal, figuring out the relationships between flavors.
There are 3 main elements I play with in food: flavor, texture and energy. This piece is about flavor.
Here’s the shocker: About 75% of what we think is taste is actually smell. This is why food seems tasteless when you are congested. Smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than our other senses. Scent is powerful and primal. It activates the limbic system which influences emotions and memories. This is why a whiff of something can bring you back to your childhood. For more click here and here.
Before we get to smell, let’s go over the basics of taste. There are 5 recognized tastes, excluding several new ones currently being researched in Japan. The conventional tastes are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory (umami). Most foods are sweet, salty or savory or a blend, which is highly satisfying. Add sugar to create sweetness, salt to create salty and meat or spice to create savory. Pretty simple.
Beyond that, you may notice that some dishes work well, others have seem to be missing something or are overpowering. This is about the layering of spices and flavors, which I believe is “read” by our sense of smell.
Taking a step back to think how to blend spices to create the effect you want, I always think of fragrance training from my days developing beauty products. While I have never heard anyone else describe food in this way, this framework is what I use to identify what is missing and how to balance it.
There are 3 ranges of notes in any fragrance.
- The Top Note: This is what you sense immediately and passes quickly. It is usually a light, fresh scent that “brightens” the fragrance. Citrus is a common top note. Ginger or cilantro are common in food.
- The Middle Note: This is hits your senses after the top note has passed, bridging the top and base notes and harmonizing the fragrance. Middle notes are mellow such as lavender or other florals, or cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom and vegetables.
- The Base Note: This is rich and earthy. It creeps up on you and then lingers. Think of wood scents like sandalwood or heavy spice like green coriander, chili, cayenne pepper, mustard, animal meat.
Here are two examples of this in practice:
- Kale Salad: A while back I was making a sesame kale salad with a few friends. We added massaged curly kale, sesame seeds and sesame oil, roasted carrots and onions, lemon and sea salt. But something was missing. There was no contrast, it was too light and zingy. The sesame and carrots were mellow with a hint of sweet. It needed a floor or a base note, something a bit heavy and earthy to ground the dish. Salt isn’t the answer, it just brings out the current flavor. Balsamic might be nice, except it would fight the sesame which is unique and brilliant here. So we tried a bit of Worcestershire sauce. Heavy, dark but plays well with sesame. I think it worked.
- Fish Curry: Trying our hand at a South Indian Curry we used garlic, onion and ginger in a tomato coconut sauce with cayenne pepper. We added a generous amount of the basic Indian spice, garam masala, which is really a mix of spices, with this particular version being heavy on chili powder. The effect was an immediate hit of ginger and hot chili and a heavy lasting feel of the cayenne. But the two seemed separate, there was nothing in the middle. So I added some mid notes: turmeric, a mild, traditional Indian spice that is great for inflammation and a bit of cumin. I also added coriander reminds me of South India. This made it more connected and complete.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any questions!