We seemed to be going full circle when it comes to the food we eat, as more and more people are seeing the value in cooking at home, rather than 'eating out' or buying in!
"Cooking at home is the best way to stay healthy (if you know how to cook!)"
For some of us though, cooking is the last priority. We either haven't been taught the immense value of cooking good nutritious food, or we don't have time to cook, or we become bored with our own cooking and crave not so great food.
Your answer is focusing on flavour! I'd love to introduce you to one thing that changed my food and my enthusiasm for cooking at home. That is, to not only cook food but focus also on adding maximum flavour to it!
You see your tongue helps you know if things are ready. It helps you tell if you need more salt. But most importantly, your tongue is your ultimate guide for deciding which ingredients go together. This may seem a bit 'pre-school' but you'd be amazed at how much you can 'up your game' in your cooking by just using flavour.
We can detect 4 different tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Then the Japanese came along and discovered umami, or a “savory” taste (think soy sauce or mushrooms), making it five tastes.
Each of the five tastes gives your brain important information about what nutrients the food has to offer and whether the food you’re tasting is good or bad for you. It's a primal message our brain takes in.
So how does this whole flavour thing work?
Sweet foods tell your brain there are carbohydrates, or energy, in your food. Your brain loves energy, so it is hardwired to love sweet flavors. Babies actually prefer sugar water over breast milk.
Salty foods contain salt, which your body uses to maintain water balance. Water balance is essential for survival, so your brain loves when some (but not too much) salt is added to food.
Umami (the new one!) signals to your brain that there are amino acids in the food, which means protein. These are the building blocks of all the cells in your body and greatly needed for your gut health.
Sour food signals the presence of acid and fermentation, which are important to your digestion. Some vitamins, like vitamin C, also have a sour taste. Think Apple Cider Vinegar!
And bitter taste, well, that’s a mystery science still hasn’t figured out. Some have said that a bitter taste indicates the presence of small amounts of toxin that actually strengthens your body, a property called hormesis. One thing we know for sure is that bitter foods stimulate digestive juices to ready your stomach for digestion of food. Many of the healthiest foods––dark leafy greens, cacao, coffee––have a subtle and pleasantly bitter taste.
“I know this looks weird, but trust me, it tastes REALLY good!”
We've all heard this! Flavour is the art of combining these tastes with all of the other sensations that your brain can experience, such as aroma, texture, juiciness, mouthfeel and colour.
"When you're cooking, think of flavour as a balancing act"
If we were to follow the rules of the color wheel, our flavor wheel would look something like this:
Fattiness and sweetness are complements
Saltiness and acidity are complements
Both groups contrast each other
Bitterness… well, we’ll talk about bitterness later
Salt revives bland flavors as we know. Some love salt more than others. This can mean that you're adrenally fatigued (stress) and need a boost. Dehydration could be another reason.
If you’ve ever made a recipe and thought it was a bit 'gutless' it probably needed salt.
Salt contrasts well against the fattiness or sweetness of a dish and can also cut bitter flavors.
For example, chips taste good with salt on them because the salt and fat balance each other out.
People also love salted caramel because they contrast saltiness and sweetness. (When I make homemade chocolate I always add a pinch of sea salt to bring out the natural sweetness.)
Sweetness is one of our favorite sensations, but you have probably had the experience of eating or drinking something that is too sweet.
When working with sweetness keep in mind that you can balance it with sourness or acidity.
Think salad with fresh strawberries and vinaigrette.
Why do the strawberries and vinegar go together? Because one is sweet and the other is acidic.
(Fun but horrifying fact: phosphoric acid is added to many soft drinks because its tangy, acidic taste cuts the sweetness of the soda. This is why you’re able to tolerate soda with large amounts of sugar in it without perceiving it as too sweet.)
Fattiness is essential for our perception that a meal is luxurious and delicious. It also contributes to a smoother texture and mouthfeel. Meals taste decadent when they contain more fat.
Even though one of the reasons to cook more meals at home is that they are healthier, we can still take a page from the restaurants’ playbook and add a little extra fat to take a meal from passable to stunning. However, most restaurants would choose trans or saturated fats (cheaper and more available) but for us cooking at home we can achieve the same 'fattiness' with good fats unsaturated fats such as olive oil, a little butter, avocado, walnut oil etc. etc.
We’ll talk more about nutrition in a future lesson, but for now, know that fat is not innately bad. In fact, it is essential. It just needs to be good fat mostly with little saturated fat to make up a balance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to throw a stick of butter into all your dishes. Just don’t be afraid of the fat. Processed sugar is a bigger problem as this puts weight on. Fat stabilizes your appetite and creates a satisfied feeling so you don't need to eat so soon. It just needs to be the right kind of fat.
Acidity is a sour taste like lemon juice or vinegar, and it highlights and brightens the existing flavors of your meal. It also serves to cut the taste of a fatty or sweet dish.
When you eat something fatty, the oils coat your tongue and eventually dulls your taste receptors. Acid washes that fat away, allowing you to taste the flavors like your very first bite.
This is one reason steak and red wine are best friends. The TV chefs are even squeezing a slice of fresh lemon over a steak these days for this very reason. To create a freshness.
So if you have a dish that is full of delicious fat, but still missing a little something, balancing it out with a burst of acid will make the dish really pop.
Tip: One thing to remember: if you’re adding something acidic to cooked food (as opposed to, say, a salad), you’ll want to add it towards the end. The acidic flavor breaks down quickly in heat.
That’s why lemon wedges are served with your food instead of the chef just squeezing it in during cooking. They’re not just a pretty garnish––they’re served separately so the acidity doesn’t break down.
Bitter foods sometimes get a bad wrap, because bitterness can be a signal of burnt or poorly prepared food. However, bitterness hails back to our great grandparent's days when they naturally sought bitter foods (to help balance digestion.)
Great chefs know how to use bitter flavors to highlight foods and achieve the perfect balance, especially against other strong flavors. Think whiskey and milk (hello Gran) or a perfectly roasted cup of coffee.
Bitter foods are balanced out by sweet and fatty flavors. Saltiness can also reduce the taste of bitterness.
Dark chocolate with sea salt, or grapefruit with sugar on it are great examples. Green tea has a bitterness which is great for your immune system due to it's anti-inflammatory effects.
Bitter flavors also, surprisingly, go well together. Radicchio and endives (both just fancy names for bitter-tasting types of lettuce) are often put together in a salad for this reason.
Bitterness can be a hard one to master, especially since we don’t come across the taste often. Typically people learn to appreciate bitter flavors more as their palate matures and balance and complexity become more important.
Tip: People who are addicted to sweetness and sugar DO not like bitterness. But this is precisely what they need to be eating to balance their overdeveloped 'sugar seeking' tastebuds.
Use your flavour powers wisely!
Flavor profiles are what take your dishes from edible to delicious!
But sometimes a crazy contrasting dish isn’t what you’re looking for.
Think about your favorite comfort foods. Mac-n-cheese, casserole, grilled cheese, cottage pie….
If you’re going gourmet, you might start drizzling balsamic and roasted cherry tomatoes all over that stuff. But if you’re just trying to make some good ol’ fashioned comfort food, maybe you just want something more simple.
So while cooking is all about the contrasts and balance of flavors, know when to go crazy and when simplicity will work too.
Sometimes you want to assault your tastebuds with a plethora of flavour that makes you go “wow this is unreal!” And sometimes you just want to take a bite, smile, and say “yummmm!”
How can you put this into practice?
Today when you go to cook something, have a look about your kitchen and grab a couple of items that fit the different flavor profile categories we discussed. Start playing around with 1 from each category in your meal and notice the difference! Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:
SALT: Sea Salt (obvs), tamari sauce (healthy version of soy sauce), garlic salt, parmesan cheese, bacon
SWEET: Fruit (Mum always adds a banana in the lamb curry!) caramelized onions, roasted capsicums, sultanas, maple syrup
FAT: Olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, a little butter (if not dairy intolerant )
ACID: Lemon, lime, apple cider vinegar, dry wine, tomatoes
BITTER: Chocolate or cacao nibs, dark greens, baby rocket, endives, bitter greens
So there you have it! Some little ways to rejuvenate your cooking at home! Please let me know in the comments how you go with this - I'd love to hear!
Wanting to be even more inspired to cook for your health?
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