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.
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(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."
If we focus on [the 7 dials] exclusively, we never transcend the static zone of taste and enter the dynamic realm of flavor. But as tools to shape, accentuate, and modulate flavor, they are invaluable.
Daniel Patterson & Mandy Aftel
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.
1. Salt = The MVP
Fine salt (like sea salt or kosher salt), flaky finishing salt, coarse salts like fleur de sel and sel gris, anchovies, olives, salty cheeses
Salt is, according to Patterson and Aftel, "the most important seasoning of all. It enlivens, it draws out flavor, it balances sweetness and acidity, and it boosts aroma.
One way to judge whether you've added the "right" amount (a subjective assessment!) is to focus on the fullness of flavor in the dish: If the flavor disappears too quickly on your tongue after you've had a taste, the dish probably needs more salt.
Over-salting is far worse than under-salting—so start slowly.
Salt counteracts sweet: A pinch of salt makes a dessert less sweet while sharpening the flavor. The addition of salt to caramel, for example, brings out the complex, bitter components.
Salt amplifies sour: When you add salt to an acidic dish, the acidity will be more prominent (so be judicious when you're salting a vinaigrette, for example).
Salt tames bitter: When sprinkled on bitter vegetables like eggplant and late-season cucumbers, salt draws out moisture, and with it, residual bitterness. And, in conjunction acid, salt makes bitter ingredients, like radicchio or broccoli rabe, more mellow.
Vinegar is the strongest, most direct kind of sour, while citrus has "tempered acidity," offset by sweetness (citrus—and most fruits—will change in acidity during the growing season; the crop will be sweeter and less acidic as the season progresses).
Sour pushes down salt, sweet, and bitter, and it relieves richness, giving your dish new energy.
Umami adds intensity (or, as the authors put it, "it's the volume dial"). Adding ingredients high in umami will give your finished dish more depth and power (and give a light, flyaway dish more substance).
Salt intensifies umami.
Acid diminishes umami.
Umami can also be achieved through cooking method—as in the Maillard reaction—rather than the addition of ingredients.
Too much umami might lead to an overly dense or overwhelming flavor.
A (former) student of English, a lover of raisins, a user of comma splices. My spirit animal is an eggplant. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream. For that, I'm sorry.