Indulge me a second: get a handful of Sour Patch Kids, close your eyes, and plug your nose. Pick a “kid” and chew it. What do you taste? Sour? Sweet? Anything else? Unplug your nose. Now what does it taste like?
In case you missed it on Facebook, I just started taking the new Cooking Lab series from The Chopping Block. Shelley, the owner and chef, wrote a fantastic post about the background for this class. I consider myself skilled enough to follow a recipe, even to make adjustments here and there; I can (more or less) put together a meal based on what I have in my fridge or cupboard. But I want to know how this all works. Shelley’s article gets at why I rarely take cooking classes and why I’m so incredibly excited for this opportunity.
I want to know why certain flavors go well together. How do different cooking methods complement different flavors or ingredients? If something tastes too sour, too sweet, too bitter, how do I fix it? Shelley calls this “intuitive cooking;” to me, knowing how to answer these questions will improve my cooking and, hopefully, how I write about food as well.
I wish I had the time and space to share everything I’m learning, but I thought it would be fun to share one or two of the best lessons from each class. First up, taste versus flavor and using herbs and spices.
Taste vs. Flavor The class started with the five tastes–sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. Shelley made a fantastic comparison between taste and color. White is white, right? Try asking a painter that! Just like the primary colors make up all the colors we see, the five tastes make up everything we eat and, as with painting, it takes a little knowledge to articulate the nuances.Finally, like colors, tastes vary from person to person—where you see blue-purple, I see deep blue; when a mango tastes sweet to you, I taste more sour. There’s no objective right or wrong, just variations in how we experience the world.
So what’s the difference between taste and flavor? As we learned, flavor is essentially taste(s)+smell+overall experience. One of my favorite exercises of the class was the one I started this post with—you taste the “taste” but not the “flavor” until you incorporate smell.
In class, we sampled examples of each taste, then how they interacted. How does salt make a sweet/sour mango taste? Bitter arugula and sour lime? Like colors, tastes have contrasting and complementary flavors. Complementary flavors (like salty and sweet) make the sweet taste more like itself, while contrasting flavors (sweet and sour) balance each other.
Herbs and spices Then we moved on to one of the most common ways to add flavor to a dish: herbs and spices. Herbs, the fresh or dried leaves of a plant, essentially fall into two categories: “green” or “bright” herbs like cilantro, dill, tarragon, mint that give the best flavor when added fresh at the very end of cooking; and “woody” or “resinous” herbs like rosemary, thyme, bay, oregano, sage that give the most flavor in liquids like water or broth. (What about basil or parsley? They fall somewhere in between, good fresh or simmered).
Try this: collect a bunch of herbs, some “green” and some “resinous.” Smell them, taste them. Then put a little of each herb in a small heat-proof bowl, pour hot water over, and let it steep. Then smell it and see how the smell changes (and see how the water changes color the longer the herbs sit).
Spices, on the other hand, are the (often-dried or toasted) bark, seeds, roots, or stems of a plant. Their tastes and flavors are released when cooked in oil or fat. Raw spices on their own, to me, often taste bitter and flat. But toasted and cooked in a little oil or butter? That’s how we tried them in class and it made all the difference in the world (turns out anise makes for a great cream sauce and toasted mustard cooked in a little oil is amazing!).
To wrap up, we got our first “homework” assignment: to really taste what we eat this week. What are its tastes, what are its flavors? What trends do we notice in what we like or dislike? What I’ve found is that eating like this by necessity makes me more mindful—it’s hard to really taste anything if I’m scarfing it down. I have a great example recipe to share with you later this week too!
Next up, cooking methods!
*The Chopping Block allowed me to attend this new series for free in exchange for nothing more than feedback, but I thought it would be fun to share what I’ve learned with you, and with Chicago Food Bloggers since they shared the opportunity. My thoughts on the class are all 100% my own, un-paid-for, opinion.