I find it interesting that the classic definition of flavor is so shallow, so lacking in understanding, yet so sought after at the same time. Flavor is the quest of every cook and chef and is the expectation of every diner. Flavor is, according to most who seek it, paramount when assessing the quality of a meal. Flavor is how those who consume assess the value of a meal and flavor is how others assess the competence of the cook. Yet, it is so poorly defined and so misunderstood. If you seek to find the definition of flavor, don’t rely on your dictionary or even most cookbooks where flavor is assumed to be synonymous with taste. Let me be clear – when flavor is the goal, taste is not nearly enough to get you there!
But that’s how flavor is defined and has been defined by most for generations. When asked for flavor descriptors you might encounter words like tasty, appetizing, tangy, sour, salty, bitter, savory, or sweet. Or in the formal structure of what we assume flavor to be we speak of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (savory). However, this is not flavor – it is taste, one of the essential senses.
Why am I so hung up on this? Well, if in fact, flavor is the ultimate quest of every cook and chef and if this is what restaurant guests, or even those at your home table seek, then shouldn’t we have the whole picture in hand? To quote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland:
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
What is the road to flavor and how do we get there? This is the question that requires a full answer if the cook or chef really hopes to achieve success.
So, here it is this is how your dictionary, every recipe, every restaurant menu, every cook and chef, and every consumer should define flavor:
FLAVOR IS A COMBINATION OF ALL THE HUMAN SENSES PLUS SOMETHING SPECIAL. Great flavor is achieved when each of these senses is approached effectively and that something special is understood. What are these elements of flavor then?
How a dish, or an ingredient looks; how it is offered on the plate; how the ingredient colors, shapes, and symmetry are presented; how the physical plate itself looks; how the space where the plate sits is lit; and how the plate is presented to the guest by a server impact the eventual flavor of the food. You don’t believe me? Well, how many times have your eyes sent a message to the brain saying: “This doesn’t look good, I’m not going to eat that.”? After all, it must get past the eyes before it gets to the mouth.
Exceptional cooks and chefs understand how important it is to present a beautiful, recognizable, balanced, and functional plate of food, but they may not realize that how it looks impacts its flavor. Menu planning must include an understanding of this and the selection of the plates and vessels you use to present food must be as important as how it is cooked.
What are the sounds of food and how can that impact flavor? Part of the experience of eating a potato chip is hearing the crunch when you bite down. Part of the joy of eating a fall apple is the snap of a tart apple as you bite off a chuck of that juicy, crisp, fresh MacIntosh, Honey Crisp, Jonathan, Granny Smith, or Red Delicious apple. Eating a well-prepared filet mignon is always enhanced when it is presented on a metal sizzle platter and the hiss of cooking meat is still present. The pop of the cork on a bottle of champagne creates anticipation, and the crack of caramelized sugar on top of a crème brulee is worth the price of the dessert. The sounds are everywhere, and an accomplished cook knows how to use them to his or her advantage.
Human beings have approximately 400 olfactory receptors that have the ability to distinguish (if they are their peak efficiency) about one trillion different scents. We made not be able to identify each, but the receptors know they are there. We tend to separate them into pleasing and not pleasing, narrowing down the field. The important point to note is that what you taste can be altered by what you smell. Many common food items are difficult to identify if you take away the ability to smell and see what you are trying to identify. As an example, a peak season apple and first harvest potato have very similar textures and water content. If blindfolded and your nose is pinched shut, it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other when chewing.
Touch is a process; texture is the feeling. Touch runs the gamut from the quality of linen on the table, the feel of the plate or glassware, the comfort of the chair or the depth of a rugs pile to the texture of cooked vegetables, tenderness of meat, flakiness of fish, mouth feel of a sauce or a glass of wine, crema on top of your espresso, chew of a Long Island bagel, or the creaminess of that crème brulee. How the item and the other elements surround the plate of food feel will again impact flavor. Tasty, but tough does not inspire. Tasty, but the chair is so uncomfortable will detract from flavor, etc.
No one can take away from the importance of those five taste factors of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami; but it is so difficult to separate them from the rest of flavors essential components. Somehow a perfectly cooked steak served on a paper plate lacks real flavor appeal. That same steak without a steak knife would seem less than exceptional, and fresh sauteed vegetables that were cut haphazardly and overcooked without texture would leave anyone disappointed in its flavor.
Ah, the secret ingredient. Context is a tough one because it is somewhat out of the control of the chef, the cook, or the restaurateur. Context can mean the story that the restaurant tells and the sincere service mentality of all who work there (something that can be controlled), but often it is the people with whom the diner enjoys the meal and the occasion that is being celebrated. Food tastes better when cheering the success of a partner or mate, when celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or simply getting together with friends to laugh and raise a glass. If a restaurant can create a welcoming environment for these encounters to flourish, then whatever is served will resonate positively with those who are dining. As much as cooks and chefs want to believe that it is all about the food when it comes to real flavor the act of hospitality and the encouragement to celebrate is the key to rave reviews.
Working on the experience of flavor is much more complex than many understand, but now you have the key to unlock that mystery. Go to work!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)
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