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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.
Before we dive into the third and fourth rules of flavor (for a refresher on the first two, look here and here), consider an organizational system that comes from the parfumerie (where the book's co-author Mandy Aftel crafts her artisan perfumes) and the musical studio. As in fragrance and music, in the world of flavor, there exist three broad categories (which, of course, are altered by cooking method and accompaniments—so take them with a, har har har, grain of salt):
- Base notes: ingredients that anchor the dish and provide depth; these are a sounding board for the other flavors
- Top notes: like herbs and spices, these lift the dish, providing lightness and finesse
- Middle notes: these ingredients connect the top and bottom, rounding out the final product and often adding richness
Understanding these three groups, and where the materials you're working with fit in, will allow you to conduct the notes so that they create harmony, not dissonance.
Which brings us to the third rule...
The base notes often act as the foundation of the dish, taking up the most physical real estate. But especially in traditional comfort foods—pot roast, pudding, congee, mashed potatoes—they're also the heaviest, densest, and flattest flavors. They may compose the bulk of the plate, but they're not necessarily the most memorable or significant.
How can you boost a heavy or monotonous dish so that eating it doesn't feel like completing a marathon (or, more likely, watching a never-ending movie)? As is the case with like ingredients, which need a contrasting note, base notes need a boost from a top note—a hit of acid, the freshness of an herb, the balance of salt (like on that chocolate sorbet pictured below). An all-black outfit needs a colorful scarf (or at least a shiny necklace or spiffy belt buckle).
How does this rule translate to the kitchen?
Practical ideas for lifting up your heavy or one-note dishes:
- Meat: Introduce lifting notes via puckery preserved lemons, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and seeds, balsamic vinegar (and raisins that have plumped in it), briny olives, or a fresh herb-based marinade or sauce.
- Greens: Heavy flavors aren't always meaty and rich—even greens, when sautéed till tender, can lose their brightness and turn flat. "Without exception," write the authors, "acids like lemon and vinegar make cooked greens tastier, but the exact kind of acid that might work best and the effect it will create varies with the greens." Try adding lemon zest and juice to sautéed kale (with white beans as a middle note) and sherry vinegar or sour cream to beet greens.
- Grain salads: Because grains have a homogenous flavor, Patterson suggests adding middle notes in the form of additional sweet, flat flavors, like cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, shredded brussels sprouts, or roasted sweet potatoes (among other vegetables and fruits). That way, you'll have a greater bulk of stuff to absorb the acidity and herbs that will rev up the whole salad. Try adding salty olives or feta cheese, lemon juice and dill, or peppery arugula and a generous amount of red wine vinegar.
- Brownies and chocolate cake, ice cream, pudding, cream pie... can all be lifted with a sprinkle of flaky salt (Alice Medrich and David Lebovitz know this well). A touch of salt will bring back chocolate's savory elements, leading it away from the scary world of tooth- or tummy-aching sweetness or richness.
Now that you've studied up, there's nothing like some chocolate sorbet for a bit of practice, right?
- 2 1/4 cups (555 ml) water
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- 3/4 cup (75 g) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
- Pinch of salt
- 6 ounces (170 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Check out the first three rules of flavor below, and come back tomorrow to see the fourth (and final!):
How do you save a dish that's just too heavy? Tell us in the comments below!