How To Identify Recipe Components

How to Deconstruct a Recipe into Its Parts

Being able to deconstruct and understand a recipe will help you adjust your recipes quickly and easily to the cancer patient’s preferences. Because you will be able to identify the function of each component in the recipe, you will then be able to make substitutions, adjustments, or create a whole new recipe. This, in essence, is the key to true food mastery. Once you can identify each part that an ingredient plays in a recipe, the sky’s the limit! No culinary style or recipe will be daunting or mysterious.

The best way to identify the parts of a recipe is of course by studying recipes and then labeling each component and what their function is. Think of this process like a culinary frog dissection. The good news is there will not be a smelly, stinky frog in front of you unless your recipe is frog legs.

I am now going to teach you how to identify each component and their purpose. Because ingredients often have multiple purposes inside of a dish, we will keep it simple and identify the main purpose of each component.

Recipe Components

Flavor Balancers

These are the ingredients in a recipe that focus on balancing and manipulating the 5 flavors of salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. These are also the ingredients that influence the perceived weight of a dish in your mouth. These ingredients are the defining qualities inside of Roundness of Flavor and Palate Cleansing. These ingredients may very well possess an aromatic quality, but their primary use in cooking is for balancing the 5 flavors that you perceive with your tongue.

Examples of flavor balancers: kosher salt, MSG, soy sauce, black pepper, cayenne pepper, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, honey, and sugar.

Aromatics -Seasonings and Spices

These are the recipe components that are easiest to identify. These components are your herbs and spices that you will use to define the aromatic quality of the dish. Remember, aromatic quality means everything that you experience with your nose alone.

Examples of aromatics: curry powder, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.

These ingredients focus primarily on the aromatic aspect of the eating experience. We do not use these components for their mouth taste. Even though each of those ingredients has a taste inside of your mouth, we are using these to expressly influence your nose’s perception of what you are eating.

Where this can be confusing is with herbs like basil, cilantro, mint and parsley. We use these 4 specific herbs, not for their aromatic quality, but for their ability to affect taste and cleanse your palate while eating. This is the reason that I place these 4 herbs in flavor balancers, not aromatics.

Protein Aspect

Protein really makes what you are eating a meal. Without protein in your recipe, it is simply a side. Protein-less dishes are not very filling, nor are they satisfying. One of the reasons that ice cream is so filling is because of the protein found in the milk.

Take a Caesar’s salad for example. By itself, it is at very best a side dish. But, add sliced grilled chicken to it and now you have a meal. This is why protein is so important. It completes a dish and gives it a focus.

Examples of animal protein: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Examples of non-animal protein: tofu, legumes, nuts, beans, and lentils.

Starch/Carbohydrate Aspect

Starches and carbohydrates fill out your meal. They are made out of grain crops which are staples of food across the entirety of the world.

Examples of starches/carbohydrates: potatoes, rice, wheat, cornmeal, bread, barley, granola, and oatmeal.

Vegetable/Fruit Aspect

Vegetables and fruits are what add variety to your recipes. By changing out your vegetables, you can easily change the character of your dish, with the least modification.

Examples of vegetables and fruits: carrots, celery, broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, onions, cucumbers, olives, bell peppers, squashes, tomatoes, apples, pears, grapes, and bananas.

There are few items that are typically considered vegetables, but are better classified in other categories. A few examples of this are: peas, corn (maize) kernels, and green beans.

Peas are legumes not vegetables, so they belong in protein. Corn (maize) kernels are actually a grain and belong in carbohydrates. Green beans are unripened bean pods and are actually a protein.


This is a fairly self explanatory section. These are the ingredients who have the singular function in the dish of binding the ingredients together, tying the ingredients together, or thickening a sauce that the ingredients sit in. This gets a little convoluted because sometimes an ingredient can be a binder and other times it can be something else.

This is where your ability to discern the function of the ingredient becomes incredibly important. Remember to think about primary function in a specific recipe, not in all recipes.

Examples of binders/thickeners: wheat flour, rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, potato starch, roux, eggs, and condensed cream soups.

Defining Recipe Ingredients

A defining ingredient is a specific ingredient inside of a recipe that could normally be defined in another category. IE: protein, carbohydrate, or vegetable. But inside of one specific recipe, it does not serve any other purpose but to define the character or quality of a dish.

The defining ingredients are never the main aspect of the dish. They are the supporting players who help to create the dish and emphasize the main players.

Understanding Defining Ingredients

Take a television show for example. You have the main character who has conflict with his environment or other people. He is surrounded by supporting characters that help to define the role of the main character in the TV show.

Let’s use the classic sitcom Seinfeld as an example. Jerry is the main character. And the whole show is about him, his life, and his experiences. Let’s imagine there is an episode where Jerry simply sits in his living room and stares blankly at the wall for 30 minutes. The main character has not changed. He is still himself, but you know nothing about him because there is nothing for him to interact with or be defined by.

If we introduced George, Kramer, or Elaine to this situation, now we have a supporting character with whom Jerry can interact. Let’s say for example that George is having trouble at work. He will express these troubles to Jerry. As a result, Jerry will react to George’s influence. Through this interaction, Jerry’s qualities are defined. This is exactly what a defining ingredient does inside of a recipe.

Another Example

A defining ingredient interacts with the main ingredient and helps it to define itself within the recipe, making it more interesting. Very specifically, inside of a baked potato soup you have shredded cheddar cheese. While cheese is a protein, you are not using the cheese inside of the dish as a protein. You are using cheddar cheese to define the soup by adding a rich, tangy flavor and enhance the smooth cream sauce that makes up the soup base. This is why it is a defining ingredient and not a protein in this instance. Without the cheddar cheese, the soup would be bland and uninteresting.

So remember, a defining ingredient is never the main character but is always a supporting character that helps to define the main character inside of a dish.

Modifying Ingredients

Modifying ingredients are exactly the opposite of thickeners and binders. They specifically reduce the thickness of a recipe. They are always simple ingredients that change the thickness or increase the liquid content of a recipe. These are always liquid ingredients and are used to counteract the density of thickeners and binders.

Examples of modifying ingredients: water, wine, milk, cream, vegetable juice, chicken broth, and beef broth.

Identifying What You Like and Don’t Like

Once you can break down a recipe into its components, it is much more simple to identify what flavors inside of a dish you find pleasant and those that you find offensive. The hardest part is identifying the function of each component, which we just learned how to do. Identifying what you like and don’t like really is as simple as identifying the taste, smell, and texture of each ingredient. Let’s break these 3 ideas down and teach you how to identify them.


Identifying a taste you do not like really is quite simple. Just like we did in our taste test earlier, plug your nose and put the ingredient in your mouth. Then you need to identify which taste senses are activated: salty, savory, spicy, sour, or sweet. It could be as simple as one of these flavors or a complex combination of these flavors.

What you are simply attempting to do is identify what it is you do like and what you don’t like about the taste of this item. Once you can identify the pros and cons of an ingredient, you may then use the Roundness of Flavor technique to balance out and compensate for the taste of that item.


While smell is a much more complicated sense than taste, it too is actually quite simple to identify smells that you love and smells that you hate. Just like with taste, I will invite you to smell all of the ingredients and seasonings inside of the recipe, taking note of what aspects you enjoy and what aspects you do not.

In my experience, I find that those who have difficulty identifying flavors and smells will report that some tastes are too “spicy” for them. For me, this was always very confusing as I had simply thought that they did not enjoy the actual heat found in a dish.

Push for More Information

But upon further pressing for information, it was revealed that it was actually a specific spice found inside of the dish. This specific example was cumin. Once I understood that the warmth and aroma of the cumin was what this person found offensive, I was able to remove this spice from the dish and create a satisfactory meal that they loved. I did this while not modifying the actual spicy taste of the dish.

Because smells are so influential inside of your cooking, many times a less educated person in the realm of food will misreport what they actually find offensive. It is your duty, as a caregiver, to poke, prod, and investigate further, especially with people who don’t know a lot about food. Often upon further examination, which I assure you they will put up a fight about, you will be able to identify what smell they do not care for and deduce how to remedy this inside of your recipe. It is extremely helpful to teach this person some basic taste and smell terminology so that they may be better prepared to communicate effectively the next time they find something objectionable.


Texture is a make or break item for many people. My brother loves the flavor of mushrooms. But, if you put a slice of portabella mushroom on his pizza, he will have a conniption-fit! The reason for this is very simply that the texture, or mouth feel, of mushrooms is extremely unpleasant and off-putting to him. He finds the slimy texture of cooked mushrooms to be simply unbearable. As you can see, it does not matter if the taste and aroma are appetizing. Texture alone can overrule the approval of both with a veto of its own.

Once you understand that it is the texture, not the taste or smell of an item that is off-putting, it is easy to modify the texture into something your loved one will find appealing. In the mushroom example, what I have learned to do, is to finely dice the mushrooms and then sauté them to make a less detectable slimy texture. This process actually worked out for my benefit, because now the mushrooms express a richer flavor than I could extract from them in their larger cut versions. I encourage you to play around with different sizes of cuts and processing methods, if there is a texture that you find offensive.

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