How To Understand Flavours Like A Professional Chef

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How To Understand Flavours Like A Professional Chef

Words by Mr Ben Olsen

12 March 2018

A new book by Mr James Briscione encourages us to take a more scientific approach to cooking.

As anyone who’s experienced the mind-bending dishes produced by proponents of molecular gastronomy (aka the Full Heston) will know, there are food pairings out there that have to been seen, inhaled, ignited or, perhaps, eaten to be believed. Molecular gastronomy – or deconstructivist cuisine, if your name’s Mr Ferran Adrià (read our meandering interview with him here) – first emerged in the 1980s and stemmed from a desire to understand food on a cellular level. It pushed culinary advancements (think sous vide and spherification) and produced previously unthinkable dishes. And while Mr Blumenthal et al have largely moved on (current food trends lean towards simpler philosophies), the appliance of science in the kitchen has plenty left in the (liquid nitrogen) tank.

One man taking it in a fresh direction is Mr James Briscione, director of culinary research at the Institute Of Culinary Education in New York. His passion is the science of flavour and in his book The Flavor Matrix, he offers a new approach to the way we combine foods. Having studied the molecular properties of hundreds of everyday ingredients, he explains why certain combinations, from the classic (tomato, mozzarella and basil) to the contentious (white chocolate and caviar) work so well. Here are some of his findings.

Flavour pairing is modern cooking’s final frontier

So much of what we know about food pairing comes from taste memory, generations’ worth of knowledge and experience of combinations that are familiar and comfortable. According to Mr Briscione, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It was while experimenting with IBM’s supercomputer Watson that he first considered the possibilities of cooking using data. The machine analysed information from academic journals, cookbooks and other sources to predict flavours that would work well together, and made previously unheard of connections between ingredients. When applied to everyday recipes, this can unlock new ways of pairing flavours, meaning you’ll never look at a pepper the same way again.

Knowing your six basic tastes is just the start

We use taste to describe food. Typically divided into six categories – bitter, sour, sweet, salt, umami and fat – taste is defined by Mr Briscione as “the perceptions we experience thanks to the chemical reactions that take place on the tongue when food enters the mouth”. It has helped us source and safely identify food since the dawn of man. Mr Malcolm Gladwell wrote a lengthy essay for The New Yorker on Heinz’s “perfect” ketchup being a masterful balance of these basic tastes, and the development of products such as salted caramel proves how these categories are shaping our tastes. A deeper look at food science reveals their limitations, however.

Taste and flavour are two different things

The first step to true food-pairing nirvana is separating the notion of taste from flavour. “Tastes are only 20 per cent of what we perceive as flavour,” says Mr Briscione. “The other 80 per cent is reported by the nose.” Claiming that without smell our sense of taste would be nothing, Mr Briscione’s concept revolves around identifying the many volatile compounds in food that dictate aroma and, therefore, flavour. These elements – essentially chemicals you can smell – contribute to our perception of flavour. Mr Briscione adopts terminology normally reserved for talking about wine (berry, toasted, nutty, floral, sulphur) to give us the confidence to move beyond basic descriptors of taste. Knowing your food groups and their dominant aromas – and therefore their pairing potential – has the power to really make your cooking sing.

Flavour is found in food’s volatile compounds

Iceberg lettuce has just 20 such compounds. Coffee has up to 1,000, which means myriad aromas and pairing combinations. “If two ingredients share significant quantities or concentrations of aromatic compounds, they will likely taste good together,” says Mr Briscione. “For example, 80 per cent of the compounds found in lemongrass are also found in ginger, which suggests they’ll taste great when combined in a dish.” He also gives the example of mesifuran, an aromatic compound found in strawberries that has notes of baked bread, butter and toasted almond. Take that away from a strawberry and its taste would change dramatically, says Mr Briscione. It would also mean that almond croissants with strawberry jam wouldn’t work quite so well, either.

Rethink your store-cupboard staples

Outlining the two types of taste pairings that work well – complementary tastes (salt and sweet) and balancing tastes (sweet and sour) – and based on their molecular structure, Mr Briscione breaks down the make-up of 150 common ingredients with a flavour matrix that gives an at-a-glance guide to ingredients that pair well. Then for each ingredient, he suggests pairings, highlighting surprise combinations and explaining traditional favourites. And with recipes ranging from chicken, mushroom and strawberry burgers to bananas with chilli sauce, where “the tropical fruit aromas of banana pair perfectly with chilli and lend a pleasant sweetness to the hot sauce”, it turns out that big data can make for delicious recipes.

A question of taste

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