Have you ever eaten a meal that was the perfect balance of all its ingredients? Were you surprised by two ingredients you never thought would go together, actually work perfectly together?
Balancing flavor profiles takes practice and experience to find the perfect combination. Professional chefs and home cooks alike can produce these kinds of mouth-watering results because they know what foods go well together and are willing to try new combinations to expand their palates.
The best flavor pairings usually come about through experimentation and trial and error, but having a solid foundation about the types of flavors, and which naturally pair well with each other, can give you a major boost in discovering the next best flavor combo.
For years, the culinary and biological consensus was that people can discern four distinct flavors:
In the past few years, however, additional flavors have been identified, including:
- umami– which is a savory, unctuous flavor
- and spicy
Sweet is one of the first preferences most people have, which is why babies are more likely to prefer fruits over, say, green vegetables. Salt is perhaps the easiest way to intensify flavor, while sour adds acidity to brighten a dish.
Enjoying bitter tends to be associated with a more mature palate, although not everyone develops an appreciation for this type of flavor. The same is true for both umami and spicy foods, which can add complexity in moderation or overwhelm a dish if too much is added.
Another thing to keep in mind is that adding salt or sugar is not the only way to get salty or sweet flavor; certain foods fall into these categories, meaning they lend a dish a flavor quality. Here are some examples of flavorful foods:
- Salty – soy sauce, bacon, parmesan cheese
- Sour – plain yogurt, vinegar, lemon or lime citrus
- Sweet – honey, fruit, carrots, yams, peas
- Bitter – coffee, dark leafy greens, grapefruit, chocolate
- Spicy – sriracha, dried chili peppers, wasabi
- Umami – mushrooms, meat, fish, tomatoes
Other Flavor Factors
Each person has different tastes, which may be due as much to the number of flavor receptors on their tongues as they are to personal preferences. Even factors such as aroma, texture, appearance, color, and mouthfeel can influence your individual palate. The way a food looks and smells as well as the way it feels when you eat it may all play into how to pair food flavors.
Food that is too oily or rich, for example, can take over the flavors themselves, making what may be a delicious dish practically inedible for some people. It’s also why having a variety of textures, such as nuts in a salad or a crispy exterior on a grilled-cheese sandwich, can be more appealing than a soft, monochromatic dish.
All About the Balance
The key to pairing food flavors is understanding how they complement each other, and for that, you may want to think in terms of the color wheel. For pairing and blending colors, you can look for opposites on the wheel because those combinations can be attractive together. There may not be enough flavors to make a full wheel, but those opposites can go well together. Sweet and salty, sweet and sour, sour and sweet…you get the idea.
Another way to think about balancing flavors is by looking to perfumes and colognes for inspiration. Fragrances are all about the blending of top, heart, and base notes to create interesting scents. Some are light and fresh, while others can be deep and long-lasting, depending on the combination and intensity of notes. Food flavors are similar in a dish; you can start with a sour note that gives way to a sweeter finish.
Avoid a Heavy Hand
Like most things in life, everything is better in moderation, including flavors. If you add too much of a particular flavor, it can drown out the other flavor profiles that you are incorporating. Whether your dish is simple and comforting or complex and sophisticated, you should still aim for subtlety rather than boldness.
Here are a few more tips for balancing flavors:
- When your meal tastes bland, you can add a dash of salt to see if that heightens the flavor, but go light. You could also add sweet or spicy flavors to give it a punch.
- If you added too much salt, you can dilute your dish with more liquid or other ingredients.
- Too much sour can be corrected with a touch of sweetness or the smallest bit of baking soda.
- A pinch of salt or splash of sour lemon juice or vinegar can take down too much sweet.
- Bitterness is best calmed by sweeter flavors or added fat for smoothness.
- An overly sweet dish may be corrected with some spicy heat or even sour to calm the cloying flavor.
The best way to master flavor profiles is to get into the kitchen and experiment. Trying new flavors and tinkering with recipes is how all the best dishes came about. If you’re looking to build a solid foundation of cooking skills and food pairing knowledge, contact the Oregon Culinary Institute about enrolling in one of our culinary programs. Our school, located in Portland, OR, is in the heart of one of the most innovative food meccas in the country.