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

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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.

Yesterday we covered the first rule of flavor: Like ingredients need shape, structure, and intrigue from a dissimilar third party.

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The second rule is the logical inverse: Contrasting flavors need to be brought together by a unifying diplomat.

Though choosing ingredients that differ in shape, texture, character, and intensity (Patterson gives the examples of fish and flower or root vegetable and spice) will often yield a more exciting, dynamic dish, these "contrasting flavors [almost always] need additional ingredients to bridge the distance between them."

A footpath, a walkway, a bridge over troubled waters!

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Photo by Emily Dryden

So what makes an ingredient a good candidate for a flavor bridge?

A bridge can be one accommodating, bland-ish ingredient, but it can also be a deeply-flavored vinaigrette or sauce that ties the various elements together. Consider these two examples:

1.) First, think about cauliflower and cumin and their bridge, brown butter. While I wouldn't have thought of these two ingredients as all too different, Patterson points out that cumin is "warm, spicy, penetrating," with an almost bitter quality, whereas cauliflower is mild, sweet, and submissive. To unite the two, he turns to brown butter. On it own, melted butter couldn't stand up to the strong spice of cumin or contribute enough oomph to flat cauliflower. But browning the butter creates "rich and meaty aromatics" that tame the cumin and lift the vegetable.

Patterson then "cements" (and heightens!) the bridge by adding lime zest, a contrasting note of acid that harks back to rule one.

Lamb Biftekia with Anchovy, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mint

Lamb Biftekia with Anchovy, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mint by Alexandra V. Jones

Leg of Lamb with Garlic Sauce

Leg of Lamb with Garlic Sauce by ChefJune

2.) Next, think about the combination of lamb and anchovy, bridged by a flavorful, dynamic vinaigrette as opposed to a singular ingredient. Patterson ties the lamb (rich, round, earthy) with the anchovy (sharp, salty, fishy) by mincing the anchovy into a vinaigrette with lemon, the acidity of which freshens it, as well as red wine vinegar and garlic, both of which stand up to the deepness of the lamb. By grilling the meat, he tames its gaminess, and thus pulls each player—the anchovy and the lamb—closer to a central meeting point.

In her Roasted Radicchio and Shrimp with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette, pictured below, EmilyC uses a similarly complex sauce—a sticky-smoky dressing of bacon, shallots, balsamic vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, and cherry tomatoes—to draw connections between the bitter radicchio, the cleanness of the shrimp, and the subtle sweetness that comes out when you roast them together.

Radicchio, tomatoes, shrimp, bacon... What's the common link?
Radicchio, tomatoes, shrimp, bacon... What's the common link? Photo by Emily Dryden

If you're having trouble finding a bridge, think conceptually: If strong flavors are "pointy," then bridges are usually "flat and wide, producing the feeling of being wrapped in a blanket," write the authors. Oftentimes, they're sweet (dates, honey, tomato) or bland, like potatoes or butter.

And how can you graduate to the next level?

A flavor bridge (the authors also refer to this as a "peacemaker") doesn't necessarily have to be one ingredient or even one sauce or dressing. Patterson and Aftel explain that many non-European cuisines groups of strong flavors by layering flavors atop a bland base (chicken, beans, rice, potatoes), carefully proportioning and staggering the various components to create a balanced whole.

"Many curries are constructed like this, using some combination of ingredients such as cumin, coriander, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, and cardamom, among many others, to create a harmonious layer of disparate flavors."

Slow Cooker Creamy Chicken and Mint Curry

Slow Cooker Creamy Chicken and Mint Curry by Rinku Bhattacharya /Spice C...

5 Bean Curry

5 Bean Curry by Anu

How can you use cooking methods to your advantage, as well?

A long cook time—a slow-roast, a braise, a leisurely oil-poach—can marry disparate ingredients. Many times, you can make the recipe a day ahead of time and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight to give the flavors even more time to come together. (Try a spicy cucumber salad or Bloody Mary steak salad on day one versus day two and see if you can taste the difference.)

A few examples to start with:

The Elegant Hors d'Oeuvre's Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts

The Elegant Hors d'Oeuvre's Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts by Genius Recipes

Devils on Horseback Grilled Cheese

Devils on Horseback Grilled Cheese by Josh Cohen

  • Bacon + water chestnuts, drawn together with mustard and brown sugar: The sweetness of sugar tames the smokiness of bacon, and the bite of mustard adds zing to a milky and mild water chestnut.
  • The marriage of bacon + blue cheese, officiated by dates and sourdough: Dates are sweet, with no acidity or saltiness, which makes them a stable bridge for strong flavors like smoky bacon and funky blue cheese.
Stewed Cannellini Beans with Chorizo and Confit Rock Shrimp

Stewed Cannellini Beans with Chorizo and Confit Rock Shrimp by Josh Cohen

One-Pot Pastalaya

One-Pot Pastalaya by inpatskitchen

  • Rock shrimp + chorizo, bridged with white beans, leeks, and shrimp oil: A shrimp may never meet a pig in the real world, but here, their flavors are bridged by mild white beans, sweet sautéed leeks, and a drizzle of shrimp oil, which brightens the warm sausage.
  • Chicken + shrimp + sausage!, tied with pasta, tomatoes, and the onion-celery-pepper trinity: In pastalaya (and jamabalaya, too), three distinct proteins are linked by sweet tomatoes, bland pasta (or rice), and a slow layering of flavor from vegetables, spices, and herbs.
Pot Roast with Coffee and Whiskey

Pot Roast with Coffee and Whiskey by Paula Disbrowe

Miso and Honey Butter–Roast Chicken

Miso and Honey Butter–Roast Chicken by Melanie K.

  • Coffee + whiskey, bridged by tomatoes and a slow roast: Bitter espresso powder and fiery whisky are tamed by the sweetness of canned tomatoes; the flavors unite further during the 2-hour cook-time and the 30-minute rest. (And this is the type of dish that tastes even better the next day.)
  • Miso + honey, united with butter: Butter mellows both the salty, earthy intensity of the miso and the sweet floral notes of the honey, bringing the two ingredients together to enrich what might be an otherwise bland chicken.
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Roasted Radicchio and Shrimp with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

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Serves 2 to 3 as a main course; 4 to 6 as a side dish
  • 2 small heads radicchio
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
  • Kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 strips of bacon (about 3 ounces), cut into lardons
  • 1 small shallot, minced (about 2 to 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons maple syrup (or to taste; see note in step 5)
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives
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Check out the first two rules of flavor below, and come back tomorrow to see the third:

Do you have any beloved-but-weird ingredient pairings? And how do you bridge the contrasting flavors? Tell us in the comments below!