Everyone from the home chef to the professional chef has been there — you sample your almost completed dish, and something is lacking. The balance just isn’t quite right.
The amateurs can be stuck, unsure what to do next.
But cooks and chefs who understand the parts of the flavor profile will know what to do.
Maybe the dish needs a little more salt. Perhaps a bit of acidity will brighten the flavors. Or the dish might want a bit of rich umami — a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, or a little splash of Worcestershire sauce.
Understanding flavor is key to creating balanced and exciting dishes. It’s the difference between a WOW and a meh.
Here’s how Culinary Arts students dive deep into flavor profiles at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.
The Parts of the Flavor Profile
When we talk about flavor, we’re talking about much more than just taste (although that’s an important component!).
We’re actually talking about a trifecta of taste, aroma, and mouthfeel.
“Taste” is what comes to mind when we think about flavor. It’s made up of five primary components:
- Salty (cheeses, sea salt/kosher salt, soy sauce)
- Sweet (sugar, maple syrup, sweet potatoes, beets)
- Sour (citrus, vinegars, yogurt, pickled veggies)
- Bitter (coffee, grapefruit, beer, bitter greens like kale and radicchio)
- Umami (also known as “savoriness;” bacon, cured meats, soy sauce, fish sauce, seaweed)
Fun fact about umami: it’s a Japanese word that translates to “deliciousness” or just “yummy.”
The balance of these flavors affects what we taste in unexpected ways. For example, acidity makes you salivate, which helps distribute flavors throughout your mouth, landing on more of your taste buds. That’s why a little acidity — a small squeeze of lemon, a splash of vinegar — can really open up the flavor of a dish.
Salt is another taste that enhances the flavors of just about everything, from umami to sweet. A caramel with a bit of salt on top will actually taste sweeter because of the added salt.
The prevailing wisdom used to be that different parts of our tongue registered different tastes. Sweet flavors registered on the front of the tongue, bitter on the back, and sour and salt in the middle. But we now know that taste buds are spread all over the tongue, and they can all register all the flavors.
Aroma, or smell, is a major part of what we taste. Flowery, nutty, or spicy smells create an important part of the overall eating experience.
Just look at vanilla extract. We all begged our parents to let us taste that wonderful smelling liquid when we were kids. But when we did, we were in for a nasty surprise. On its own, it tastes terrible. But when added to desserts, it enhances both the flavors and the smell of the baked dish.
An unpleasant texture can make a dish go from delightful to disgusting. Grainy sauces, tough meat, watery soups — all will ruin the overall flavor of the dish.
The texture and mouthfeel can actually be a major component in how we identify foods! One study showed that young adults of normal weight could only identify about 40% of foods when they’d been pureed and strained.
How Culinary Students Experiment With Flavor Profiles
There is no simple recipe for mastering the balance of flavors, aromas, and textures in cooking. Instead, this knowledge will grow as students progress through their courses at Escoffier.
The key is experimentation. At first, there will be some trial and error. The more inexperienced the student, the fewer pairings and ideas they’ll start with.
But that’s one of the benefits of culinary school. Students have access to their Chef Instructors who hold a wealth of knowledge about flavor combinations and relationships.
“The key to success at Escoffier is actually very simple. It’s to show up and ask questions. Being an active participant in your education is really the key, because culinary school is a lot less about being exact and getting it right. It’s about showing up and practicing. And if you’re doing those things, then you’re going to be successful.”
Miles Mitchell, Escoffier Chief Academic Officer
Students explore flavor throughout many parts of the Escoffier curriculum. Menu and recipe development, world cuisines, and the Farm To Table® Experience are all closely connected to the way we experience flavor.
To help students translate what they’re tasting into words, they use the Escoffier Flavor Wheel.
Students both on-campus and online must be able to explain what they’re tasting to their Chef Instructors, so they can receive feedback. While on-campus students may be reporting to their Chef Instructors verbally, online students will include their flavor and tasting notes in written summaries of their projects.
The Flavor Wheel breaks down the basics into more specific tastes, aromas, and textures. Is a sour flavor tangy or acrid? Is a fruity aroma citrusy or berry-like? This shared vocabulary helps students to communicate with their in-person or online Chef Instructors, so they can hone in on what worked and what needs to be tweaked.
“If students are not very experienced, they’re going to struggle when it comes to creating a recipe, or understanding what ingredients are going to pair well together and what will not. That’s why we provide students with different tools like our Flavor Wheel, which is one of the graphics that helps them in understanding and explaining flavor and how it all intersects.”
Miles Mitchell, Escoffier Chief Academic Officer
This can be particularly helpful as students explore how flavor balances are approached in different world cuisines. Thai tom kha gai soup, for example, has a wonderful flavor profile of umami (from mushrooms and fish sauce), sour (from lime and lemongrass), and sweet (from a touch of sugar). It has a fresh aroma from cilantro, and a rich texture from coconut milk.
When trying new cuisines, the Flavor Wheel can help put new tastes and aromas into terms that students are more familiar with.
“[My Regional Cuisines Chef Instructor] gave me the most feedback in terms of what flavors to look for. He pushed me out of my comfort zone to play with flavors that I typically wouldn’t use. He got me to step away from the Caribbean spices I’m used to, and focus more on the other spices that are available. So I appreciate that, because that’s helped with how I cook now.”
Nahika Hillery, Culinary Arts Graduate and Chef/Owner of Kreyòl Korner Caribbean Cuisine
Flavor also ties in to the seasonality of foods, which is discussed more during the 6-week Farm To Table® Experience. Fresher produce will have stronger — and often sweeter — flavor. Understanding what’s in season will help students to plan menus, and to be prepared to tweak recipes. For example, if you’re making a gazpacho outside of tomato season, you may need to add more seasoning to compensate for less flavorful tomatoes.
Flavor is Everywhere!
Once culinarians understand the basics of flavor profiles, they’ll start to understand why certain combinations are so classic.
Peanut butter and jelly is a salty and sweet favorite.
Maple and bacon is a satisfying blend of salty, sweet, and umami.
You don’t have to attend culinary school to start experimenting with flavor. But if you want to dive deep, start with a degree or diploma from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts!
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