The 5 Flavors

Flavor is a tricky and complicated concept. It is made up of many different aspects of senses as well as senses in their entirety. Let’s start with the basics of the tongue. The human tongue only tastes a few basic flavors. This is actually such a controversial subject that it is still hotly debated whether or not certain flavors constitute tasting or just a secondary experience.

The most commonly accepted flavors that your tongue tastes are: salty, savory, sour, bitter, and sweet. I like to add spicy to this list as well, seeing as you experience spicy on your tongue just like the other flavors. I don’t consider bitter to be a flavor, but I consider it to be a survival mechanism. Therefore, I do not include it in the 5 flavors. So for simplicity—and for our sanity—we will say that the following are the flavors that you actually taste with your tongue: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet.

Taste perception is important to know because your perception of the 5 flavors changes during chemotherapy treatments. As I had said in The 5 Senses article, your historical knowledge of each flavor does not line up with your current perception of the experience of each flavor.

So, we must begin first by:

1. Understanding what each flavor actually tastes like in its raw essence.

2. We must re-learn what these flavors taste like to the cancer patient today.

The following exercise will help both caregivers and patients understand the differences between each flavor and how their sense of taste (palate) has shifted due to chemotherapy treatments. Often, you will hear the word “palate.” The word in this context means your personal taste preferences.

At Home Activity: Taste Perception

So, let’s have some fun at home and learn what role your tongue plays in experiencing flavor. We’re going to do an experiment tasting the 5 flavors through different seasonings and truly experiencing them for the first time.

In the following at home activity, you will taste the 5 flavors that your tongue perceives as a raw, singular flavor with no interference from outside flavors or senses.

Tasting the Five Flavors

Ingredients Needed:

kosher salt

soy sauce or MSG

red pepper, black pepper, or cayenne pepper

red wine vinegar, lemon juice, or lime juice

granulated white table sugar or honey

a glass of water for rinsing

Directions:

First, wash and dry your hands to avoid cross-contamination. Using a series of small containers, place 1 tsp. of each the above ingredients into their own separate containers. Make certain none of the seasonings are mixed with other seasonings. Before you taste each one, pinch your nose to stop the sensation of smell from becoming involved. This is so that you can finally taste something purely with your tongue and not with your sense of smell. Now, using the tip of your finger, taste each one individually. Wash your mouth out and fingers off with water before trying the next ingredient.

Using the basic senses we just described, fill in the blank with what each ingredient tastes like to you.

At Home Activity: Taste the 5 Flavors Chart

Ingredient Taste of Ingredient
kosher salt
soy sauce
MSG
red pepper, black pepper, or cayenne pepper
red wine vinegar
lemon juice or lime juice
granulated white sugar or honey

Did you notice how the flavors that you associate with each item vary greatly from what you think of in your mind verses what the actual flavor is inside of your mouth? Since salt mostly activates in the front portion of your tongue, those are the taste receptors that come alive when you taste it. Savory perception is mostly located in the back of your tongue. It often feels like a very subtle and muted flavor. Knowing where the location of each flavor sense exists isn’t the important part of this lesson. It is in knowing that your tongue has dedicated flavor receptors for each flavor and that they are not mixed in together evenly. This should be your first ah-ha moment. You have just begun to discover how each part of your body comes into play when you perceive flavor.

Now, let’s do this experiment again. But this time, describe how your mouth physically feels after each item.

At Home Activity: Mouth Feel of Flavor Chart

Ingredient How it FEELS In Your Mouth
kosher salt
soy sauce
MSG
red pepper, black pepper or cayenne pepper
red wine vinegar
lemon juice or lime juice
granulated white sugar or honey

So why does the way food feels in your mouth matter? The reason you need to know how something feels in your mouth when cooking has to do with the concept of weight. Weight is the sensation of food in your mouth. A dish’s weight can be anywhere from heavy to light just like all physical objects. This is important because seasonal cooking relies very heavily on the concept of weight.

For example, winter dishes like shepherd’s pie tend to be very heavy in weight. It is filled with proteins, starches, and fats. It generally causes a heavy feeling in your stomach and in your mouth during and after eating.

On the other hand, a nice Greek salad with vinaigrette dressing, and the whole nine yards of fresh ingredients in it, is a perfect example of a lightly weighted summer dish. The large amount of calories from complex animal fats is one of the many reasons the shepherd’s pie feels heavier in weight than the Greek salad. We will talk more about the concept of “weight” in the upcoming lessons.

Balancing The Five Flavors

When a chef cooks, what he is trying to do is bring out the fullness of flavor, or Roundness of Flavor. This brings us to our next lesson.

roundness of flavor 5 flavors

Think about the results of our sensory perception test and what you know these flavors to be. Now take a look at the chart above for a great visual representation of what I call, Roundness of Flavor.

Imagine the circular dish above is mounted on a thin piece of metal so that it acts as a scale. As you apply weight to any category, like salty, the dish will tip toward the salty side. As you place each flavor on the dish, it will lean from side to side, eventually balancing out. What you want to do is weigh out the proper amounts of flavor onto this imaginary dish so that the dish doesn’t topple over and become one-sided.

Cooking is about Balance

Cooking is about balance, harmony, and pulling the natural flavors out of your ingredients. All food items that you eat have their own natural flavors and will pre-stack the weight of the dish. As we add items to our meals, we need to be conscious of their natural flavors and how they will make the dish balance.

To be blunt, there is simply no way to teach someone to cook without physically doing it. You can learn many other disciplines simply by reading about it. But, cooking is both art and science. Just like you can never truly create great works of art simply by looking at Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings.

You will never develop the physical techniques of the intricacies inherent inside of the brush strokes to capture the delicateness of color. Such is the same with great food. Learning how to cook is exactly like this. You must try and fail and try and fail until you learn how things work and why.

Just like the yoga master refers to the art of yoga as “my practice,” so must we take this same approach toward cooking. It is an art that you will continually become greater at every day, every week, and every year. You will learn and grow just like a tree until your roots run so far into the ground that you are an immovable object with years of strength and experience to pull from. So it is with this mindset, we will continue to move forward so that we may practice and learn.

How Did I Come Up With This Flavor Stuff?

What I would like to explain about Roundness of Flavor is that I actually developed this cooking technique to specifically help my mother while she was going through cancer treatments. But, Roundness of Flavor isn’t just for cancer patients. It is also an incredibly effective and fool-proof system for progressively and accurately seasoning your food so that it turns out nearly perfect every single time.

Below is the method I follow while creating my own Roundness of Flavor. I do this with every single dish, no matter how simple or how complex. This is the creating flavor part of Roundness of Flavor.

When I season dishes, I always season them in the following order:

1. salty

2. savory

3. spicy

4. sour

5. sweet

Understanding the Five Flavors

Salty

Salty is the most basic flavor. It is also the most powerful. It amplifies all other flavors. We start with salty to bring out the naturally occurring flavors in the dish. If we did this flavor later, it could overpower the rest of the dish. Adding salt late in the cooking process could make the flavors too aggressive. On the other hand, food without salt of any kind is extremely bland. If you can not have salt because of sodium, consider using a salt substitute. Salt is also one of the flavors that you cannot correct if you add too much. If you place too much salt in a dish, it is simply ruined and you have to start over.

Examples of salty items: kosher salt, sea salt, soy sauce, and hard cheeses like parmesan.

Savory

I always season savory second because it is the least pronounced of all the flavors. But, it is the most important. The reason it is so important is because it gives you that sense of deliciousness and satisfaction that comes from a home-cooked meal. Savory is the fullness of taste. It is the sense of warmth that you get when eating a protein filled item. Savory is actually activated by the presence of salty flavor. This is the reason why a steak without salt is extremely bland. But if you add a light pinch of salt, it makes the steak taste like a flavor explosion. There are many ways to create a savory flavor, whether it is simply adding savory ingredients or using heat to brown your meats and vegetables. Browning these items makes them naturally more savory as well.

Examples of savory items: soy sauce, MSG, anchovies, green tea, mushrooms, tomatoes, and red wine.

Spicy

Spicy comes third because it is our second amplifying flavor. It is the ingredient that fills our warmth portion of the dish. I also season with spicy third because it is the easiest to counter-act by adding more vinegar to balance out the spicy. Please remember that just because you are adding a touch of spicy to a dish does not mean that the dish will necessarily be spicy. Great cooking always encompasses a bit of an imperceptible spicy note that just adds a fuller body. So never feel guilty adding a little bit of spicy to your dishes, especially in amounts that a person cannot detect. To add ingredients that a person cannot name or quite put their finger on is the hallmark of a great chef.

Examples of spicy items: black pepper, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, chilies, and many more.

Sour

Sour comes fourth because it is the lightener. Everything we have put into our dishes so far has added breadth, fullness, and warmth. Now, we add complexity. Sour brings freshness that you cannot get through any other means. It removes the physical weight of a dish, similar to how moon boots remove the feeling of weight from your body.

Sour is an amazing flavor that is far underutilized. It can make you feel as if you were eating the freshest, lightest fruit salad in the world. But when applied too heavily and too liberally, it can make your mouth pucker and eyes water. With a masterful hand, sour can be applied in just the right amounts to give heavy dishes a light feeling in your mouth. It can also remove the spiciness while amplifying the flavor of chilies. And, it can cleanse the palate and bring delight to any person who wields it. In my opinion, mastery of sour is another hallmark of a great chef.

Sour is also the primary activator in the palate cleansing technique that we will learn shortly. Palate cleansing is important to know as it is the primary remover of metallic tastes.

Examples of sour items: red vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice wine vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and pickle brine.

Sweet

Sweet comes last because it is the great balancer. It activates the pleasure centers of your brain and gets you really excited about eating whatever it is you are eating. Sweet can cover many mistakes when cooking and should be used last because it creates our final piece of complex flavoring.

Chinese cooks have a saying that sugar always follows vinegar. This is because sour needs a balancer just like the idea of yin and yang. When yin gets out of control, it needs yang to balance. The philosophy is all about finding the balance between the two.

The same is true for fire and water. Fire keeps water in check by boiling it. And water keeps fire in check by keeping it from getting too hot and consuming everything around it. If you have too much fire, everything gets burned. If you have too much water, the passion and the drive is drowned out.

The same is true for sour and sweet. You must keep the two in balance at all times. Sweet also allows you to remove or cover the acidity of a dish. Hence, why most people will add a healthy pour of sugar to their marinara sauce.

Don’t Let Fear of Sugar Make You Irrational

Sweet is a place where I get a lot of irrational feedback. I am not telling you to pour a pound of sugar into your meals or eat nothing but refined sugars. What I am explaining to you here is that sweetness balances out the dish. It is one of your 5 fundamental flavors. And, it must be mastered and utilized to truly cook like a great chef. A lot of people are afraid of sugar because somebody offhandedly said to them once that people need to eat less sugar.

What those people were trying to actually express was that most people ingest too much candy, sweets, junk food, soft drinks, etc. When you take control of your food and cook every meal at home, you are not going to end up eating too much sugar simply because the nature of cooking at home does not make it easy to overload yourself on sugars. What overloads you on sugar is eating a pint of ice cream, followed by drinking 2 liters of soda, and eating a handful of hard candies to finish off the meal. Remember all things in moderation.

Sugar is actually the basic energy that your body uses to fuel itself. The reason your body is hot is because your body is regularly combusting sugars inside of your cells to regulate your body temperature. When there is too much sugar, your body converts it for long term storage into fat cells which is how your metabolic process works. This is why if you eat too much sugar, you gain weight. If you eat too little sugar, you loose weight. The energy inside of food is measured in calories, which is why all of our food labels are labeled with the amount of calories that are contained within the food. This is so that you can empower yourself to make decisions on how many calories you need to fuel your body. It’s not scary. It’s science.

Sweet can be sourced from the following: raw granulated sugar, brown sugar, fruit juices, honey, and an innumerable amount of places.

Why Do I Follow This Flavor Method?

I follow the salty, savory, spicy, sour, sweet method because my experience has taught me that this is how you should season. It takes into account many different theories, styles, and cultures perspectives on cooking. As I stated previously, I have found that cooking is both art and science. It is a beautiful alchemy that encompasses so much of the human spirit, life experience, culture, memories, and the soul; that it is like an art. The simple whiff of your favorite dish can transport you to places and times that you didn’t even remember existed. It can pull emotions so deep that you didn’t even know you had. This is the art of cooking.

Remember that pulling those memories up is called memory association. We must re-learn our associations when we are Cooking for Chemo. I will discuss more on this topic in later lessons.

To bring it all around, the reason I season in this method is two fold. Years of experience show me scientifically that this is the right way to season. And, years of artistic endeavor also support this method.

Here are some flavor charts that will help you adjust specific flavors in your dishes. You may want to earmark or post a sticky note on this page. It is a super helpful reference to have on hand while you are cooking, especially while you are first learning.

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Go To Seasoning Broth Exercise