Sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami – is getting taste right an art or a science?

The art of seasoning is about far more than adding a few grinds of salt and pepper.

Balancing flavours relies on the perfect selection of the five basic tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami. When you get it right, there’s no doubt that a perfect balance of tastes is essential in achieving ultimate deliciousness.

Sometimes you follow a new recipe to the T, yet the food is lacking something when you taste it. Most recipes always need a little tweaking, and when we provide recipes on our cooking classes, we always remind the participants to ‘use the recipe as a guide’.  Thereafter it will always need tweaking to account for different cooking conditions and personal tastes. In all our courses where we present recipes, we strive for that perfect balance of flavours, in what I call the ‘Full Mouth Flavour’, where all of your mouth’s taste buds are stimulated at the same time, providing an overall sense of comfort in the food you’re tasting, and your mouth literally starts to sing…

But balancing flavours does not come all at once.  When we start working with tastes and flavours, we learn to pick up the differences in the basic flavour senses, starting with the obvious sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami. Then we add another component which is not really a ‘flavour sense’, but more of a flavour enhancer – chilli. This means that we’re actually working with 6 flavour components, not just the 5 basics.

In South-East Asian cooking, it becomes a little simpler, as we work with only 4 flavour senses – sweet, sour, salt and hot. This is what makes the Asians are the masters of flavour balancing.

The balance of spiciness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness must be considered not only in each dish, but also between the six or more dishes shared per sitting. But flavour balancing is not that easy, and it takes practice.

You need to first consider your main ingredient be it meat, fish or veg, and then decide what components you’re adding to the dish to make it a perfectly balanced dish. You need not stimulate all of the flavour senses in each dish, but the added ingredients in the dish need to make the main component of the dish stand out so that the favours of this component are enhanced by the additional components. Here are a few concepts that may be new to you, and a good ways to start off your balancing techniques.

  1. Adding salt does more than make food taste salty – it also enhances sweetness and suppresses bitterness.
  2. Adding sourness, sugar or chilli may help if you’ve added too much salt. Diluting the dish with a little more water can also help to diminish the intensity.
  3. If your dish is too salty, add a little sweetness. Sugar will also enhance the chilli (hot) component of your dish.
  4. Sourness (lime/lemon) will remove some of the sweetness and enhance the heat and saltiness
  5. If you’ve added too much chilli, you’ll need to dilute the dish.  Always taste your chillies before adding them to a dish as they can ruin a dish.