To create amazing food consistently, learning how to combine and balance flavors is an essential skill. Most chefs will argue there is nothing more important in the kitchen. They frequently taste test their food to ensure the balance of flavor is perfect.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the types of taste so that you can make delicious food without a recipe. You’ll discover how flavors are used in cooking, the tastes of common ingredients, and how to combine them for the best results.
Table of Contents
Balancing and Enhancing flavors
Every food we eat has a unique flavor. In cooking, it’s all about combining ingredients that balance or enhance each other. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how that might look in the kitchen.
- A side dish of bitter-tasting rapini or Brussel sprouts will cut through a heavy meat dish.
- Sweet hoisin sauce balances out a spicy stir fry.
- Salty gravy can be enhanced by a splash of sour lemon juice.
- Sweet vanilla ice cream is delicious with a swirl of salted caramel.
Introducing the Flavor Hex
To balance the flavor profile of a dish, it’s helpful to understand that foods can be categorized into salty, sweet, umami, sour, bitter, and spicy. Once you learn to identify what a type of food tastes of, you can use the following diagram (we named it the flavor hex) as a powerful tool. It helps deliver amazing food by creating balanced dishes.
Got a spicy meal planned tonight? Make sure you have something sour, like ponzu sauce, to provide some relief. Cooking a heavy roast dinner? Some bitter greens will complement the rich meat nicely. The flavor hex is invaluable for creating mouth-watering food.
A diagram explaining flavor profiles
What tastes can we detect in food?
Let’s take a closer look at some good examples of each type of taste the human tongue can detect. We’ll also discuss how to rescue dishes that are out of balance.
Salt is a linchpin for any dish. Used in moderation, it does a great job of enhancing the other ingredients. Without it, many dishes would be quite bland.
A good quality kosher salt, Fleur de Sel, or sea salt flakes will bring the best out of any dish. Cheaper table salt tends to taint the flavors.
Salt isn’t the only way to dial up the saltiness. Other options include dried meats, capers, hard cheese, olives, smoked salmon, and salami are just a few examples of salty food. In Italian cooking, anchovies are often added to pasta sauces and other savory dishes to enhance the saltiness of the dish.
If you’ve experienced salty gravy you’ll know there is such a thing as too much salt. In any recipe, always add salt slowly through the cook and frequently taste. If it’s too late for that, try to mask it with a sweet burst of honey; acidity from vinegar or lemon juice will also help. Salty black bean noodles are great with ponzu sauce that’s sweet and also sour thanks to the addition of citrusy yuzu.
On its own in ice cream, or used to balance savory flavors in the main course, sweetness is a welcome addition to many dishes. It can be added to food using products like sugar, molasses, and agave. There is also an increasing range of low/no sugar options such as monk fruit or stevia.
For a natural approach to adding sweetness to the menu, try using honey, bell peppers, butternut squash, onions, and most fruits. Vegetables that have a subtle hint of sweetness like sweet potatoes or beets are enhanced by the umami flavor from roasted mushrooms or miso.
Too much sweetness is never a good thing. To provide some relief from the onslaught of sweet, almost any other flavor will help. Salt is excellent added to overly sweet ice cream; spicy chili powder adds extra depth to a simple hot chocolate; tart lemon balances the sweetness of lemon meringue pie.
A swig of vinegar or a mug of lemon juice tastes awful to most of us. The intense tangy and sour punch is too much for most sensitive taste buds. But their high levels of acidity brighten dull food. Whether you have a sweet, spicy, or salty dish, a burst of sour is a good option.
Sweet and sour Chinese dishes are popular and Indian chefs will often use yogurt in their curries to offset the spiciness. They’re both examples of sour ingredients improving a dish.
Sourness can come from more than just lemons and vinegar. Other examples include fermented kimchi, pickles, some apples, tamarind paste, rhubarb, wine, yuzu, and soy sauce. Dairy products like goat cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk also have a sour element to them.
If there is too much sourness, then counter it with salt. People who eat raw amla fruit often add a sprinkle of salt to deal with its sour, astringent flavor.
Adding sweet ingredients may also help. An unpleasant sour lemonade is drastically improved with a scoop of sugar.
The thought of eating bitter food can make many people cringe, especially when it’s overly astringent. Eating raw grapefruit on its own is a challenge for some. But bitter ingredients are wonderful at balancing a plate, especially when used in moderation.
A sweet bowl of mousse or ice cream is transformed by the simple addition of candied grapefruit peel on top. Coffee beans dipped in milk chocolate are divine. A heavy slow-cooked meat dish that is rich in umami flavor tastes better with a side of kale or dandelion greens.
Most of the time, bitter food plays a supporting role rather than taking center stage. Cooking bitter foods can help to neutralize their harsh, astringent taste. Rapini is notorious for its bitter notes, which reduce when cooked the right way. Find out more about rapini here.
Quick tip: Many vegetables and herbs develop bitterness as they age. For a more mellow taste, choose young shoots.
If you want to tone down the eye-watering bitterness in your meal, adding sweetness works well. Honey, orange juice, and butter melted onto bitter greens are delicious. A sweet salad dressing and a sprinkle of currants work wonders when mixed into a kale salad.
The flavor of umami is a relative newcomer to Western flavor profiles, although the Japanese have used the term since 1908. If you’ve ever salivated over a rich, savory piece of meat or earthy roasted mushrooms, then you’ve experienced umami.
Some of the best-known sources of umami are soy sauce, miso, winter squash, legumes, and grains. A classic Japanese dashi sauce, made from bonito flakes and nori, is rich in umami flavor. Aged cheese, roasted meat, and smoked fish are also excellent sources of umami.
Salty food can be added to an umami-rich dish to balance the flavors. Also, the subtle addition of sour or sweet ingredients will usually benefit the dish.
Most traditional flavor profile charts won’t mention spiciness, but we had to include it because it plays such a big part in so many cuisines around the world. The addition of spice will also help to balance food by adding vibrancy, heat, and flavor. Onion provides a sweet, sharp hit of flavor without any heat. At the other end of the scale, chili peppers can add intense heat.
If your food is too spicy, it can be balanced out by incorporating sweet, salty, and even sour ingredients. Although not part of our flavor hex, creamy foods also help balance the spiciness. Yogurt or sour cream relieves the heat by coating the tongue and partially cutting off the heat receptors.
Frequently Asked Questions
A flavor profile is a combination of flavors that we taste in sauces, beverages, or any dish made up of a range of ingredients. In cooking, foods that have a similar taste tend to work well together. Contrasting flavors can also combine to create a delicious flavor profile.
The human gustatory system can detect a vast range of different flavors. Up until the 1980s, the four accepted tastes were salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. In 1990 umami became recognized at the International Symposium on Glutamate as the fifth taste. In addition to the main five tastes, there are many more including spicy, creamy, kokumi, metallic, and coolness.
Common Ingredients By Flavor
Every ingredient has a unique flavor profile that plays its part in the dish it’s added to. Most people don’t enjoy lemons on their own, but when added to a creamy, sweet pie, their sourness comes to life. Used in the right proportions, we can balance flavor and create delicious food that dances on the palate.
Understanding flavor in food is an essential part of learning to cook without a recipe book. Once you’re familiar with the taste of everyday ingredients, you can combine them to create a balanced flavor profile. In Thailand, cooks have used contrasting flavors for centuries. A sweet coconut milk soup mingled with spicy curry, and kaffir lime combine to make a perfect meal.
Now you can start to put the theory in this guide to good use at home. If you have salty rashers of bacon in the fridge, try grilling them in maple syrup or honey. Experiment with a sweet mint sauce next time you cook lamb. What other matches can you find in the kitchen?
With your new knowledge of flavor, you should check out our ultimate guide to aromatics. You’ll learn how to build layers of flavor into a meal from the start of cooking. We also include some of the best aromatic combinations from around the world. Master these and you’ll be able to cook a wide range of cuisines without a recipe.
If you’d prefer some quick tips to help improve flavor in your cooking, then read our 16 seasoning secrets.