Cooking is often seen as an intuitive art, but in truth it is founded on practical knowledge. Recognising both good and bad tastes within ingredients is essential, but it’s equally important to learn how best to moderate and balance those tastes.
To that end, I’ve written a simple guide to the five tastes below, before dividing the recipes into the common ways you can alter the taste of food.
These recipes naturally fall into six categories: marinating, blending, layering, dressing, saucing and accompanying.
If you consciously taste everything you consume, you will discover that sweetness is widespread, albeit in varying degrees from mild (oats and cream) to ultra-sweet (scallops, peas and honey). It occurs naturally in any calorific ingredient, including foods that are predominantly tart, bitter or umami, such as redcurrants, cabbage and parmesan. The skill of the cook lies in recognising its presence and utilising it to best effect. Too much sweetness will kill your appetite, especially when combined with umami, bitterness or salt. In moderation, umami increases your perception of sweetness, but too much can make food taste cloying. Sourness has the opposite effect, by making sweet ingredients taste fresher. Curiously, the more sweetness we consume, the less sweetness we can taste. Cut back and you will discover myriad unsuspected tastes.
Taste test: Do you feel more or less hungry after eating a little bitter-sweet dark chocolate, compared to some sweetsour orange segments at the end of a meal?
Sourness is an under-utilised taste. It stimulates our desire to eat, by making ingredients taste more exciting. It’s found in all acidic foods, from yogurt, sorrel and cherries to tamarind and wine, but varies greatly in its intensity: vinegar and lime juice being at the opposite end of the scale to a mild crème fraîche or sourdough bread. Any extreme taste is unpalatable – so, in the case of primarily sour ingredients, it’s necessary to either reduce their acidity by dilution (for example, olive oil dilutes vinegar in a vinaigrette), and/or negate it by sweetening (such as by adding sugar to a blackcurrant compote). Your perception of sourness can be increased by a hint of salt or bitterness. This is particularly delicious in starters and main courses. A subtle use of sourness can introduce lightness to a recipe and underline the other tastes.
Taste test: Try sweet ripe melon with and without a small squeeze of lime juice. Does the lime make it taste more intensely sweet and tempting?
A taste for bitterness is acquired with age, and bitterness can be used to add an intriguing edge to dishes. It acts as a warning against eating substances that affect your bodily functions; caffeine, nicotine and strychnine, for example, are all bitter. If bitterness is the dominant taste of an ingredient, such as in tea, coffee and cocoa, it has to be diluted or sweetened in some way. Salting can extract the bitter juices from some ingredients, such as gourds and older varieties of aubergine (eggplant) and cucumber, while blanching in boiling water dilutes the bitter chemicals in foods such as watercress, spring greens (collards), cabbages and citrus pith. Conversely, you can intensify bitterness in food by drying ingredients such as orange zest. Bitterness will add a deeper, more complex taste to a dish, such as caramelised sugar syrup on sliced oranges. It also appears to lessen the appetite, especially when combined with sweetness.
Taste test: Eat a little sourdough bread with and without a drizzle of bitter extra-virgin olive oil. Which is more interesting?
You can detect the tiniest amount of salt (sodium chloride) in food. In moderation, it will excite your appetite – imagine potato crisps with and without salt. There are naturally salty foods, such as oysters, mussels, clams, seaweed and samphire, but most are man-made. Originally, many were developed for preservation, for example: bacon, cheese, salted anchovies, miso paste and kimchee. As a result of this salted maturation, they also have a strong umami taste. A little bitterness and/or sourness highlights saltiness, but it can also increase sweetness, and sweetness can lessen your perception of salt. As over-salting is unpleasant, some salted ingredients need careful handling. Soaking, rinsing, blanching or dilution will reduce saltiness.
Taste test: Try not adding extra salt to your food – for example, in a greek salad. You’ll discover a whole new world of taste.
Although Kikunae Ikeda first recognised umami (umai is Japanese for delicious) as a distinct savoury taste, in Tokyo in 1907, it was not until 2000 that scientists began to prove that we had specialised umami taste receptors in our mouths. These are sensitive to foods that contain high levels of free glutamate (a common amino acid) and can be found in matured, cured, dried and fermented foods, such as Parma ham, dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu (dried kelp), fish sauce and smoked salmon. It is also present in many fresh foods, such as tomatoes, peas, asparagus and scallops. It has a distinctive, easily recognisable savoury taste that makes you salivate and want to eat more, perhaps because it heightens your sensitivity to salty and sweet tastes. It may also lessen your perception of sour and bitter tastes. It’s important to use umami in moderation, as it can dominate more subtle tastes.
Taste test: Compare the taste of some lightly seasoned butter dressed tagliatelle with and without some freshly grated umami-tasting parmesan.
Recipe: salted salmon with tarragon butter
Fish and meat in European cooking are traditionally salted to help preserve them – for example, smoked salmon or duck confit. In countries such as China and Japan, salting is also used to change the texture of food and, equally importantly, to remove fishy or meaty odours, partly by extracting blood and bitter juices.
Dry salting, such as here, is used for oily fish such as mackerel, herring and salmon. The longer any ingredient is salted, the more liquid is extracted and the saltier the ingredient will taste. The art is to allow just enough salt to develop the umami tastes, but not so much that all the tastes are submerged beneath the salt. The tarragon butter adds a tempting rich texture and depth of flavour.
6 x 175g salmon fillets with skin
3 tsp fine sea salt
2–3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
For the tarragon butter
1 tbsp finely chopped tarragon leaves
1 lemon, finely grated, plus 1 tsp juice
55g unsalted butter, softened
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place a plate or tray large enough to hold the fish on the work surface. Evenly sprinkle the surface of the plate/tray with half the salt. Lay the fillets skin-side down on the plate/tray, then sprinkle the remaining salt over the fish. Chill for 40 minutes.
Make the tarragon butter by beating together the chopped tarragon, lemon zest and juice and butter in a small bowl. Very lightly season to taste, as the fish is already salty.
Spoon the butter onto some greaseproof paper to roughly form a sausage shape – roll up the paper and gently roll it under your fingers until it forms a smooth cylinder. Chill until needed.
Preheat 2 non-stick frying pans over a medium-high heat. Once hot, add 1–1½ tbsp olive oil to each pan, then add 3 salmon fillets, flesh-side down, to each pan.
Fry briskly for 3 minutes, or until seared and golden, then turn and cook for 3–4 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and the salmon is just cooked through. Plate the salmon, topping each fillet with a round slice of tarragon butter. Serve immediately.
Extracted from 'Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound: A New Way To Cook' by Sybil Kapoor. Published by Pavilion ((£24) and is out now
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