How does one "build flavour"?
March 4, 2021 12:58 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I both like to cook and we're pretty good at it, at least as far as following recipes, learning new techniques, etc. We can even improvise a bit here and there. But...

...what we're really missing is a good understanding of flavour. We know it when we taste it but we're not really sure how to create it on our own. As in, given a random assortment of ingredients and spices we wouldn't necessarily have any idea what would go well with what or how to combine everything into a coherent dish. So, we're looking for books, videos, whatever to help us develop those skills.

What we're not looking for are specific recipes. We've got lots of those. What we want is more theoretical, "this is how you use spices to layer flavours," and, "these flavours tend to go together but those ones don't," etc.

Basically, we're good at the day to day, nitty-gritty mechanics of cooking but would like to up our game with a bit stronger foundations.

Many thanks in advance!
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: As a theoretical starting-point, though it doesn't really focus on specific spices so much, you might want to take a look at Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
posted by praemunire at 1:02 PM on March 4, 2021 [23 favorites]

Best answer: For the "what flavors go together" part of the question I depend heavily on The Flavor Bible, which is basically a dictionary of exactly that.
posted by ook at 1:08 PM on March 4, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a great overview of cooking generally; for more specific-flavor driven ideas you might also take a look at The Flavor Bible, Ideas in Food and Maximum Flavor, both of which are focused less on recipes and more on combinations and techniques to use as you see fit in your cookery.
posted by lhputtgrass at 1:09 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Here are a bunch of spice charts I use regularly. They describe flavor mixes between countries and which commonly go together.

I have a different version of the cook smarts herbs chart that has even more info as a poster in my kitchen. I think they rule.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:22 PM on March 4, 2021 [15 favorites]

Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking is great for the science behind a lot of this. I'd only recommend it in addition to some of the other things, though.
posted by Text TK at 1:44 PM on March 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Check Spice out from the library. Excellent reference book.
posted by aniola at 1:48 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ruhlman's Twenty helped me understand a good bit of the theory behind cooking. It even had bits like "Take a bite of the dish at this point. Now take another bite with a squeeze of lemon juice. See how it affected the flavor..."
posted by AaRdVarK at 1:49 PM on March 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

You’ve gotten great answers so far. I would also recommend Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Food Lab and Cooks Illustrated. Both are recipe-oriented, but I rarely actually make any of the recipes. They both “show their work”, as they used to say in math class, to explain why they did what they did in a given recipe. I’ll read it and file it away and then when I’m making something else later, I’ll remember that Kenji did _____ when making that one dish, and I could do the same thing here.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:52 PM on March 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

Sometimes I have to do an ingredient substitution, so I google those flavours to see if they exist in another recipe.

Example- one time I wanted to use my pork meatball recipe but had lamb mince instead, so I googled lamb + sesame and confirmed it's a common combination.

So I use Google to sanity check.

Also there is trial and error- I have put stuff together and regretted it and made a mental note. (I remember being allowed to make a pizza as a child and adding all the herbs and spices we had - "this will taste amazing!" (It did not taste amazing)).

If it is savoury, try adding garlic.
posted by freethefeet at 1:55 PM on March 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

My food improved a lot when I started adding kosher salt at every step of the process (instead of just the one place the recipe indicates).
posted by stellaluna at 1:58 PM on March 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

If something tastes ok but it's missing that indefinable extra depth, I add a little sploot of anchovy paste and that usually does the trick.
posted by phunniemee at 2:57 PM on March 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you tend to reach for the same oil/fat for everything you cook, it could be worth exploring how other fats can complement and add to the flavor profile you're building. When I was first learning to cook, I used olive oil for everything, but when I was really interested in upping my home cooking game, learning that different fats shine in different contexts was a Rosetta stone - you want a different flavor for pan-searing than you do in a pasta sauce. If you aren't vegetarian, you may want to venture into saving chicken fat to add a savory meatiness, etc etc. This article is a good intro (taken from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, already recommended to you a whole bunch of times above.)
posted by superfluousm at 3:01 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Mentally separating out “flavors” from “techniques” helps me a lot in cooking off the cuff. We have a vegetarian lasagna we make regularly and the main components are mushrooms, fennel and eggplant. We had those hanging out in the fridge but we’re out of noodles, so they got scrapped together with very much the same flavors (oregano, garlic, onions) but served over a pretty basic polenta. The whole thing was good in all the same ways as the lasagna, but it was just a different format. Dishes that I regularly fiddle with flavors like this are chicken and rice dishes (ie, paella as a technique, not an end dish), and stir fried rices.

Also, seeking out ‘peasant food’ had helped develop this skill. When you start learning the building blocks of different cuisines you can change out their parts easily. Knowing how aromatic bases of different cuisines can drastically alter the flavor of a dish is pretty valuable knowledge to have.

Lots of good book recs up thread but I’d throw Ivan Ramen in there, even if you’re not looking to cook his ramen. It’s a really good illustration of how to draw parallels between seemingly disparate cultures (New York Jewish food, and Japanese food).
posted by furnace.heart at 3:17 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Nthing both ‘Salt, Acid, Fat, Heat’ and ‘Ruhlman’s Twenty’. They are excellent foundational books. Building flavor is less about spices and more about the fundamental elements of your dish and how they are used.
posted by gnutron at 3:23 PM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Don't underestimate the power of browning. This is what makes toast a whole different critter than plain bread, and it makes a huge difference in flavoring lots of other things too.

I became a really, really good soup maker when I got a handle on the power of browning. Carmelized onions, of course--in butter, on super low heat, for a long time, til they get caramel color or even darker. But also browning other vegetable ingredients, and of course browning any meats--generally in a separate pan from vegetables.

It's worth noting that the brown stuff that sticks to the pan when you are browning those meat and veg is, itself, a flavor bomb. In traditional French cooking it's known as fond. So for heavens sake, don't put it in the sink and wash it away--instead make sure to get it all into solution in the liquid of whatever your dish calls for.
posted by Sublimity at 3:33 PM on March 4, 2021 [9 favorites]

For me, it's been a combination of 1. cooking the same kinds of things over and over again, until I start to develop just that sense of what this or that ingredient adds or doesn't add; and 2. Having a few chefs/food writers I follow, who do a good job explaining why they cook things the way they do or choose certain ingredients.

Serious Eats has probably been my favorite for the latter, as they really go into a lot of detail in their Food Lab series about why they make certain choices.

Another thing I've been doing a lot during COVID is watching cooking videos. The best ones are done by people with deep understanding of cooking, at least in their specific cuisine, and offer a lot of explanations. Some of my faves are J Kenji Lopez Alt, of the aforementioned Serious Eats), Pailin's Kitchen for Thai food, and Sohla El-Waylly (on several different platforms).

One thing that's been helpful with all this cooking is figuring out what MY palette likes, which tends to be a mix of savory, sweet, and sour, with less salt than I expected and very little bitterness. So now if a dish I'm making seems off, I know it probably needs some sweetness from a pinch of brown sugar, or some savory flavor from a dab of better than bouillon, or a dash of vinegar for some sourness.

One more thing: look for the most basic dishes in a cuisine you want to master, find a source you respect, and follow their instructions, whether it's a recipe or a video or whatever. For instance, I learned so much about Thai food from perfecting my Thai fried rice. And learning how to make cacio e pepe or carbonara helped me figure out how to make more complicated pasta dishes better.
posted by lunasol at 3:39 PM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I very highly recommend The Elements of Taste. It has recipes, but most of it is devoted to discussing spices and herbs and how they blend together with different ingredients, and flavor profiles like salty, bitter, sweet, herbal, floral, meaty, "funky/earthy" umami, etc. It has a lot of discussion about how to layer different flavor profiles in a dish to balance and enhance things.
posted by erst at 5:10 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The flavor star!

People just think of aromatic when they think of adding flavor - spices. But that’s just a small portion of taste.

You also need to think about adding:
Sour (squeeze of lemon, vinegar)
Bitter (eg broccoli )
Sweet - fruit, jam, sugar
Umami - cheese, mushroom, soy sauce, fish paste

And of course salt! And fat :)

So next time you’re cooking something and thinking it’s missing something, run through the options above. Is it missing lemon? (Brightens a soup) sweet? (Dried Cranberries in a salad) spicy? Maybe some Dijon mustard in your sandwich. and so on.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:50 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Watch America's Test Kitchen and Gordon Ramsay videos on Youtube for basic techniques, but you also have ot understand that chefs developed their... palette by cooking and tasting a LOT of food, and understanding the different combinations, like you how you prepare the green onions and ginger and different spices will affect how you draw the flavor out of them, and how you need to let meat sit for the sufrace salting will work. That's food science stuff. Anne Reardon the food debunker is also good for that. Only after cooking a ton of stuff and tasting a lot of stuff will you developed the palette that can distinguish the different flavors and ingredients.

There's a reason why one of the early challenges on Hell's Kitchen is an attempt to match up the ingredients to a dish.
posted by kschang at 6:26 PM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been reading The Flavor Bible for years and am excited that I've recently added Nik Sharma's The Flavor Equation to my shelf for further wisdom.
posted by knile at 7:52 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In addition to the much-mentioned Flavor Bible (which came out within months of me pondering something very similar to this ask), if you have access to the NYT they've had a whole series of "no recipe recipes" which are worth consuming in bulk (both in the content sense and the food sense). The guiding notion is that you should be learning to improvise in the kitchen with what you have. And there will, in fact, be a book published in a couple weeks. Between Sam Sifton and Melissa Clark's "from the pantry" series my wife and I have leveled up this past year.

But also you should be learning what ingredients can play multiple roles. Tomato paste adds umami more than it adds tomato flavor, so once you know that (and buy the stuff in tubes, not cans) you can add a tablespoon to … whatever needs it. We also internalized the trick of adding a slug of fish sauce to our pasta sauces (if we didn't start with a tin of anchovies along with the garlic). Nearly everything is improved by a squeeze of lemon. And so on. If you start from "this needs something" you can figure out what you mean by that (umami, brightness, sweetness, earthiness, funkiness, richness, whatever) and know broadly what to add, and then narrow that down to what you have in your kitchen.

Also for flavor depth I find just starting with the basics of a mirepoix, sofrito, or trinity will go a long way.
posted by fedward at 8:50 PM on March 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Also one thing we've been doing lately thanks to the Instant Pot is making brown chicken stock from the carcass of every chicken we roast. I don't even like chicken but my wife does, and it's cheap and chicken stock is universal. This is much more flavorful than store bought stock, and it's rich with gelatin that will add texture to any dish. My wife kind of thinks I'm obsessed, but if it means I'll put up with more frequent roast chickens she's OK with it. Gonna make some beans or stew? Throw in a quart of chicken stock! The proof is in the pot.
posted by fedward at 9:06 PM on March 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Came to rec The Flavor Bible but if you're also asking not just about how to "match flavors" but build depth in your cooking on the fly, my answers are

1. Miso
2. High-fat salted butter
3. Dried mushrooms blitzed in a food processor
4. Salt, salt, salt.
5. Dark soy sauce
6. Roasted bones / demi glace

Sense a theme? All are salty, full of body, umami bombs.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:37 AM on March 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Didn't have much to add to the great comments above, but then I saw this video from America's Test Kitchen and thought it (the first recipe) was a great example of building flavor.
posted by mumimor at 11:46 AM on March 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'Building flavor' is all about the timing of when you add certain ingredients, and maximizing flavor with technique (like thoroughly browning meat). I used to teach Indian cooking classes, and building flavor is a major part of learning that cuisine.

Here's an example of building flavor in a curry:

First, you flavor your oil: quickly fry garlic, cumin, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.

Then you saute your aromatics (onions, peppers, garlic) in that flavored oil.

Next you sear your meat in all those aromatics and then add the sauce base of stock, tomatoes, or coconut milk. Here you also add herb and spice blends that will cook along with your meat and long cooking vegetables (carrot, squash, potatoes). This cooking time makes them 'bloom' and take on a different character than when they are raw / fresh.

Then you add your short cooking vegetables like peas or spinach and additional herb and spice blends. This second seasoning is usually not the same as the long cooking blends, though there may be overlapping ingredients. These flavors wont be exposed to much heat so they will be bright, like fresh cilantro, the pop of cayenne, cinnamon, or cumin (their cooked versions have a deeper, mellower flavor).

Each stage is an opportunity to add flavor, and these principles can be used in any cuisine.
posted by ananci at 8:35 AM on March 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

My favorite oxtail braise (Molly Stevens, natch) uses that exact phrase "building flavor" talking about adding the red wine marinade, morel liquid, stock, etc., in stages, and letting them each reduce before adding another as opposed to dumping them all in at once. I can verify the end result is delicious.
posted by sapere aude at 11:55 AM on March 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

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