Understanding Flavor Profiles
We all love food, but do we really understand how taste works? We did the research, and we’re answering all your questions about flavor profiles: what are they, how do they work, and why are they important?
Flavor Profile. We’ve all heard the term before. In my life, it’s usually been thrown out by an expert casually, as if I should know and understand the term. So I nod and pretend that, yes, the flavor profile was complete, and definitely, the dish had a strong sense of umami…?
Finally, I decided to take initiative. I looked it up…And in detail.
What is a flavor profile, and why does everyone seem to think it’s so important?
So here it is. Technically, a flavor profile offers an empirical way to describe flavor—a way the experts agreed upon. When food enters your mouth, your tongue, your nose, your palate, and even your teeth register the sensations caused by that specific food.
Each item of food, cooked in a specific way, has its own unique flavor profile that is sensed by our taste buds. Technically speaking, there are five official “tastes”: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. When people say “official taste,” they’re referring to certain specific sensations taste buds are geared to recognize as flavor.
Taste is not the only thing that makes up a flavor profile though. Temperature, texture, and spiciness level are also part of how we experience flavor, even if they aren’t “tastes” per se. This is mostly because they’re a huge part of how we understand the food we’re eating. Plus, people’s preferences vary largely based on these things, so they’re important to think about.
So without further ado…I give you the five tastes.
Strictly speaking, this is the level to which sodium is detectable in food. You know salty, because you know salt. It’s the oldest flavoring agent in the world, and it is a huge enhancer of flavor. In almost all situations, salty items solve problems with blandness.
Fair warning though. Salty agents brighten other tastes, but when they’re overused…you won’t be a happy camper. There’s nothing worse than an overly salted tongue.
Sweetness balances everything. And everyone loves it. It’s the degree to which sugars are detectable in foods, specifically glucose, lactose, and fructose. We, as animals, are scientifically geared to recognize sugar as a good thing, but foods with sugar (before pre-packaged stuff and bread) contain high carbohydrates and nutrients—like fruit.
Adding a touch of sweetness to a dish adds interest. It also balances spicy and sour tastes. Sweet and sour chicken, anyone? Stevia, maple syrup, carrots, balsamic vinegar, and most fruit are good sweetening agents to add to your own cooking.
This is how much acid you can detect in food. Adding sourness to food will balance spicy and sweetness. It’s really good if you want to cut through rich foods, especially ones that are high in fat. Sour things are things like lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, a lot of the vinegars (sherry, red, balsamic, apple cider), tomato paste, yogurt, and sour cream.
This is everyone’s least favorite taste, and we usually try to avoid it. Initially, it was an evolutionary defense—bitter plants were often the species of plants that were poisonous. Actually, there are more proteins in our sensory cells that respond to bitter taste than any other taste (we’re really good at protecting ourselves.)
But now, in our modern world, we can pair it alongside the other tastes to add depth to a flavor profile. It’s a good counterpoint for sweet and savory foods. You can use foods like coffee, spinach, kale, grapefruit juice, beer, endives, dandelion greens, broccoli, or radicchio to achieve bitterness.
To balance bitterness, which is the more common pursuit, use sweet, sour, and salty foods. For instance, naturally bitter greens taste divine with vinaigrette, and a dollop of greek yogurt is the perfect addition to meat.
This is the newest taste. It’s technically how much glutamate our taste buds can tell is in a food item. If you’re wondering (I sure didn’t know), glutamates are an amino acid. In Japanese, umami means “pleasant savory taste,” and as a flavor, it falls somewhere between savory and salty.
When pairing it for balance or enhancement, you can treat it like a salty food. The taste is known for being a bit elusive, but generally, umami tastes earthy and meaty. Umami includes things like mushrooms, beans, eggplants, or really savory meats.
Now, you know the five official tastes. And if you think about it, you’re probably not surprised—you could have guessed most of these. Except maybe umami. But, before we talk about what to do with all of this knowledge, I’m going to add a few more aspects that are imperative to the flavor of a thing, even though they can’t scientifically be called “tastes.”
The reason spiciness doesn’t qualify as a taste is because of the way we identify it in our food. In the case of the five tastes, our tongue has specific sensory cells that can detect them, and they have a specific nerve path. When things are spicy, we recognize it because it actually hurts our tongue. A pain signal is then sent to our brain by the nerves that transmit touch and temperature sensations.
That being said, spiciness is a wonderful tool in the kitchen, and it’s still part of what makes up our sense of flavor. Spicy things are easy to identify—hot sauces, wasabi, horseradish, jalapeños, arugula, raw radishes. They are often used as enhancers, but don’t worry too much. If you like it spicy, just make it spicy.
When I found out that the temperature of our dish was an imperative part of a flavor profile, I was a bit skeptical. How doesn’t that affect flavor? But, in reality, temperature is a part of our eating experience, even if it’s as much about our expectations for it. Take potato salad, for instance. If you served warm potato salad in America, people would freak out. But, in Germany, the opposite is true. It absolutely must be served warm. Or, take pizza. It should be the exact same flavor cold as hot, but it tastes different cold, right?
Creamy, flaky, chewy, rich, sticky, spongy, slimy, crunchy, caky, dry, moist, fatty, gelatinous, granular, mushy, pulpy, tough…there are a LOT of textures. Texture is also known a “mouthfeel,” which makes perfect sense to me. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to textures in foods, but as a general rule, the key is variety. Try a little crunch amongst slimy noodles, or something creamy atop a chewy brownie.
So why know any of this?
Have you ever known there was something missing in your dish, but not been able to put your finger on it? Or have you ever wanted to try your own fun, unique recipe, but didn’t quite know where to begin?
Being able to identify the elements of a flavor profile and understanding the way they interact with each other—particularly the five tastes—is really helpful if you want to identify that missing ingredient. It also makes it easy to come up with innovative, new dishes.
If you’re like me, and your chef level is still below expert, it’s helpful for trying to fine tune grandma’s recipe. And it’s great for moments when I accidentally pour in way too much lemon juice. Which happens more than I’d like to admit.
Different flavors combine to achieve balance on our taste buds. Like when Mexican hot chocolate is finished with cayenne pepper. Or how thai curry has the sweetness from coconut milk and sugar, the salty from fish sauce, the umami from the mushrooms, the spicy from curry paste, the earthy from herbs, and the sour from lime. (A work of genius if you ask me.) In the end, we’re looking for a more harmonious taste.
The most successful dishes achieve a level of balance, with specific flavors carefully chosen for enhancement. Here are the basic rules of balance, laid out.
Sweet balances sour. Sour balances sweet.
Sweet balances spice. Spice balances sweet.
Sour balances spice.
Sour balances bitter.
Salty/Umami balances bitter. Bitter balances salty/umami.
Using these rules, you can become quite the at-home sous chef. And if that’s all you’re looking for, you can stop reading now.
…but if you’re like me, you want to know the science behind it, but avoid the jargon that goes right over the non-scientists’ heads. So I’ve done some research, and I’ve come up with a shortened version.*
Taste is just a bunch of different sensations we experience.
When a taste bud comes in contact with a food, a chemical substance is freed in the mouth and it heads to a sensory nerve cell. This cell is activated because the chemical substance alters specific proteins on the the wall of the sensory cell. This change causes the sensory cell to send out messengers, which activates a chain of nerve cells and heads to our brain to tell us which flavor to experience.
But here’s the crazy part. Each taste bud has between 10-50 of those first sensory cells, and each of those cells has their own taste preferences. Scientists have determined that there are 10 levels of intensity for each sensory cell, meaning there are about 100,000 different possible flavors. Then, add in touch, temperature, and smell, which all affect our perception of flavor. Mind. Blown.
Our sensory cells are replaced every 2 weeks or so, but through our life, they slowly stop renewing. Older people have about 5,000 taste buds. An adult in his or her prime has around 10,000 taste buds in total. Most of our taste buds are centralized on the edges and the back of our tongue, but also can be found in the back of our throat, nasal cavity, epiglottis, and upper esophagus. In fact, infants have sensory cells on their hard palates, middle of the tongue, and their lips and cheeks.
MYTH BREAKER: I don’t know about you, but my first grade teacher taught me “bitter in the back, sweet in the front.” In reality, there are no tongue taste zones. All of the tastes can be tasted on all parts of your tongue. The only exception is bitterness—the back of our tongue is actually a bit more sensitive to a bitter taste. This is thought to be a protection mechanism, so we can spit out poisonous or spoiled foods foods before they enter the throat.
THE NEWEST DEVELOPMENT: Scientists are currently identifying sensory receptors that are specifically geared to recognize fat, which would make it the sixth basic taste!
So, that’s the zoom in on flavor profiles, and the science behind taste. We encourage you to treat your taste buds! Use fresh, healthy ingredients, and don’t be afraid to try clever combinations, experiment with tastes, and push the boundaries of your kitchen.
Food is about love. So love it, and let it love you.
*Special thanks to this site for helping me with all the science.