Are you an adventurous free spirit with bold taste buds ready to experiment with any ingredient? Or are you on the other end of the spectrum - a timid and meek shell of yourself, lacking confidence and creativity when it comes to food?
Whether you are on one end of the scale or the other, or fall squarely in the middle, understanding what we know as the sense taste can help you become a more accomplished and confident cook.
We hopefully eat every single day of our lives, but how often do we really taste?
Often, we eat quickly just to sustain ourselves, to feed the kids quickly to run out the door, to live, not to enjoy. Understanding the importance of taste and its different principles (seven to be exact) can bring out the ultimate enjoyment in food and make heroes in the kitchen.
As firefighters, we are “Jacks of all trades,” and often refer to having “tools in the toolbox,” which is knowledge and training that guides us in the numerous and different tasks we might peform in a shift.
Think of understanding and mastering taste as another tool in your kitchen toolbox. It is a tool that will help you to build, tweak, fine-tune, balance and adjust any recipe, regardless of your ingredients, and accentuate the overall experience of the dish.
Let’s look at the seven principles of taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, fat and hot, and how we can incorporate them into our everyday cooking.
- Salt (kosher salt or sea salt, finishing flaky salt, coarse salt, anchovies, olives, salty cheeses): By far the single most important seasoning of all, salt is not meant to make food “salty.” Its purpose is to draw out flavour, balance out other principles of taste, sweet and sour, and it boosts aroma. Sometimes when cooking for a crowd, it can be difficult to judge whether you’ve added the right amount since it is so subjective. Try to focus on the overall flavour in the dish. If the flavour disappears too quickly on your tongue after you’ve had a taste, the dish probably needs more salt. But start slowly as over-salting is far worse than under-salting. Salt will counteract sweet but will amplify sour. In desserts (yes, they need seasoning too), a pinch of salt will make it less sweet while sharpening the flavour. When you add salt to an acidic dish, the acidity will be more prominent, so go light when you’re salting a vinaigrette, or think of what salt does to the rim of a margarita. Salt will also tame and mellow bitter. When sprinkled on bitter vegetables like eggplant or broccoli rabe, salt draws out moisture and, with it, residual bitternes, making it mellower.
- Sweet (molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, demura sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, fruits and some vegetables like beets, onions and carrots): It’s the very best tool to tame aggressive salty, sour and bitter flavours. It can create richness in broth, soups or sauces (that’s why slow roasted vegetables are used) and can round out sharp flavours (think of adding honey or maple syrup to a vinaigrette).
- Sour (vinegar, citrus, buttermilk, sour cream): This is used to describe acidic ingredients and adds a punch of life to fatty or dull flavours. Whether using vinegar, which is the strongest sour, or citrus, which is more of a sweet sour, it will brighten, create complexity and give your dish new energy. It is often said that if you taste a dish and it’s just missing “something,” it is more than likely missing a sour.
- Bitter (dark greens, grapefruit, endive, broccoli rabe, beer, tea, coffee): Bitter offers complexity to a dish that may seem boring. It is most often found in vegetables. It will balance out sweet, but if a dish is too bitter it can be ruined with sour, salt and fat.
- Umami (ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, walnuts, miso, soy sauce, broccoli, aged cheese and meat): It literally translates to savouriness. This is the principle of taste that you really want to dial up. It will give a dish great depth and power. Salt will intensify it and acid will diminish it.
- Fat (animal fat, animal products like eggs, cream, milk and butter, processed oils): When used properly, fat is what binds flavours and creates staying power on the tongue. Fats balance sour and temper salt, bitter and can turn down heat. Too much, though, and it can blanket highly-flavourful ingredients. It’s important to remember that fats have distinct flavours and qualities. Animal fats are heavy and rich, dairy fats are on the sweeter side, and vegetable and nut oils have a leaner profile.
- Hot (chilies, pepper, mustard, ginger, horseradish, hot sauce): My favourite, and true lovers of hot food realize it is about balance and flavour and not having a face-melting reaction. Heat creates dynamic, complex flavours, bringing liveliness to dishes that might otherwise be bland. It also intensifies spices, like in the way a dash of cayenne can make cinnamon more pronounced. It cuts through richness and is the only principle of taste that works with all the others.
The single most important way to hone this new skill is to taste it, then smell, then taste again. Then, make your next move, and taste again. This means to not just put food to the tongue, but really, really taste. You will soon see what amazing skills mastering taste will provide. Eat well and stay safe brothers and sisters.
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Chili Chocolate Pot de Crème
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Place the milk, cream, vanilla, sugar, egg yolks, and salt in a medium saucepan. Place the pan over medium heat and cook for 5-6 minutes, whisking frequently, until the mixture is thick enough to coat a spatula.
- Place the chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne in a large bowl. Pour the warm custard mixture over the top and fold until chocolate is melted and combined and very smooth.
- Divide the mixture into four ramekins, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until set about 2 hours. Enjoy
Spicy Grilled Lobster
- 3 cups shredded/julienned green papaya
- 1 medium carrot, shredded/julienned
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1-10 red Thai chilies (depending on how spicy you want your salad to be)
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Thai basil
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 3 tablespoons fried onion salad toppers
- 3 tablespoons chopped honey roasted peanuts
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Place green papaya, carrot, and tomatoes in a bowl. Crush the chili peppers and garlic into a paste. Add lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, and whisk together. Pour over salad. Separate into plates and sprinkle with cilantro, basil, fried onions, and peanuts. Top with lobster tail.
Dan Dan Noodles with Spicy Pork
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1lb ground pork
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan preserved vegetables, finely chopped (optional)
- 2 green onions, sliced diagonally + more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 175g Chinese egg noodles – fairly thin ones, ideally
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2-4 tablespoons Sichuan roasted chili oil
- 2 teaspoons black rice vinegar
- ½ tsp granulated sugar
- Toast the peppercorns in a dry, hot wok or frying pan until fragrant, then grind and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok over a high heat until shimmering, then add the pork and stir-fry until brown and beginning to crisp. Add the preserved vegetables, the whites of the green onions and the ground pepper, and stir-fry for a couple of minutes. Add the rice wine and soy sauce, and continue to cook until dryish and crunchy. Be sure to fry the meat until is crisp.
- Whisk together the ingredients for the sauce in a heatproof bowl, adding two tablespoons of chili oil at this point.
- Cook the noodles in just enough boiling water to cover until just done, then scoop out 1 cup of cooking water and set aside. Drain the noodles.
- Whisk four tablespoons of cooking water into the sauce, then taste and add more chili oil if you think it needs it. Toss the noodles in the sauce and divide between bowls. Sprinkle over the pork and green onion. Serve immediately, with extra chilli oil on the side. Enjoy!