The five basic tastes sour, umami (or savory), bitter, salty, and sweet flavor foods by themselves, or in combinations, to balance a dish and take it to palate tingling levels. Some experts include spicy as a sixth taste. Making good food through instinct, trial and error, taste and experience is exciting. It’s what brings guests back to your restaurant for more. Every good chef has their own ideas and the great ones never stop learning.
“Some combinations work and some don’t. That’s the beauty of cooking, figuring out what you like,” Executive Chef/Partner of roe in Long Beach Art Gonzales says.
Adding a sour element is highly recommended to brighten and elevate a dish. “Sour makes the food fun,” Charlie Palmer Executive Chef Seakyeong Kim says. He shares his recipe for Prime Ribeye Beef Tartar.
Executive Chef David Shofner of WINEWORKS for Everyone and Dublin 4 says, “I love to play with different citrus in vinaigrettes like blood oranges, Meyer lemons and Cara Cara oranges. I also like mild acids such as red and white verjus. Finishing a veal demi with a vinegar like a banyuls or cabernet can really lighten up that sauce. I’m a huge fan of Minus 8 Vinegar (made in Canada from frozen grapes); the flavor is soft and fruity.”
Chef Manny Gonzalez of TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea adds, “Sour is key for cutting creamy fats and balancing strong flavors as in a fish dish. A squeeze of lemon and chili flakes goes a long way in any bisque recipe.”
Familiar examples include, “Lemon juice squeezed on a simple grilled fish helps to enhance the flavor of the fish and bring balance to the dish,” says Chef Robert Carr of Twenty/20 at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa.
Executive Chef Russell Skall reduces lime juice for the crab cake sauce at Fleming’s Steakhouse & Wine Bar. “You want a little acid to bring out the crab flavors,” he says. “When creating a dish for the menu I think about side dishes, appetizers and salads. Then I try to have a balance of offerings that range in flavor intensity. Our salad has a lemon balsamic vinaigrette that balances the candied walnuts and dried cranberries so it’s very refreshing. Our colossal shrimp skewers (see photo) are served with a chimichurri sauce, with herbs, garlic and jalapenos but we balance that with a citrus and fennel salad.”
“I like using sour elements to lighten dishes. Like making a sour salsa verde with pork belly or making a yuzu kosho vinaigrette with crispy skin sea trout,” comments Executive Chef Ross Pangilinan of Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge in Costa Mesa. “I like using all kinds of flavor combinations and when creating menus I try to make sure there is a good variety of flavors from sweet and sour to salty and sweet.”
Chef/owner Jason Quinn of The Playground in Santa Ana is a self-described vinegar junkie. He recently discovered coconut vinegar in a Filipino market. “When we shop we look for new things and buy stuff we never seen before to learn. We feel like we owe our guests food they can’t find elsewhere,” he says.
Quinn names a dish with salty, sweet, sour, spicy and umami all together. “Green papaya salad. You taste all the flavors in one bite. We don’t do written recipes. We taste and change the dish until it’s good. I can give you the ingredients: green papaya, lime juice, sugar, chilies, oil and fish sauce. Start with equal parts and if one is too strong fix it. Fish sauce has umami but is also salty and funky. “We plan to make our own from fermented sardines.” Fish sauce is a condiment made from fermented fish and salt, often anchovies. It adds umami flavor because of its glutamate content.
The largest amount of glutamate is found in konbu, giant seaweed. The next closest is regular seaweed according to Quinn. Mushrooms, parmesan and ripe tomatoes also lend themselves to create umami.
Pangilinan handles bitterness with care, “It’s one of the most sensitive tastes. When seasoning, you can balance bitterness with something sweet and also with sour.If I want to add bitterness I use coffee on steak or cocoa with venison or duck. Citrus peel is also very useful.”
Salad greens, mustard greens, frisee and arugula all have bitter tones but when balanced with the right dressing, become palate pleasing. “Fried kale or grilled radicchio turn a simple salad into something very complex in flavor and texture,” Chef Carr explains.
Bitterness can also balance a rich dish. Chef Kim adds another use, “We char scallions to use on our pork belly to balance the flavor profile.”
Cocktails with bitters have become popular with mixologists to add depth and balance flavor. “The most common bitters are Angostura from Trinidad commonly used in classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. Another popular classic is Peychaud’s bitters from New Orleans found in the classic Sazerac cocktail. Angostura is an ingredient in traditional cocktails such as Manhattan or Rob Roy, but is also favored for creating new libations,” explains Mixologist Joel Black.
Brands like Fee Bros. and Bitter Truth brands have developed an array of unique flavors like rhubarb, chocolate mole, cherry, orange and celery. “Bitters are great because they pack a flavor punch and a couple of dashes can completely transform a simple cocktail into a complex masterpiece,” adds Black.
Sweetness, in some form is the obvious balance for bitter flavors in coffee and chocolate. The preferred amount is subjective. Try it in savory dishes. “Sugar is the most underutilized ingredient in the professional kitchen,” Chef Quinn believes. “In the home kitchen it’s salt.”
Gonzales has a preference for sweet-salty. “My cooks call me out on it all the time. They know what I’m going to say whenever I taste a recipe, more salt and sugar’.”
While sweet is the central profile in desserts, balance is called for too. “I never want my desserts to be overly sweet!” declares Shofner. “I like a salted caramel, a citrus element or the addition of a vinegar reduction.”
Kim agrees. “We use fruit and spices or add a pinch of salt to lend a savory note.” At Charlie Palmer the guava mousse bombe dessert includes red currents and speculoos, a Dutch spice cookie. “Guava is very sweet, so adding the currants impart tartness, and the speculoos savory,” he explains. The chocolate orange blossom molten cake is served with a Campari coulis and orange blossom gelato. “Campari is a great ingredient for bitterness and tartness. Cardamom and orange blossom have sweet and floral notes. Each contrasts nicely with the rich dark chocolate.”
Haven GastropubPastry Chef Santanna Salas also likes to keep desserts from being overtly sweet. “The addition of something salty, savory or even alcohol easily balances a dish.”
Textures and temperatures also keep things interesting. Ice cream or warm sauces add contrast to temperature while, tuiles, nuts and cookies carry texture.
Many do not view this as a flavor profile, but either way chefs understand preferences are very personal and advise care when any kind of pepper is used. “If I am using a spicy ingredient I want that flavor to be pronounced but not over powering, like in a sauce au poive or fresh jalapeno in a crudo,” Shofner says.
“Pepper is the best cure to hide salt or over salted dishes. However, with any pepper, if you can taste it, you have used too much. A great trick of the trade is the use of fresh cracked white pepper. My spice rack is definitely my best friend,” says Gonzalez.
Spice should be balanced along with the other flavors. Greg Daniels, Executive Chef/Partner at Haven Gastropub in Orange, Haven Gastropub +Brewery in Pasadena, and taco asylum in Costa Mesa explains, “I focus on which part of the mouth is affected, as different spices will hit different areas. While Serrano chilies have a heat that gets you on the front of the tongue, a little Tabasco sauce can balance that heat by reaching the back of the tongue. Many of our spicy dishes will have a fat or dairy addition to cool’ it down.”
Butter sauce tames the spicy BBQ shrimp at Fleming’s. “We use a smoked chipotle pepper on the panko crumbs of our mac & cheese,” says Chef Skall. In addition the arugula salad is served with a bold, spicy Thai vinaigrette and potatoes with jalapenos are a guest favorite.
Twenty/20’s menu features the flavor and style of San Sebastian. “In Spanish cuisine most of the spice comes from paprika and dried chilies. Smoked paprika and sweet paprika add a nice robust flavor to food,” Carr says.
At Charlie Palmer, spice and umami are used together to intensify each other. Red curry adds heat and savory to the sweetness of mussels and beer. Also, “We use gochujang (Korean chili paste) sauce in our lamb belly steam bun to balance the sweet and sour elements of the recipe. It accents the fattiness of the lamb belly nicely,” Kim explains.
Texture and color
Chefs implement textural elements to their dishes in lots of ways. “It is something you can’t really write in a recipe. It has to be done in person and tested,” Gonzalez says.
“I look at recipes from different angles and sometimes confuse my chefs when I say something like, it needs something green, yellow or red.’ I’m also trying to put out something that is beautiful and looks appetizing. Color is a huge part of that. People eat with their eyes first,” Chef Daniels points out.
Some combinations should simply be avoided. “Stay away from seafood with cheese,” warns Chef Pangilinan.
Daniels notes fish sauce potent aroma and taste can be horrible if not used properly. “It’s a very trendy ingredient right now for chefs that aren’t making Asian food. If you’re going to use it, do it right or don’t do it at all,” he stresses.
Sambal, chili based sauces, can be risky.”When heated, sambal has a completely different flavor than when it’s cold,” Gonzalez notes.
Kim shares, “I don’t like to use red wine with soy sauce.”
Another suggestion on smoke comes from Chef Shofner. “We have a smoker in house and I like to smoke a lot of different things proteins, vegetables and salt. It’s important to enhance, not over power.”
“Balanced food is never boring,” says Chef Kim. So, experiment, take a chance on something new, taste and test. It’s fun and may lead to your next signature dish.