Lesson 4: Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Spices

Now that we are familiar with taste, its complexities, and the basics of our other senses, we need to talk a little more in depth about smell. Or, what I call “the nose of your food.” You can make many fantastic dishes with very basic ingredients, like kosher salt, MSG, black pepper, red wine vinegar, and granulated sugar. But, what we want to do is give our food some character and maybe add a few aromatic qualities to give our food even more appeal. To do this, we are going to add spices and herbs. Many times people get confused as to what the differences are between the two. It’s very simple.

Spices tend to be derived from the roots, bark, flowers, or seeds of a flavorful plant.
Herbs are dried (or fresh) leaves of edible plants that impart an aromatic flavor.

To make it easier:

cinnamon (bark)
nutmeg (seed)
cloves (flower)
coriander (seeds)
cumin (seed)
ginger (root)
black pepper (seed)

oregano (leaves)
basil (leaves)
thyme (leaves)
marjoram (leaves)
lavender (needles)
rosemary (needles)
cilantro (leafy vegetation of the coriander plant)

For your convenience, there is a Herbs and Spices Chart on our printable downloads page HERE.

As you’ll learn in your cooking journey, eastern cooking styles favor spices and western styles favor herbs. This simply has to do with the local availability of products as the different cultures and cooking techniques developed. The other difference is that spices tend to be used in conjunction with other spices, like in curry. Whereas herbs tend to be used by themselves, like a sprig of rosemary on lamb.

A fantastic way to remember the difference between herbs and spices is: “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Herbs are green and freshest too!”

I want to take some time to talk about the age of herbs and spices and how it effects the potency of its flavor. Time changes the flavor of everything regardless of whether it is fresh fruit, a fresh steak, or dried foods such as dried spices.

With dried herbs and spices, it is really important that:
1 They stay dry.
2 They are not too old because they will loose their potency.

Just because something is dried or preserved does not mean that it will keep its strength when it comes to flavor. Simply remember to keep in mind that time can not only diminish the flavor but also alter or change the flavor of your foods. Think about yogurt. Yogurt starts as milk. Then bacterial cultures are added. Time passes and changes the flavor, structure, and consistency of the product resulting in something completely different in the end.

Potency of spices is very important to take into consideration because measurements used will vary based on the strength of the spice. Oregano that is five years old is not going to be nearly as strong as oregano that was just recently dried. You will have to use a lot more of the five-year-old oregano to compensate for the loss of flavor. Also, certain spices and herbs will actually change flavor and smell over time. This is especially true for herbs like thyme and sage. They get musty and stinky. Cinnamon is an example of a spice that will lose its potency too. You need to know this because recipes will call for a certain amount of an ingredient. And if your seasonings are stale, the recipe will not turn out right. The flavor profile will end up being completely off.

Many times you will blend both herbs and spices to bring out the flavor of whatever food you are preparing. A great rule of thumb is to remember not to over-season but to start out by under-seasoning. We always want to under-season our food while cooking. We do this because you can always add more seasonings, but not necessarily take away. So when you are seasoning a dish, season with about half the amount of seasoning that the recipe calls for. As the dish gets closer to finishing, taste the dish. Then, using the Roundness of Flavor technique, slowly add the additional seasonings
that the recipe will require. Make certain that you are adding these ingredients in small increments. If you follow this method, you will never end up with a meal that is over-seasoned.

You should also keep in mind that you may become more or less sensitive to different seasonings in different recipes depending on the ingredients in the recipe. This is especially true with spicy. Because spicy flavors can vary in strength from brand to brand and even within the product itself, always add just a little bit of spicy at a time. A great example of this is a container of red pepper that I have. One dash of this red pepper is equivalent to 4 or 5 dashes from other bottles from the same manufacturer. This same fact is true for everything that we eat. This is because no two of the same item are identical. Two roma tomatoes, even from the same plant, will not be identical in every way. The same is true for humans, dogs, cats, eggplants, and everything else that is or was ever living. This is simply the nature of life in the universe. Because it was living and growing, it is therefore always unique.










“Cooking is about building flavors like building a brick wall. We stack the flavors brick by brick until we have a wall. Throwing all the seasonings in at once seems like you would be building that wall faster. But in the end, all you are truly left with is a large heap of bricks.”

The other thing you need to remember when cooking is that you are not trying to change the flavor of the ingredients but compliment what you are already cooking. Th e goal is to bring out the naturally occurring flavors of the ingredients. Th is is one of the areas of cooking where Chinese and Italian cooking styles agree: always season to emphasize and celebrate how delicious your ingredients are! A good rule of thumb is if both the Chinese and the Italians are doing it, it must be good!

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Lesson 2: Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste itself, is in reality only a small fraction of the sensory experience of cooking and eating. What you actually taste when you eat are 5 primal flavors which are: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. Each one of these basic taste sensations lends itself as a piece of the whole sensory experience.

Flavor is a tricky and complicated concept. It is made up of many different aspects of senses as well as senses in their entirety. Let’s start with the basics of the tongue. The human tongue only tastes a few basic flavors. This is actually such a controversial subject that it is still hotly debated whether or not certain flavors constitute tasting or just a secondary experience. The most commonly accepted flavors that your tongue tastes are: salty, savory, sour, bitter, and sweet. I like to add spicy to this list as well, seeing as you experience spicy on your tongue just like the other flavors. I don’t consider bitter to be a flavor, but I consider it to be a survival mechanism. Therefore, I do not include it in the 5 flavors. So for simplicity—and for our sanity—we will say that the following are the flavors that you actually taste with your tongue: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet.

Balancing The Five Flavors

When a chef cooks, what he is trying to do is bring out the fullness of flavor, or Roundness of Flavor. Take a look at the chart below for a great visual representation of what I call, Roundness of Flavor.

Balancing the 5 Flavors

Chef Ryan Callahan's Balancing The 5 Flavors Chart


Imagine the circular dish above is mounted on a thin piece of metal so that it acts as a scale. As you apply weight to any category, like salty, the dish will tip toward the salty side. As you place each flavor on the dish, it will lean from side to side, eventually balancing out. What you want to do is weigh out the proper amounts of flavor onto this imaginary dish so that the dish doesn’t topple over and become one-sided.

Cooking is about balance, harmony, and pulling the natural flavors out of your ingredients. All food items that you eat have their own natural flavors and will pre-stack the weight of the dish. As we add items to our meals, we need to be conscious of their natural flavors and how they will make the dish balance.

To be blunt, there is simply no way to teach someone to cook without physically doing it. You can learn many other disciplines simply by reading about it. But, cooking is both art and science. Just like you can never truly create great works of art simply by looking at Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings.
You will never develop the physical techniques of the intricacies inherent inside of the brush strokes to capture the delicateness of color. Such is the same with great food. Learning how to cook is exactly like this. You must try and fail and try and fail until you learn how things work and why. Just like the yoga master refers to the art of yoga as “my practice,” so must we take this same approach toward cooking. It is an art that you will continually become greater at every day, every week, and every year. You will learn and grow just like a tree until your roots run so far into the ground that you are an immovable object with years of strength and experience to pull from. So it is with this mind-set, we will continue to move forward so that we may practice and learn.

What I would like to explain about Roundness of Flavor is that I actually developed this cooking technique to specifically help my mother while she was going through cancer treatments. But, Roundness of Flavor isn’t just for cancer patients. It is also an incredibly effective and fool-proof system for progressively and accurately seasoning your food so that it turns out nearly perfect every single time.

Below is the method I follow while creating my own Roundness of Flavor. I do this with every single dish, no matter how simple or how complex. This is the creating flavor part of Roundness of Flavor.

When I season dishes, I always season them in the following order:
1 salty
2 savory
3 spicy
4 sour
5 sweet

The 5 Flavors










Meet Salty Simon!

Salty is the most basic flavor. It is also the most powerful. It amplifies all other flavors. We start with salty to bring out the naturally occurring flavors in the dish. If we did this flavor later, it could overpower the rest of the dish. Adding salt late in the cooking process could make the flavors too aggressive. Salt also acts as a natural tenderizer. It works its way into meat giving it a massive boost of flavor. Food without salt of any kind is extremely bland. If you can not have salt because of sodium, consider using a salt substitute. Salt is also one of the flavors that you cannot correct if you add too much. If you place too much salt in a dish, it is simply ruined and you have to start over.

Examples of salty items: kosher salt, sea salt, soy sauce, and hard cheeses like parmesan.










Meet Savory Sophia!

I always season savory second because it is the least pronounced of all the flavors. But, it is the most important. Th e reason it is so important is because it gives you that sense of healthiness and nutrition that comes from a home-cooked meal. Savory is the fullness of taste. It is the sense of warmth that you get when eating a protein filled item. Savory is actually activated by the presence of salty flavor. Th is is the reason why a steak without salt is extremely bland. But if you add a light pinch of salt, it makes the steak taste like a flavor explosion. Th ere are many ways to create a savory flavor, whether it is simply adding savory ingredients or using heat to brown your meats and vegetables. Browning these items makes them more savory naturally as well.

Examples of savory items: soy sauce, MSG, anchovies, green tea, mushrooms, tomatoes, and red










Meet Spicy Stella!

Spicy comes third because it is our second amplifying flavor. It is the ingredient that fills our warmth portion of the dish. I also season with spicy third because it is the easiest to counter-act by adding more vinegar to balance out the spicy. Please remember that just because you are adding a
touch of spicy to a dish does not mean that the dish will necessarily be spicy. Great cooking always encompasses a bit of an imperceptible spicy note that just adds a fuller body. So never feel guilty adding a little bit of spicy to your dishes, especially in amounts that a person cannot detect. To add ingredients that a person cannot name or quite put their fi nger on is the hallmark of a great chef.

Examples of spicy items: black pepper, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, chilies, and many more.










Meet Sour Sarah!

Sour comes fourth because it is the lightener. Everything we have put into our dishes so far has added breadth, fullness, and warmth. Now, we add complexity. Sour brings freshness that you cannot get through any other means. It removes the physical weight of a dish, similar to how moon boots
remove the feeling of weight from your body.

Sour is an amazing flavor that is far underutilized. It can make you feel as if you were eating the freshest, lightest fruit salad in the world. But when applied too heavily and too liberally, it can make your mouth pucker and eyes water. With a masterful hand, sour can be applied in just the right
amounts to give heavy dishes a light feeling in your mouth. It can also remove the spiciness while amplifying the flavor of chilies. And, it can cleanse the palate and bring delight to any person who wields it. In my opinion, mastery of sour is another hallmark of a great chef.

Examples of sour items: red vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice
wine vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and pickle brine.










Meet Sweet Sherman!

Sweet comes last because it is the great balancer. Sweet activates the pleasure centers of your brain and gets you really excited about eating whatever it is you are eating. Sweet can cover many mistakes when cooking and should be used last because it creates our final piece of complex flavoring. Chinese cooks have a saying that sugar always follows vinegar. Th is is because sour needs a balancer just like the idea of yin and yang. When yin gets out of control, it needs yang to balance. Th e philosophy is all about finding the balance between the two. Th e same is true for fire and water. Fire keeps water in check by boiling it. And water keeps fire in check by keeping it from getting too hot and consuming everything around it. If you have too much fire, everything gets burned. If you have too much water, the passion and the drive is drowned out. Th e same is true for sour and sweet. You must keep the two in balance at all times. Sweet also allows you to remove or cover the acidity of a dish. Hence, why most people will add a healthy pour of sugar to their marinara sauce.

Sweet is a place where I get a lot of irrational feedback. I am not telling you to pour a pound of sugar into your meals or eat nothing but refined sugars. What I am explaining to you here is that sweetness balances out the dish. It is one of your 5 fundamental flavors. And, it must be mastered and utilized to truly cook like a great chef. A lot of people are afraid of sugar because somebody offhandedly said to them once that people need to eat less sugar.

What those people were trying to actually express was that most people ingest too much candy, sweets, junk food, soft drinks, etc. When you take control of your food and cook every meal at home, you are not going to end up eating too much sugar simply because the nature of cooking at
home does not make it easy to overload yourself on sugars. What overloads you on sugar is eating a pint of ice cream, followed by drinking 2 liters of soda, and eating a handful of hard candies to finish off the meal. Remember all things in moderation.

Sugar is actually the basic energy that your body uses to fuel itself. The reason your body is hot is because your body is regularly combusting sugars inside of your cells to regulate your body temperature. When there is too much sugar, your body converts it for long term storage into fat cells
which is how your metabolic process works. This is why if you eat too much sugar, you gain weight. If you eat too little sugar, you loose weight. The energy inside of food is measured in calories, which is why all of our food labels are labeled with the amount of calories that are contained within the
food. This is so that you can empower yourself to make decisions on how many calories you need to fuel your body. It’s not scary. It’s science.

Sweet can be sourced from the following: raw granulated sugar, brown sugar, fruit juices, honey,
and an innumerable amount of places.

I follow the salty, savory, spicy, sour, sweet method because my experience has taught me that this is how you should season. It takes into account many different theories, styles, and cultures perspectives on cooking. As I stated previously, I have found that cooking is both art and science. It is a beautiful alchemy that encompasses so much of the human spirit, life experience, culture, memories, and the soul; that it is like an art. The simple whiff of your favorite dish can transport you to places and times that you didn’t even remember existed. It can pull emotions so deep that you didn’t even know you had. This is the art of cooking.

To bring it all around, the reason I season in this method is two fold. Years of experience show me scientifically that this is the right way to season. And, years of artistic endeavor also support this method.

Palate Cleansing

Palate Cleansing is a simple but effective technique that you need to know when you are cooking. I talk in great detail about Palate Cleansing in my first cookbook, Cooking for Chemo ...and After! Palate Cleansing is extremely important to bring balance to dishes that may feel too heavy in your
mouth. It is especially useful in taking heavy dishes, like pot roast, and making them more palatable by lightening the perceived weight of the dish in your mouth.

3 Ways To Use Palate Cleansing

Vinegar and Sugar Method
By adding 1-2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and 1-2 tablespoons of granulated sugar during the seasoning part of your recipe when cooking. The vinegar lightens the perceived weight of the dish and the sugar masks the flavor of the vinegar.

Fresh Herb Method
By topping the finished dish with fresh herbs that naturally Palate Cleanse. These herbs are cilantro, parsley, basil, and mint.

Citric Acid Method
By using fresh citrus juices in your cooking or squeezing them over the top of your finished food. This includes: oranges, lemons, and limes.

Palate Cleansing uses sour flavor to combat the weight of a dish. If you follow the proper seasoning order (salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet), you will naturally use palate cleansers in the effort to obtain Roundness of Flavor.

One last thing, when you are trying to correct a dish, always add seasonings in small increments. You don’t want to over-correct the dish and have to start over. Visit our printable downloads page HERE to get a FREE Flavor Correction Chart.

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Lesson 1: What is Flavor?

Lesson 1: What is flavor? And how do we experience it?

What is flavor? And how do we experience it?

If someone were to ask you to define the idea of flavor to someone who had never eaten before, how would you describe it? Would you aim for the scientific concept of the action of chewing and the detection of chemical compounds and flavors by the tongue? Would you then go on to explain that the human tongue is a sensory organ used to move chewed food into your esophagus and it also serves to detect flavors in your mouth? Would you go for an artistic answer and say that flavor is the culmination of ingredients and preparation methods, which then we experience when we eat?

Let’s begin by defining flavor: What is flavor, and Where does it come from?

Flavor is both scientific and artistic. Scientifically, it is a series of chemical compounds that are created or broken down during the cooking and preparatory process in the creation of edible and digestible compounds. Artistically, it is defined as the human experience of eating and drinking. This experience evokes emotional responses and fills the brain with associations both past and present. From my perspective, flavor is very simply the way that your body and brain perceive and understand what you are eating. Unlike the common perception, eating is not limited to your mouth (taste) and your nose (smell).

Flavor and the eating experience encompasses all 5 basic physiological senses. It also includes your 6th sense of memory and association. In this aspect, you experience the eating experience with your entire body.

These senses are:










Taste: The physical contact of the tongue to your food. This sense is limited to only 5 sensory perceptions: Salty, Savory, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.









Smell: Your sense of smell exists inside of your nose. It is the single most advanced and detailed piece of sensory equipment on your body. You can distinguish over 1 trillion unique scents. Most of the eating experience is actually experience by your sense of smell. Any flavors you perceive beyond the basic flavors (Salty, Savory, Spicy, Sour and Sweet) are actually nasally perceived scents.









Sight: Your sense of sight is not as broad as your sense of smell, but can still perceive several million shades of colors. This sense is also the most influential in humans for decision making purposes. Ugly food turns people off fast!









Touch: Your sense of touch is experienced in a few ways:

1 You physically touch your food with your hands, mouth, and tongue.

2 It also helps you to perceive textures, such as crunchy and soft.

Your sense of touch helps you to decide if food is comforting or fresh and playful.









Sound: Your sense of sound allows you to prepare for the eating experience from a distance, and helps you to identify how to associate your present eating experience. In addition to this, crunchy foods are not just experienced in your sense of touch. “Crunch” is actually an onomatopoeia for the sound that food makes while being crushed by your teeth. This sound travels up your jawbone and into your tympanic membrane allowing you to hear your crunchy nachos!

Memory and Association: Memory and Association play a massive, if not subconscious, role in the eating experience. When you smell a food, it triggers a whole reaction in your brain where the memories and learned associations of that smell come flooding back into your conscious mind.

Flavors themselves actually do come from the chemical compounds contained within the foods. But as you can see, the perception of flavors is very complicated.

This concludes Lesson 1 and the basics on the origin of flavor. In Lesson 2, we will discuss Taste and the 5 Flavors.

Learn HOW to cook in a new, fun, and exciting way! Click here for Chef Ryan's How to Cook Cookbook