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HOW TO Guides
Balancing flavours is easier than you think. It's the secret to transforming dishes from a B to an A++.
Remember those times you had a restaurant meal and each bite was like like a 'firework of flavour explosion in your mouth?' Well thats most likely because the flavours were well balanced.
The 5 Primary Flavour Profiles:
In short balancing literally means balancing - to be able to taste a number of the above different flavour profiles, evenly. Not one is overpowering another. High end chefs aim to balance all 5 at once, however even if you just balance 2 or 3 at a time you can really make your taste buds sing.
If you have say 3 flavour profiles balanced in a dish, this means your taste buds are tasting all 3 evenly. Your taste buds are connected to areas of your brain, lighting up pleasure areas in your brain as you taste them. The more flavour profiles you have balanced; the more pleasure areas in your brain are going to light up.
Umami can simply be described as the pleasant taste of savouriness and depth. It is universally enjoyed. It is the flavour of 'glutamates' which are naturally found in protein molecules in both plants and animals. This flavour was enjoyed many many, so the 'glutamates' were then extracted to create monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG.
The word 'umami" is Japanese for "essence of deliciousness". Umami receptors on the tounge were only discovered in 2002.
Meat and cheese are very umami-rich foods, and the lack of these rich umami flavour in some vegan dishes is what some people struggle with. It can feel like a dish is missing that 'oomph' or that satisfying depth, and leave you not satiated. Because of this is is really important to focus on the umami flavour, and ensure it is present in your meals.
Plant-based foods that have a great umami flavour are:
Mushrooms, soy sauce, cashews, seaweed, fermented foods (fermented cashew cheeses etc), garlic, smoke (from a BBQ or from 'liquid smoke'), miso, nutritional yeast, charring or slightly burning your food, asparagus and tomatoes.
So we understand the importance of umami now, great. Why does produce taste best when it is perfectly ripe? Along with a higher sugar content, the umami (or glutamate) content is also heightened at peak ripeness, as seen in the graph below.
Areas of our tounges are prone to tasting different flavour profiles. The stars below represent where exactly on the tounge each the flavour profile is the most receptive to.
If you notice the umami flavour, the tongue is dominated by umami receptors (hence the large star). The other flavour profiles are very distinct about which part of the tounge will pick up on the flavour, but not umami. This is one reason why the flavour of umami is so more-ish and important to have in your dishes.
How to Balance a Dish:
Start by choosing the 3 flavour profiles you want to balance. The 3 I learnt to balance first were sweet, salty, and umami. Let's use Lentil Lettuce Cups with Pineapple Salsa (hyperlink to the recipe here) as an example.
You can balance individual sections of the dish (ie just the lentils), or you can balance the entire dish. Let's start with just the lentils. Once they are in their final stages of cooking; have a taste. Can you taste the umami? This will be coming from the richness in the soy sauce, and predominantly from the sticky golden-ness on the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat up and don't stir it for a while if it's not sticking.
Once you can taste the umami, can you taste the saltiness? Can you taste the sweetness too? If you can taste all three evenly, this is great. If not, adjust, then taste again. Add a little brown sugar or a little soy sauce if needed. Repeat until you are satisfied. Note: make sure you're not exposed to any really strong tastes while you are doing this - e.g. coffee, gum, spicy entree - as this will make it harder for your taste buds to tune in to the sensitivities of flavour balancing.
To really get that 'firework in your mouth' sensation like restaurant meals; you want to heighten the three flavour profiles equally. If you just add more salt, your dish will be too salty. If you just add more brown sugar, your dish will be too sweet. And if you just add more lime juice, your dish will be too acidic... you get the picture. But, if you add salt, brown sugar and lime juice all evenly, you will be left with a flavour packed, well balanced and delicious lentil mixture.
Now, let's add an easy 4th one. Sourness. This one is really simple. Once you've plated up, squeeze some lime or lemon juice over the lentil mixture. This'll really brighten it, and balance it as its our fourth flavour profile for this dish. If you put the lime juice on while you're still cooking the lentils, the heat can burn off some of the acid. If you don't have any fresh limes or lemons, you can use an orange, or apple cider vinegar. Have a taste of the final dish and see if you can taste all 4 flavours - hopefully you have a flavour packed meal!
If we take a step back and look at the dish as a whole; the lentils are nicely balanced, but so is our whole dish. The lentils are predominantly salty and umami; the pineapple salsa is predominantly sweet and sour, and the salad ingredients are just yum.
Something to note, though; is to be mindful of your salt/sugar intake. An easy trap to fall into is to get in the habit of adding salt and sugar to everything. It's all about balance in my eyes - a little bit is okay, yes, but not too much. You can always add fresh herbs, dried herbs, ,,, if you're wanting more flavour. Buying in-season and quality produce is a simple way to ensure there is flavour in all of your dishes, as opposed to the mass-produced and watery produce available in our large supermarkets.
Miso paste is a good substitute for salt as it has the added benefit of being fermented (good for your gut microbiome), too. It also has an element of umami which is sometimes lacking in plant-based food (in animal-based dishes the umami flavour comes from meat).
Apple cider vinegar is an easy substitute for lemons and limes, and with its long shelf life it is easy to have it just chilling in your fridge for times of emergencies.