When you take a bite of an amazing entrée at a high-end restaurant, you recognize a complexity of tastes: a hint of sweetness, a salty tang and, maybe, a bit of something else you might not be able to immediately identify. The je ne sais quoi of the dish that leads you to a state of culinary bliss is the impeccable fusion of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Whether you realize it or not, these elements act as the building blocks of any good dish. Below are the characteristics of each taste to help you discover them in your future bites:
Sweetness is the delightful flavor of whipped cream or hot chocolate. It's no secret that this element relies on the presence of natural or artificial sugars. NPR reports that some scientists believe sweet dishes are enjoyable experiences because sugar gives eaters a dopamine boost, activating the pleasure centers of the mind. Historically, sweetness has not always been a flavor solely associated with dessert. Medieval European cuisine incorporated sugar and honey into main dishes, imparting a sweet-sour taste on meat and main dishes.
Do you remember eating sour candy as a kid? Children are especially drawn to sour flavors, scrunching their noses as they stuff their mouths with candy. This taste recognizes the presence of acids dissolved into water. Be especially conscious of sour notes and you may find them in unexpected places, like a balanced salad dressing or a glass of wine. You can also capture the power of sour in lemon, grapefruit and orange juices, which can be added to baked goods or savory dishes as a compliment to sweet tones.
Saltiness responds to the presence of sodium chloride, or salt, in food, and is the reason why you can't stop eating french fries. Many chefs view salt as their greatest asset, seasoning every dish with some type, from sea salt to kosher. Salt not only cuts through bitterness and enhances sweetness, but according to experts in The Guardian, it also increases the natural aromas of every dish. Make sure to add salt throughout the cooking process, not just at the end of your preparations, to fully bring out the salty taste.
Bitterness can be a piercing and unpleasant sensation. But it grows on people, as seen in coffee, dark chocolate and some bitter greens. In the natural world, bitter flavoring can be the sign of a poisonous plant. A study in ScienceLine explains that humans developed the ability to perceive bitter flavors as a protective mechanism, but today, if you detect a hint of bitter while eating at a top restaurant, you can be fairly certain that the chef is not cooking with poisoned herbs. Expert bartenders complement bitters in their cocktails with sweetened syrup or rock salt. Follow their lead and balance bitterness with a small dose of salt or sugar.
Umami, or savoriness, is the most elusive and least well-known of the five tastes. Discovered in the early 20th century, umami is vital to eastern culinary traditions. You can easily experience it when eating a piece of Parmesan cheese, soy sauce or anchovies. The taste is subtle — it's similar to saltiness, though distinctly savory — but incredibly important in the culinary field. Food corporations and chefs often use MSG, an additive with umami undertones, as a way to develop flavor without adding unnecessary fat, salt or refined sugar.
Learning about these five basic tastes will help you develop balance in your own dishes. If you test a dish that looks great, but tastes less than fantastic, chances are that you need to bring these five tastes into harmony. The best flavor profile is greater than the sum of these parts, leaving a remarkable impression and a desire to savor every bite.
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