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The 4 Rules You Need to Know to Become a Freer, More Creative Cook

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Inspired by The Art of Flavor, we're explaining (a few of) the major principles you need to be a creative, more confident cook. Check back throughout the week to learn all of the flavor rules.

I find that the first taste of a truly successful dish, be it at a restaurant or in a home kitchen, is often a clarifying moment. I may be surprised by the disparate-seeming ingredients, or puzzled by how the various textures and temperatures were achieved, but the experience of tasting the components as one is, at the best times, a revelation. The ingredients work together towards a final goal of overall deliciousness, while also pushing new aspects of the major players to the forefront—an elusive tomato intensity, the buttery sweetness of onions, a floral element to chocolate I've never before experienced.

But while it makes sense at the table, I often wonder how the recipe developer or chef got to that place: How did they know which ingredients to group together, or discover that final touch that makes the dish special? Even with a pairing that's classic—say carrots and orange juice, or bacon and dates—why is that so? (And can someone explain why the heck this vegetarian bacon mayo, with its soy sauce and grape jelly and Lapsang Souchang, succeeds?!)

In The Art of Flavor, acclaimed chef Daniel Patterson and perfumer Mandy Aftel have come together to give readers the vocabulary and methodology they need to begin understanding the creative process of cooking, from selecting the ingredient that will jumpstart the decision tree, to choosing a cooking method (or methods), to building and balancing the dish.

One of these ingredients is not like the other.
One of these ingredients is not like the other. Photo by Emily Dryden

The authors articulate concepts many of you might already intuit, putting words and organization to a system that likely happens naturally—and quickly—within the brains of many chefs and flavor experts. This way, the rest of us—either when building a recipe or trying to discern what makes someone else's recipe a victory—can slow down and ask ourselves the necessary questions: What does this dish need? What will make it better?

For starters, Patterson and Aftel have distilled the complex mechanisms of flavor into four broad rules that govern how it works. "It seems so simple," they write, "but the essentials of flavor lie within these four basic principles. Mastering them will make you a better, freer, and more original cook."

We'll start with the first rule today, then address the following three throughout the week. (Stay tuned!)

Photo by Emily Dryden

Complementary, mild ingredients make sense to pair together—they're the pasta and cheese, rice and beans, eggs and mayonnaise, potatoes and onions, chicken and rice that make up the base of much of what we think of as "classic" comfort foods.

But to make the recipe more interesting, look for a flavor counterpoint—something that varies in character, shape (what the authors define as "the overall impression of what you are tasting"), texture, or intensity—to break up the harmony and give the dish definition. Think of the contrasting ingredient like a punctuation mark in the long sentence, or a pop of color in an otherwise neutral outfit. Maybe your recipe's accessory introduces sharpness (mustard, lemon juice, vinegar), a fresh herbal element (mint, basil, marjoram), or briny saltiness (capers, olives, anchovies, bottarga).

Patterson uses potatoes and leeks as his case study: Both are earthy, bland, and sweet, in need of a flavor foil to keep the pairing from becoming a one-note, no-boundaries mishmash (or a run-on sentence).

He looks first towards sharp acidity, choosing to dress the duo in a vinaigrette. He grounds it in salty, briny, intense capers and oily, fishy anchovies, rounding out the dressing with parsley (for a grassy, fresh note), lemon juice and zest (the formers gives a brighter intensity), champagne vinegar (for more neutral acidity), and olive oil. He chooses radicchio as the greens, angling for a crunchy contrast to the soft potatoes and leeks and a bitter balance to their sweetness.

The finished dish, Potato-Leek Salad with Radicchio and Olive-Anchovy Vinaigrette, makes sense and seems natural—but I wouldn't have gotten to that point on my own without understanding Patterson's decision-making. And how all of it was put into my motion by this first rule.

Oranges with Olive Oil and Chocolate

Oranges with Olive Oil and Chocolate by Alice Medrich

Baking Sheet Macaroni and Cheese

Baking Sheet Macaroni and Cheese by Amanda Hesser

A few more examples to get you started:

Tomato, Nectarine & Mozzarella Salad

Tomato, Nectarine & Mozzarella Salad

sweet enough sweet enough
Go To Recipe
Serves 4
  • 3-4 tomatoes
  • 2-3 nectarines
  • 1 ball fresh mozzarella
  • 3/4 cup fresh basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil (enough to drizzle over the salad)
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar reduced to a syrup (I add a bit of honey before I reduce it)
Go to Recipe
Show More

See the other 3 rules (and the 7 taste dials) below!

The Rule Chefs Use to Unite Very Different Ingredients into a Balanced Dish

The Rule Chefs Use to Unite Very Different Ingredients in... by Sarah Jampel

A Simple Tweak for More Chocolatey Chocolate (& Brighter Sautéed Greens, Too)

A Simple Tweak for More Chocolatey Chocolate (& Brighter ... by Sarah Jampel

The Final Rule of Flavor Reveals What Your Veg-Heavy Recipes Have Been Missing

The Final Rule of Flavor Reveals What Your Veg-Heavy Reci... by Sarah Jampel

Chefs Use These 7 Tools to Fine-Tune Their Dishes & Hide Their Mistakes

Chefs Use These 7 Tools to Fine-Tune Their Dishes & Hide ... by Sarah Jampel


And in case you need a reminder about why we called Daniel Patterson a genius...

Tell us in the comments below: Have you noticed yourself using this same rule to create—or improve on—a recipe?

Tags: Videos, Books, Ingredients