Mixing the Five Flavors

Now that we have a basic understanding of the 5 flavors as they exist independently, we now need to discuss the interactions that 2 or more flavors have while interacting simultaneously.

Secondary Flavors

Now as we are trying to build our Roundness of Flavor, it is important to keep in mind one other thing. Sometimes, we are trying to construct a dish that specifically bolsters one or more flavor elements.

Two examples of this would be:

1. buffalo style chicken wings and

2. sweet and sour chicken

These are examples of dishes where the end goal would not necessarily be to make the flavors round and equal, but to use the other flavors to compliment the primary flavor of spicy or sweet and sour.

Let’s take the example of buffalo style chicken wings and deconstruct the flavor profile of a common recipe. For those of you who aren’t familiar with buffalo style chicken wings, they are bone-in chicken wings. These are (preferably) deep-fried, then covered in a spicy, tangy sauce.

Usually the sauce is made like this:

8 ounces [235 ml] Frank’s Red Hot Sauce + 8 ounces [225 grams] melted butter (2 sticks).

That gives the wings a creamy, spicy, and tangy sauce.

The 2 questions we need to ask ourselves about flavor:

1. What ingredients give the wings a creamy, spicy, and tangy flavor?

The hot sauce is primarily constructed of cayenne peppers that have been infused into a vinegar based solution. Butter tends to have a sweet and savory taste to it. So when you combine hot sauce and butter, you get sweet and savory from the butter, spicy from the chilies, and sour from the vinegar in the sauce.

In the grand scheme, where does this new tangy flavor come into play? Tangy comes from the application of both sour and sweet taste buds at the same time. What is happening in your mouth is that the sour flavor is telling your brain that this food is dry and astringent which causes your mouth to salivate more. But, the sweet flavor is activating the pleasure centers of your brain filling you with endorphins that tell your brain, “This is great! Eat more!” This is also known as the sweet and sour effect.

The same confusing experience can be demonstrated by grasping two pipes filled with water. If one has cold water and the other warm water, it will confuse the sensory nerves in your hands and tell your brain “Danger! This is hot!” Even though the pipes are not hot, your brain believes it is in danger and kicks your survival reflexes in to prevent further potential skin damage. In this same way, the application of both sweet and sour taste receptors confuses your brain causing both pleasure and pain.

Tangy is a perfect example of a secondary flavor sense in action. These secondary flavor senses help to create the complex flavors that we experience when we eat everyday foods.

A secondary flavor sense is only considered secondary when two specific flavors are activated.

For example, if we added MSG (savory) to our buffalo wing sauce, causing the tangy flavor to be overwhelmed, we would no longer consider it a secondary flavor but a blended, complimentary flavor.

2. How can we improve on the flavor of a common recipe?

One of the things we can do to improve this chicken wing recipe is we can start by adding salt. When salt is added to savory flavors, it generates a secondary flavor sense I call amplified savory.

The single most important concept in seasoning is that both salty and spicy are flavor amplifiers. What this means is that anything you add salt or spiciness to is going to amplify the flavors of the food already present. Unless you add them in such amounts that they overwhelm the already existing flavors to become the dominant flavors of the dish.

Interestingly, the only two flavors that are commonly eaten in western cooking without other complimentary flavors are sweet and savory. Think of hard candies or a big hunk of meat right off the grill. These items are still generally improved with the addition of a little salt, but can very commonly be eaten without.

What else could we add to improve flavor?

We could add black pepper for aromatics and a different type of spicy. (Yes, each source of spiciness delivers spicy in a different way.) We could also add garlic for warmth and aromatic quality. And, we can add a touch of sugar for a more balanced tangy flavor.

Most people don’t notice secondary flavors because in most dishes they blend in with the other ingredients to fill the whole of flavor perception becoming complimentary flavors.

Some more examples of secondary flavors would be salty and sweet candy (juxtaposed sweet), sweet and sour sauce (tangy), pickle brine before it has had anything but salt and vinegar added (amplified sour), and soy sauce (amplified savory).

To help make it easier for you to understand, here is a breakdown of secondary flavors.

Secondary Flavor Senses Chart

Combined Flavors Resulting Secondary Flavor
salty + savory amplified savory
sweet + sour tangy
salty + sour amplified sour
salty + sweet juxtaposed sweet
spicy + sweet heated sweet

Complementary and Contradictory Flavors

Flavor works a lot like colors on a color wheel. Some flavors are bright and bold. Some flavors are muted and subtle. But, each flavor works together with the other flavors and senses to build a color of each food. Just as an artist picks colors to paint on canvas, we will pick flavors to paint onto our foods.

Complimentary flavors are flavors that blend together so well that they blend into one single continuous flavor, like amplified savory. Contradictory flavors are flavors that seem like they shouldn’t go together, but for some reason they bring out new aspects of each flavor like tangy or juxtaposed sweet.

For a moment, let’s pretend we’ve mixed all of the colors together in a bucket. Depending on the amount of black in the paint, you’ll usually end up with some form of brown. What we are trying to do is to blend all the colors, or in this case flavors, until we get some kind of brown. Now, each dish should be its own form of brown and should exemplify the main ingredients.

For example, beef stew should be more savory. Red curries should be spicy and fragrant. Desserts should be sweet. And potato chips [crisps] should be salty. This isn’t a fact that will change with anything you cook. Just to clarify, when I say we are trying to achieve a “brown,” I do not mean that every food should literally be the color brown. What I intend to express is that the flavors of each dish should be well mixed together.

As you can see, understanding flavor is not difficult. But, it is fairly complicated. Always remember, when you are cooking, to take all of your senses into account, not just your sense of taste. When Cooking for Chemo, because the senses are out of alignment, it is important to consider which of the fundamental flavors are askew.

If salty is overly sensitive, it will make every other flavor fall out of alignment, including the above secondary flavor senses. So, I advise you to always think out the problem to find its root cause. In the case of over sensitivity to salty, reduce the amount of salt in your cooking automatically.

Food For Thought

Think about what you just learned and how it applies to your situation. Ask yourself these questions.

1. What dishes emphasize a singular flavor that you like best?

2. When you create sauces, are you trying to balance flavors, blend flavors, or emphasize certain flavors?

3.What flavor senses are overly sensitive for you right now?

Go To Herbs and Spices the Nose of Your Food

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