Inspired by The Art of Flavor, we're explaining (a few of) the major principles you need to be a creative, more confident cook. Today, your toolkit for tweaking dishes so that they're jussssst right.
You've studied up on the four rules of flavor, you've carefully selected your ingredients and your cooking method, and you've thought about how you'll balance similar ingredients with contrasting ingredients and heavy ingredients with light ones. And—what a coincidence—you came up with this Tomato Salad with Grilled Corn, Feta, and Hazelnuts.
Only the tomatoes weren't quite as ripe or fruity as you imagined... and the corn is on the verge of being burnt (whoopsy-daisy)... and you ran out of vinegar partway through making your vinaigrette.
(Does this sound like a brain teaser or what?)
Not to worry! To fine-tune your dish—and take into account the temperature at which its served, and what other players are on the table—you have 7 taste dials at your disposal. (In this case, consider adding lime to your vinaigrette in place of the vinegar, then rounding it out with honey!)
While we may think of these 7 dials—salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, fat, heat—as "flavors" (and speak of them as such—this apple tastes sweet, this radicchio bitter, this miso salty), it's important to note that they're not flavors in and of themselves: "they are qualities of ingredients that have their own distinctive flavors, any of which may be key components of the dish you are making."
Two sources of fat (like bacon or egg yolks) will have different flavors, as will two sources of salt (like olives and kosher salt), and two sources of sweetness (like roasted beets or maple syrup). "Those qualities are useful when it comes time to shaping and balancing—adjusting—the overall experience (flavor) of a dish."
These taste dials—which Patterson and Aftel liken to the knobs on a stereo—will help you compensate for a less-than-ideal ingredient (a bland tomato, a tart pint of raspberries, particularly bitter broccoli rabe), or fix a cooking mistake, or pair one dish with the meal at large. These taste dials are your security blanket (and your secret superpower!). To honor these powers, you must be willing to taste (A.B.T., always be tasting!) and to smell—that's the best way to know what move to make next.
Below, we'll give you a rundown of each dial, with key points to keep in mind as you incoporate that taste into your cooking.
Fine salt (like sea salt or kosher salt), flaky finishing salt, coarse salts like fleur de sel and sel gris, anchovies, olives, salty cheeses
Molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, Demerara, turbinado, honey, agave, maple syrup, fruits and vegetables like onions, beets, and carrots
Vinegar, yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, citrus, sorrel, sour cherries, pickle-based condiments
Radicchio, broccoli rabe, grapefruit, endive, beer, tea, coffee
Ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, walnuts, sourdough, miso, soy sauce, broccoli, aged cheese and meat
Animal fat and animal products, like eggs, milk, cream, and butter, oils processed from olives and nuts
Pepper, mustard, chiles, ginger, horseradish, hot sauce
Now that you've mastered the four rules of flavor and have seven tools in your tool-belt for fine-tuning any mistakes (and seasoning on the fly), you're more than ready to get into the kitchen.
Is there one particular adjustment—besides adding more salt—that you find yourself making over and over again to fix what you've cooked? Tell us in the comments below.