Lesson 7: Learn Your Own Palate

What do Flavors Taste like to You?

Learn your own palate!

Understanding the simple culinary theories on flavor is very important. By understanding flavor and its root, you can begin to understand how to develop flavors you love and learn to omit, augment, or modify flavors that you don’t like. Many dishes or recipes may also contain a food that you may not care for, but was important for a specific flavor quality that needed to be extracted. A perfect example of this is in the manufacture of perfume. The best perfumes in the world are not simply sweet or floral. They always have a touch of a bitter or offensive odor that adds complexity to the perfume. The same is true for food as well. Take cumin for example. Quite frankly, raw ground cumin smells like unwashed arm pits. But, when employed with chicken or pork, it becomes a warm and filling spice that grants depth of character. Before we can begin to build that depth of character, YOU MUST learn through experience the flavors you enjoy and the flavors you dislike. Then you can decide if it is because it is the root flavor, or if it is because of a combination of flavors. In this section, I will be teaching you a proper method for self discovery and how to understand flavor in the real world.

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Smoking Affects Your Palate

Right now, I get to be everyone’s dad and tell you that to be a great chef you should not smoke. The reason for this is that your ability to perceive and understand flavor is based 100% on your sense of smell, your sense of taste, and your mental sharpness. As you age and develop, not only does your body change, but your palate does as well. Your palate will naturally mature with age, experience, and repeated exposure to new foods and ingredients. Because you learn through experience and develop your palate over time, it can take repeated exposures to a new flavor profile to become familiar with it.

My favorite example is Hot and Sour Soup. Th is spicy, but sour, Chinese soup is highly offensive to western palates upon your first exposure to it. It is spicy, thin, tangy, and sour. It’s a weird combination of flavors. But with repeated exposure, it becomes a delightfully complex and desirable flavor combination. By repeatedly exposing yourself to this soup, you become accustomed to these new and complicated flavors and grow to love them. When you smoke, it inhibits your ability to taste and smell foods properly. The smoking residue coats both your nose and your tongue. So the first time that you taste Hot and Sour Soup, you will experience an incorrect flavor profile if you are a smoker. Repeated years of smoking actually diminishes your ability to correctly perceive flavors. I strongly urge everyone to quit smoking as soon as possible, because your senses have not been properly exposed to new and complex flavors. This inhibits your ability to grow and develop as a chef. Many people find that once they quit smoking, food and flavors can become completely overwhelming. This is because they have not allowed their palate to grow and evolve over a long period of time. So if you are a smoker, quit smoking today! To truly be a great chef, you must have 100% control over all of your senses at all times.

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How to Pick Out Flavors

Tasting is the very first sense that you need to have mastery over. As I have discussed previously in this book, there are 5 basic flavors that your tongue tastes. They are salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. These basic flavors are the building blocks to create rounded dishes for every situation. So that’s all fine in theory, but how does that apply to real world applications? Just as I have told you to start smelling everything. You need to begin tasting everything. Just like I taught you in our very first exercise, make sure to pinch your nose as you are tasting things so that you are only tasting it and not smelling it. Start with simple seasonings, herbs, spices, and then move on to simple foods that may be eaten by themselves. For example: apples, carrots, and celery. Begin to taste and experiment with the different pieces inside of the food. Did you know that the peel of an apple tastes completely different than the inside? As you begin to taste and experiment with different foods, you will begin to grow and understand your palate even more. Because each person is unique and completely different than other people, your experience with each food will be unique as well. There is the old saying, “How do I know that the colors you see are the same colors that I see?” While it is more likely that everybody perceives colors the same way, the spirit that you should take away is that your experience will be unique.

What I mean by this is that you may taste more salt or more sweet in a dish than I do. You need to learn to what degree you perceive these flavors. This is so, that as you cook, you will have a reference point to understand whether or not other people will enjoy your cooking as well. To this effect, I, for a very long time, was a classic over-seasoner. I guess that I just got so excited about seasoning the food that I would always put too much in the dish, and it would overwhelm everyone that I was cooking for. But by learning that my perception of seasonings was more muted than other people, I was able to tone down the seasonings to a level that was more in line with other peoples’ expectations.

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How to Pick Out Individual Scents and Smells

Smell is far more complicated than taste. It is composed of a trillion unique scents and odors.

The two things you need to do when smelling an item are:
1 Use association. “What does this smell like to me?” “Is it similar to anything I have had before?”
2 What is the strength of this odor?

Use Association

The human brain, in all of its glorious majesty, works best when ideas can be pigeon-holed. What this means is that people have short attention spans. We will take the shortest bit of information about an idea and stuff it away in our brains. When you smell an item, it is much more productive to build an association than to attempt to understand a new concept. In text, this all seems very confusing, but I have a few examples that will help.

Example 1
Star anise, licorice, worm-wood, basil, and fennel all have similar flavors. The most common association of their flavor is that it tastes similar to licorice. By understanding that all of these flavors are similar, you have now associated these flavors with each other. Th is becomes extremely helpful when you are cooking with unfamiliar ingredients. I know that fennel, anise, and basil all pair well with pork. I know that licorice and worm-wood pair well with sugar. By using association of these ideas, I may deduce that fennel must go well with sugar and that licorice must go well with pork.

Example 2
Onions, scallions, shallots, garlic, and leeks all have a similar flavor profile. Just like the example above, by understanding that each one of these has a similar flavor, I may find new uses for each ingredient. Liver is most commonly accompanied by onions, but for a change in flavor, why couldn’t I pair liver with leeks? By learning what a flavor reminds you of and is similar to, you may find new and interesting combinations. This also helps with thinking on your feet. What if you are out of an ingredient? By using associations, you can still complete your dish by using similar flavors.

What is the Strength of This Odor?

The second major defining quality of an odor is in its strength. Th e proper word for this is the term “pungency.” Something that is very pungent has a high strength of odor. Something that has low pungency has a very weak strength of odor. Pungency has absolutely nothing to do with quality or character of a smell. It is neither positive nor negative. Pungency simply defines the quantity of smell.

Example 1
Roses have an extremely weak and delicate scent. When you walk into a room with roses you may not even notice their scent, because other smells can mask the roses very easily. This is because roses have a low pungency.

Example 2
Rotting fish is an extremely pungent smell. The smell of rotting fish will overpower any other local smells. This smell is so pungent that you may not even have to be in the same room (or same building) as the rotting fish to know that it is there. As I had encouraged you earlier, you really do need to begin to smell everything possible. Your sense of smell is where you create nuanced flavors and find your true mastery of food. Go out and sniff things until your friends and family stare at you like a weirdo. Th is really is the only way to build your sense of smell database and learn your palate.

How to Deconstruct a Recipe into Its Parts

Being able to deconstruct a recipe will help you grow as a chef. Because you will be able to identify each component in the recipe, you will then be able to make substitutions, adjustments, or create a whole new recipe. This, in essence, is the key to true food mastery. Once you can identify each part that an ingredient plays in a recipe, the sky is the limit! No culinary style or recipe will be daunting or mysterious.

The best way to identify the parts of a recipe is of course by studying recipes and then labeling each component and what their function is. Think of this process like a culinary frog dissection. The good news is there will not be a smelly, stinky frog in front of you unless your recipe is frog legs. Before we begin with our practice recipes, I am going to teach you how to identify each component and their purpose. Because ingredients often have multiple purposes inside of a dish, we will keep it simple and identify the main purpose of each component.

Recipe Components

Flavor Balancers
These are the ingredients that focus on balancing and manipulating the 5 flavors of salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. These are also the ingredients that influence the perceived weight of a dish in your mouth. These ingredients are the defining qualities inside of Roundness of Flavor and Palate Cleansing. These ingredients may very well possess an aromatic quality, but their primary use in cooking is for balancing the 5 flavors that you perceive with your tongue.

Examples of Flavor Balancers: kosher salt, MSG, soy sauce, black pepper, cayenne pepper, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, honey, and sugar.

Aromatics -Seasonings and Spices
These are the components that are easiest to identify. These components are your herbs and spices that you will use to define the aromatic quality of the dish. Remember, aromatic quality means everything that you experience with your nose alone.

Examples of Aromatics: curry powder, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. These ingredients focus primarily on the aromatic aspect of the eating experience. We do not use these components for their mouth taste. Even though each of those ingredients has a taste inside of your mouth, we are using these to expressly influence your nose’s perception of what you are eating. Where this can be confusing is with herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley. We use these 3 specific herbs, not for their aromatic quality, but for their ability to affect taste and cleanse your palate while eating. This is the reason that I place these 3 herbs in Flavor Balancers, not Aromatics.

Protein Aspect
Protein really makes what you are eating a meal. Without protein in your dish, it is simply a side. Protein-less dishes are not very filling nor are they satisfying. One of the reasons that ice cream is so filling is because of the protein found in the milk. Take a Caesar’s salad for example. By itself, it is at very best a side dish. But, add sliced grilled chicken to it and now you have a meal. This is why protein is so important. It completes a dish and gives it a focus.

Examples of Animal Protein: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Examples of Non-Animal Protein: tofu, legumes, nuts, beans, and lentils.

Starch/Carbohydrate Aspect
Starches and carbohydrates fill out your meal. They are made out of grain crops which are staples of food across the entirety of the world.

Examples of Starches/Carbohydrates: potatoes, rice, wheat, cornmeal, bread, barley, granola, and oatmeal.

Vegetable/Fruit Aspect
Vegetables and fruits are what add variety to your dishes. By changing out your vegetables, you can easily change the character of your dish, with the least modification.

Examples of Vegetables and Fruits: carrots, celery, broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, onions, cucumbers, olives, bell peppers, squashes, tomatoes, apples, pears, grapes, and bananas.

There are few items that are typically considered vegetables, but are better classified in other categories. A few examples of this are: peas, corn (maize) kernels, and green beans. Peas are legumes not vegetables, so they belong in protein. Corn (maize) kernels are actually a grain and belong in carbohydrates. Green beans are unripened bean pods and are actually a protein.

Binders/Thickeners
This is a fairly self explanatory section. These are the ingredients who have the singular function in the dish of binding the ingredients together, tying the ingredients together, or thickening a sauce that the ingredients sit in. This gets a little convoluted because sometimes an ingredient can be a binder and other times it can be something else. This is where your ability to discern the function of the ingredient becomes incredibly important. Remember to think about primary function in a specific recipe, not in all recipes.

Examples of Binders/Thickeners: wheat flour, rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, potato starch, roux, eggs, and condensed cream soups.

Defining Ingredients
A defining ingredient is a specific ingredient inside of a recipe that could normally be defined in another category. IE: protein, carbohydrate, or vegetable. But inside of one specific recipe, it does not serve any other purpose but to define the character or quality of a dish. The defining ingredients are never the main aspect of the dish. They are the supporting players who help to create the dish and emphasis the main players.

Take a television show for example. You have the main character who has conflict with his environment or other people. He is surrounded by supporting characters that help to define the role of the main character in the TV show. Let’s use the classic sitcom Seinfeld as an example. Jerry is the main character. And the whole show is about him, his life, and his experiences. Let’s imagine there is an episode where Jerry simply sits in his living room and stares blankly at the wall for 30 minutes. The main character has not changed. He is still himself, but you know nothing about him because there is nothing for him to interact with or be defined by. If we introduced George, Kramer, or Elaine to this situation, now we have a supporting character with whom Jerry can interact. Let’s say for example that George is having trouble at work. He will express these troubles to Jerry. As a result, Jerry will react to George’s influence. Through this interaction, Jerry’s qualities are defined. This is exactly what a defining ingredient does inside of a recipe.

A defining ingredient interacts with the main ingredient and helps it to define itself within the recipe, making it more interesting. Very specifically, inside of a baked potato soup you have shredded cheddar cheese. While cheese is a protein, you are not using the cheese inside of the dish as a protein. You are using cheddar cheese to define the soup by adding a rich, tangy flavor and enhance the smooth cream sauce that makes up the soup base. This is why it is a defining ingredient and not a protein in this instance. Without the cheddar cheese, the soup would be bland and uninteresting. So remember, a defining ingredient is never the main character but is always a supporting character that helps to define the main character inside of a dish.

Modifying Ingredients
Modifying ingredients are exactly the opposite of thickeners and binders. They specifically reduce the thickness of a recipe. They are always simple ingredients that change the thickness or increase the liquid content of a recipe. These are always liquid ingredients and are used to counter-act the density of thickeners and binders.

Examples of Modifying Ingredients: water, wine, milk, cream, vegetable juice, chicken broth, and beef broth.

Identifying What You Like and Don’t Like

Once you can break down a recipe into its components, it is much more simple to identify what flavors inside of a dish you find pleasant and those that you find offensive. The hardest part is identifying the function of each component, which we just learned how to do. Identifying what you like and don’t like really is as simple as identifying the taste, smell, and texture of each ingredient. Let’s break these 3 ideas down and teach you how to identify them.

Taste
Identifying a taste you do not like really is quite simple. Just like we did in our taste test earlier, plug your nose and put the ingredient in your mouth. Then you need to identify which taste senses are activated: salty, savory, spicy, sour, or sweet. It could be as simple as one of these flavors or a complex combination of these flavors. What you are simply attempting to do is identify what it is you do like and what you don’t like about the taste of this item. Once you can identify the pros and cons of an ingredient, you may then use the Roundness of Flavor technique to balance out and compensate for the taste of that item. Refer to the adjusting flavor chart in our printable downloads section HERE.

Smell
While smell is a much more complicated sense than taste, it too is actually quite simple to identify smells that you love and smells that you hate. Just like with taste, I will invite you to smell all of the ingredients and seasonings inside of the recipe, taking note of what aspects you enjoy and what aspects you do not. In my experience, I find that those who have difficulty identifying flavors and smells will report that some tastes are too “spicy” for them. For me, this was always very confusing as I had simply thought that they did not enjoy the actual heat found in a dish. But upon further pressing for information, it was revealed that it was actually a specific spice found inside of the dish. This specific example was cumin. Once I understood that the warmth and aroma of the cumin was what this person found offensive, I was able to remove this spice from the dish and create a satisfactory meal that they loved. I did this while not modifying the actual spicy taste of the dish.

Because smells are so influential inside of your cooking, many times a less educated person in the realm of food will misreport what they actually find offensive. It is your duty, as a chef, to poke, prod, and investigate further, especially with people who don’t know a lot about food. Often upon further examination, which I assure you they will put up a fight about, you will be able to identify what smell they do not care for and deduce how to remedy this inside of your recipe. It is extremely helpful to teach this person some basic taste and smell terminology so that they may be better prepared to communicate effectively the next time they find something objectionable.

Texture
Texture is a make or break item for many people. My brother loves the flavor of mushrooms. But, if you put a slice of portabella mushroom on his pizza, he will have a conniption-fit! The reason for this is very simply that the texture, or mouth feel, of mushrooms is extremely unpleasant and off-putting to him. He finds the slimy texture of cooked mushrooms to be simply unbearable. As you can see, it does not matter if the taste and aroma are appetizing. Texture alone can over rule the approval of both with a veto of its own. Once you understand that it is the texture, not the taste or smell of an item that is off-putting, it is easy to modify the texture into something your guest will find appealing. In the mushroom example, what I have learned to do, is to finely dice the mushrooms and them sauté them to make a less detectable slimy texture. This process actually worked out for my benefit, because now the mushrooms express a richer flavor than I could extract from them in their larger cut versions. I
encourage you to play around with different sizes of cuts and processing methods, if there is a texture that you find offensive.

Describing Food is Difficult, But You Must Learn How

Recently, I have been watching culinary competition shows. And while many of them can cook extremely well, their ability to describe what they cooked was extremely lacking. This for me, was very shocking, because I have always been a very descriptive person. Most of these competitors simply differed to ethnic sounding words, or even worse, simply listed off ingredients. While it may be pleasing to you use words like “romesco,” “ganache,” and “béchamel” most people have no idea what those words mean or what it tastes like. When you describe the food, you want to use words that paint a mental image, a sense of smell, and provide an expectation of taste. By hitting all the senses of visual, aromatic, and taste, you will
help to build your guest, audience, or family members appetite before the food is even served.

Let’s explore some examples.

Example 1
Barbecue Pulled Pork Sandwich
Smoky and sweet, apple-wood smoked pork shoulder in a dark tangy barbecue sauce. Served on a hearty bun and topped with a sweet bread and butter pickle to lighten the entire sandwich.

Example 2
Caprese Salad
Bright red cherry tomatoes with savory mozzarella and refreshing basil. Marinated in a sweet, yet tangy, red wine vinaigrette to enhance the savory and sweet flavors of the cherry tomatoes.

Example 3
Pepperoni Pizza
Perfectly baked pizza dough covered in sweet marinara sauce. Topped with fresh mozzarella cheese and spicy, fragrant pepperoni. The marinara sauce cuts through the weight of the pepperoni and is finished with a pop of bright fresh basil.

Notice how these examples make you hungry? That is exactly what descriptions of food should do. The purpose of the description is to paint a 3 dimensional scene in your mind and set proper expectations for the meal to come. This is especially important if you ever want to own your own restaurant. Your descriptions of your food are your sales person for each dish.

Examples of Compelling Descriptors
Taste
salty, savory, spicy, sour, sweet, tangy, fresh, delectable, delicious

Smell
smoky, fragrant, aromatic, floral, nutty, fresh, crisp

Touch
crisp, crunchy, comforting, fall apart, tender

Sight
colorful, bright, contrasting

Preparation Method
simple, seared, roasted, charred, smoked, grilled, braised, deep-fried, sautéed, fresh

Examples of Descriptors that Turn You Off
Taste
bland, muted

Smell
woodsy, musky, funky, fermented

Touch
soft, slimy, over-cooked, sponge, hard

Sight
muted, brown

Preparation Method
traditional, baked, blanched, boiled, steeped, steamed, deep-fried, pan fried

Practice describing and learning your palate by using our Tasting Journal page. Visit our printable downloads page HERE.

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About the Author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is an award winning author and chef. He is the author of Chef Ryan's How-to-Cook Cookbook, Cooking for Chemo ...and After!, Cooking for Kids with Cancer, and Chef Ryan Callahan’s Tasting Journal. Chef Ryan won a 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Award (Best Health and Nutrition USA) for his ground-breaking book, Cooking for Chemo ...and After! Chef Ryan Callahan is a hospitality industry veteran with over 15 years of hands-on culinary experience in the kitchen and front of house. When he isn't cooking, eating, talking or thinking about food you can usually find him nestled up with some manga or playing video games on his computer.