Friday, March 21, 2008

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter (about an article in Cooking Light)

I read the most interesting article in the March 2008 issue of Cooking Light. Written by David Bonom, a chef, it's about the four groups of tastes that comprise the food we eat. And why it's important. He tells the tale that when he was in culinary school he presented to the instructor a creamy broccoli soup for review. The teacher, Chef Pardus, tasted it and said "Good. Now take it back to your station and put a drop of white wine vinegar in a spoonful [of the soup] and taste. Compare the two." Bonom says that lesson was a lightning moment for him. He did as Pardus suggested and said the soup just tasted . . . better. He couldn't taste the vinegar, but there was a difference. He said the components (cream, broccoli, shallots) became more distinct. It taught him to consider the effect of acid, and that familiarity is how we learn to balance dishes.

Actually, the experts have added a fifth taste beyond the sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It's called umami, best described as savoriness. Umami is what happens when you add a touch of sugar to a vinaigrette, and when you slow roast onions.
The instructor-chef recently prepared a ham sandwich for the author - and commented that it had good balance. He said it's "the sweetness of the basil, saltiness of the ham, the acid in the tomato and pickled jalapeno, the umami in the bread, tomato and ham.

The article went on to give examples of how to flavor dishes we make with the different components. Here's the Cooking Light list:

  • Salty: soy sauce, fish sauce, cured meats such as bacon, pancetta or prosciutto, anchovies, olives, mustard, capers, bring or aged cheese such as feta or Parmesan.

  • Sour: vinegar, lemon and lime juice, wine, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, tamarind, rhubarb, pickles, cranberries, mustard, lemongrass.

  • Bitter: radicchio, endive, watercress, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, dark chocolate, campari, brussels sprouts, grapefruit, coffee, walnuts, black pepper.

  • Sweet: sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice, molasses, many fruits, chocolate, ketchup, caramelized onions, roasted bell peppers, hoisin sauce.

  • Umami: aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, vine-ripened tomatoes, mushrooms, corn, cured pork such as prosciutto or serrano ham, smoked or cured fish, shellfish, asian fish sauce, soy sauce, miso.
The article included several recipes, demonstrating these combinations of tastes. It also listed a short cheat sheet, of sorts, for what to consider when you're preparing a dish and know it needs SOMETHING, but you don't quite know what. Bonom says it's a nuanced skill. Sour likes sweet. Salt is constant. Bitter tastes should not dominate and can be balanced with salt and fat. Here are his strategies:

  • Too sour? Add sugar, honey, or another sweet ingredient.

  • Too sweet? Try a dash of vinegar, lemon juice or another sour ingredient. Salt will also tone down sweetness.

  • Too bitter? Add salt, if possible. Fats can also take the edge off bitter ingredients.

  • Too bland? Start with salt. A touch of an acidic ingredient also brightens flat flavors. Even a pinch of sugar might help round out the taste.

So, there's your culinary school lesson of the day. I clipped out this article and plan to tape it to the inside of a cupboard door near my range, so when I'm contemplating "what's missing," I'll have a reference.


Kalyn said...

Great post, I'm saving it!

Anonymous said...

This is always good information for any cook to have. Thanks for posting. We spent a lot of time in culinary school working on 'training' our palates to recognize the four different tastes. It was an interesting exercise.

Anonymous said...

I tape recipes and cooking info inside my cabinet doors too! Opening a few doors to find the right clipping is so much easier than leafing through a cookbook or notebook. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Could you please post that article in Cooking Light by David Bonom here? Would love to read it..Thanks!


Carolyn T said...

Thika - I'm sorry to say I tossed out the article after I wrote it up on the blog. You might go research it at the Cooking Light website. Perhaps it's there.