Did you know that the human tongue can sense five tastes? Learning how to identify and balance these tastes will help you refine your palate, allowing you to create dynamic, well-rounded dishes in your kitchen without following a recipe. You’ll also be able to pinpoint why a dish tastes off so you can fix it.
Imagine the flavor of your favorite recipe or snack. Maybe it’s the savory richness of a hearty stew. Perhaps it’s the fresh burst of sweetness that comes when you bite into a pie. Or maybe it’s the tangy crunch of salt and vinegar chips. Almost every great bite starts with a proper balance of the five tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.
Developing your palate, the process of learning how to taste and balance flavors, is a skill that great chefs never stop working on. As you cook, taste your individual ingredients, try to isolate different flavors, and work on determining what might be absent or underrepresented in a dish.
Once you begin to develop and refine your palate, you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s missing and achieve a harmonious balance of flavors, you want to understand the key characteristics of the five primary tastes and how you can make the most of each one in your kitchen. I want to cover a few terms first to avoid any confusion: taste, flavor, and palate.
Taste vs Flavor: What’s The Difference?
The words “taste” and “flavor” are often used interchangeably, which creates a bit of confusion. Taste happens inside the mouth, mostly on the tongue, but there are also taste buds in other areas such as the soft palate. When food touches our taste buds, information is passed along to the brain, giving the sensation of taste.
Flavor is more nuanced, resulting from a combination of taste and aroma. Many scientists believe taste and aroma are the only contributors to our perception of flavor, while others believe that things like temperature and mouth-feel also play a role.
Think of it like this:
- A piece of chocolate might have a sweet and slightly bitter taste, but its flavor is chocolate.
- Two people can both taste that something is sweet, but might perceive the flavor differently. This is why one person might love chocolate while the other person dislikes it.
What is a Palate?
The palate refers to a couple things. If you touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you’re touching your palate, or the upper surface of the mouth that separates oral and nasal cavities.
The concept of developing or refining your palate means training your taste buds to differentiate between more nuanced flavors. Once you’ve developed your palate, you’ll become very comfortable seasoning recipes to taste and understanding how to fix recipes that taste off.
The Five Tastes
Salt is the ultimate flavor enhancer; it’s essential for bringing out the distinctive tastes and aromas of other ingredients. If you find that a dish tastes a bit flat, or that certain flavors aren’t pronounced enough, a pinch of salt may be exactly what you need to coax out additional depth and brightness.
Saltiness is a personal preference, largely influenced by how much salt you consume, which is why so many recipes recommend adding salt “to taste.” If you’re unsure about how much salt to add, start slowly and taste often. You can always add more, but overpowering a salty flavor is difficult.
Salty Ingredients: Soy sauce, olives, anchovies, feta, cured meats
If a dish is too salty…
Start by adding a small amount of honey, balsamic vinegar, or sugar. If the flavor persists, try diluting the dish with water or additional amounts of your non-salty ingredients.
Add more salt when…
A dish is bland or bitter.
There’s a reason why we turn to a sugary treats when we’re feeling sad; sweetness actually trigger our brains to release endorphins. There’s almost nothing more satisfying than a dessert done right, but sweetness is easy to overdo, resulting in one-note dishes that leave you feeling unpleasant.
Sweet recipes are often best when they also include a proper balance of tastes associated with savory dishes. Dessert recipes are often improved by adding a pinch of salt. This is why so many people love salted caramel and bittersweet chocolate. It even applies to French fries with ketchup (while not a dessert, ketchup is sweet and acidic. More on acidity below).
A hint of sweetness can also add complexity to savory recipes; try adding something sweet to your favorite chili or stew to brighten its flavor profile.
Sweet Ingredients: Sugar, maple syrup, fresh and dried fruit, honey
If a dish is too sweet…
Add a hint of sourness with lemon juice or vinegar to cut through the sweetness. A pinch of salt might also help.
Add more sweetness when…
A dish is too bitter; something sweet will balance the bitterness.
People sometimes confuse sourness and bitterness, which is understandable. They both have negative connotations, but they’re essential for balancing flavor.
There’s a simple way to tell the difference between these two tastes: sourness is produced by the presence of acid in an ingredient. In fact, this mouth-puckering taste is sometimes referred to as acidity.
Acidity is essential for balancing recipes, particularly when you’re working with heavier ingredients. A squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar can add much-needed brightness if a dish tastes too bland, stodgy, or one-dimensional. As with salt, it’s best to add slowly and taste often when adding sour ingredients.
Sour Ingredients: Lemon, lime, buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar, cranberries
If a dish is too sour…
Add something sweet (think about the perfectly balanced sweet and sour taste of homemade lemonade). A pinch of salt can also balance out sour flavors.
Add more sourness (acidity) when…
A dish is bland (like it’s missing something) or a bit too spicy.
Humans and animals have evolved to be suspicious of bitter flavors, because bitterness can be an indicator of inedible and/or poisonous plants (this is why bitter apple spray is a great deterrent for pets). Too much bitterness can create a very unpleasant flavor profile.
However, science has recently shown that many bitter foods (like brussels sprouts and kale) have major health benefits. Bitterness is also important for balancing sweet flavors. Think about popular beverage pairings for desserts, like bitter digestifs and coffee, that add interest and contrast to chocolate and other sweets.
Bitter Ingredients: Arugula, radishes, coffee, dark chocolate, mustard, walnuts
If a dish is too bitter…
Add salt, which can help to cut bitter flavors.
Add more bitterness when…
A dish is too cloyingly sweet (think dense cakes or other rich desserts).
Umami (Japanese for “pleasant, savory taste”) is the youngest member of the flavor family, not scientifically identified or widely recognized until the twentieth century.
Often described as savory or meaty, this flavor naturally occurs in foods that are rich in certain amino acids—predominantly glutamate. Umami flavors can also be developed using techniques like aging, drying, and curing.
Though umami is often confused with saltiness, it has a distinctive depth and comforting quality that goes beyond salt. Umami is key to enhancing savory dishes; if the flavor of something savory feels a bit weak or underdeveloped, umami might be the answer.
Umami Ingredients: Parmesan, meat broth, soy sauce, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes, fish sauce, cured meats
If a dish has too much umami…
Increase the amount of neutral-flavored ingredients already in the dish (like vegetables).
Add more umami when…
A savory dish needs more intensity, or feels incomplete.
Salads Are a Great Place to Experiment With Balancing Taste
If you’re looking for an easy way to begin refining your palate, start with salads. The perfect salad always has a proper balance of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.
My favorite salads always use bitter greens. Baby arugula and radicchio make the other salad ingredients pop! If I prepare a salad using a non-bitter green like spinach, I often try to add a bitter ingredient like radishes.
Here are some salad recipes to get you started:
- Mixed Greens Salad with Feta, Blood Oranges, Mint and Pistachios – you get sweetness from blood oranges, saltiness and umami from feta, bitterness from arugula, and sourness from the vinaigrette.
- Grilled Zucchini Salad with Feta and Sweet Croutons – the croutons are sweet, the feta is salty, the lemon juice is sour, and the arugula is bitter.
- Mediterranean Salad with Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette – can you dissect the ingredients in this one and figure it out? I bet you can!