Language defines the way in which we view the world. It also influences the world of taste and flavor. To better be able to analyze flavor, you must possess and be comfortable with the correct vocabulary. I once took an eight-week wine and spirits course. Much of that time was spent in frustration. I sat in the back of the room enjoying the wines but unable to clearly define each particular taste and nuance. The growth of my palate was contingent upon the growth of my vocabulary. Through a series of guided tastings I was finally able to associate the sensations on my tongue and palate with actual words. I had been “tasting” all along but needed someone to help me name the physical sensations my palate was experiencing. Becoming an analytical taster is dependent on connecting a vocabulary of flavor with experiences on your palate.
Gaining an understanding of the language of flavor is vital to be able to analyze and manipulate it in the kitchen. Once you are comfortable with the vocabulary, the analysis of what you taste becomes easier to understand and improve. With practice the relationship between the vocabulary of flavor and the sensations in your mouth will become second nature.
The concept of flavor profile is the first step in establishing a language of flavor. A flavor profile consists of three components: taste, aroma, and trigeminal response. This article defines each of these elements and shows how to apply those terms when analyzing specific plated desserts.
The first element of flavor profile is taste. Taste is the physical response we experience in our mouth as we eat. There are five tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami. For many years it was believed that taste buds were neatly organized on the tongue. Sweet taste buds were found on the extreme tip of the tongue, followed closely by salt. Sour taste buds were found along the edges with bitter buds located at the back of the tongue. Today we know that all taste buds are capable of responding to stimuli from all of the tastes. Some buds, however, are more receptive to specific tastes than to others.
We tend to perceive sweet at the tip of our tongue or at the front of our palate. There are two ways in which a food product becomes sweet. The product itself can be inherently sweet, as in the case of sugar, molasses, or honey. Alternatively, the product can undergo a cooking process that increases its sweet qualities. The difference between a raw carrot and one that has been slowly roasted to release and caramelize its natural sugars is an example of this type of sweetness.
The pastry world often looks for sweetness in the most obvious places. Is something not sweet enough? Then simply add more sugar. It is important to remember, however, that each sweetener has its own unique flavor as well.
Take, for example, a fruit coulis. After cooking the fruit you find that it is not very flavorful. You, therefore, add more sugar or simple syrup to the purée. The fruit flavor still seems weak. You add more sugar. Eventually the flavor of the sugar or simple syrup will take over the natural flavors of the fruit. In this case, more is not always better.
We tend to perceive sour at the sides of our tongue and mouth. Many children love sour because of the all-encompassing physical response it solicits. Biting into a sour candy causes our mouth to salivate and the sides of our jaws to tingle and often results in comical facial expressions.
Not all sour comes in the extreme form of sour candies found at the grocery store. In the right proportion sour can be a wonderful addition or counterpoint to the sweetness of most desserts. Some common sources for sour are certainly citrus fruits, but it can also be found in some wine and wine reductions, vinegars, fruit juice reductions, and tamarind.
The addition of a sour or acidic element can often boost a product’s original flavor. This is especially true when working with fresh fruit. Remember that fruit is an agricultural product and as such its flavor will change according to the season and region in which it is grown. Fruit at its peak of ripeness has an intrinsic sweet and sour balance. Therefore, adding some sour notes as well as sweeteners will replace the fruit’s natural
flavor balance. Rather than using a recipe or formula for a coulis, instead let your palate be your guide. Taste the puréed fruit and if it needs a sweetening boost, then add some sweetener. When you feel that the resulting flavor is about 75% of the way there, it needs just a bit more sweetener, then stop. Instead of adding more sugar, simple syrup, or honey, add an acid—a sour note. Citrus fruits are a great source of such flavor. A few drops of lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit juice, a bit of finely grated citrus zest and the resulting bloom in the flavor of the coulis will astound you.