How to be a better bartender - UNDERSTANDING FLAVOUR
Updated: Mar 29
Every bartender I've ever met claims to be in search of flavours, balance & unique ingredients. The wilder the combination & the stranger the backstory of an ingredient the more he/she attempts to be a master of it or incorporate it in their cocktails or drinks program. Sometimes we venture so far beyond our understanding that we lose ourselves & forget the basics of listening to our bodies regarding whatever it is we 'thought' we were trying to create versus what we actually taste. The focus of the mind has to always be on what is it we're tasting versus what we 'want' it to taste like. Below is an excerpt from one of my favourite books 'The Flavour Bible' & I always recommend this for any new bartender starting out. Read, then read again & focus on what they author is trying to tell you.
FLAVOR = TASTE + MOUTHFEEL + AROMA +
“THE X FACTOR”: LEARNING TO RECOGNIZE THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD
Magical dishes, magical words: A great cook is, when all is said and done, a great poet. . . . For was it not a visit from the Muses that inspired the person who first had the idea of marrying rice and chicken, grape and thrush, potatoes and entrecôte, Parmesan and pasta, eggplant and tomato, Chambertin and cockerel, liqueur brandy and woodcock, onion and tripe?
—MARCEL E. GRANCHER, CINQUANTE ANS À TABLE (1953)
Our taste buds can perceive only four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The essence of great cooking is to bring these four tastes into balanced harmony to create deliciousness. It’s that simple—and that difficult. After all, flavor is a function not only of taste, but also of smell, touch, sight, and sound. Because we’re human beings, other nonphysical factors come into play, including our emotions, thoughts, and spirits.
Learning to recognize as well as manipulate both the obvious and subtle components of flavor will make you a much better cook. This book will be your companion in the kitchen whenever you wish to create deliciousness.
Learning to cook like a great chef is within the realm of possibility. However, it is something that is rarely taught; it must be “caught.”
Everyone who cooks—or even merely seasons their food at the table before eating—can benefit from mastering the basic principles of making food taste great. This complex subject is simplified by one thing: while the universe may contain a vast number of ingredients and a virtually infinite number of ingredient combinations, the palate can register only the four basic tastes.
Great food balances these tastes beautifully. A great cook knows how to taste, to discern what is needed, and to make adjustments. Once you learn how to season and how to balance tastes, a whole new world opens up to you in cooking. Of course, several factors conspire against your ever doing so—not the least of which is a culture that sees the publication of thousands of new cookbooks annually featuring recipes that promise to dazzle you and your guests if you follow them to the letter. And yet you’re often left wondering why the results aren’t as delicious as promised. That’s because great cooking is never as simple as merely following a recipe. The best cooking requires a discerning palate to know when a dish needs a little something or other—and what to add or do to elevate its flavor.
WHAT IS PERCEIVED BY THE MOUTH
Sweetness. Saltiness. Sourness. Bitterness. Every delicious bite you’ve ever tasted has been a result of these four tastes coming together on your taste buds. We taste them as individual notes, and in concert. Each taste affects the other. For example, bitterness suppresses sweetness. In addition, different tastes affect us in different ways. Saltiness stimulates the appetite, while sweetness satiates it. Take the time to explore the four basic tastes.
It takes the greatest quantity of a substance that is sweet (versus salty, sour, or bitter) to register on our taste buds. However, we can appreciate the balance and “roundness” that even otherwise imperceptible sweetness adds to savory dishes. Sweetness can work with bitterness, sourness—even saltiness. Sweetness can also bring out the flavors of other ingredients, from fruits to mint.
When we banished more than thirty of America’s leading chefs to their own desert islands with only ten ingredients to cook with for the rest of their lives (Culinary Artistry, 1996), the number-one ingredient they chose was salt. Salt is nature’s flavor enhancer. It is the single most important taste for making savory food delicious. (Sweetness, by the way, plays the same role in desserts.)
Sourness is second only to salt in savory food and sugar in sweet food in its importance as a flavor enhancer. Sour notes—whether a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of vinegar—add sparkle and brightness to a dish. Balancing a dish’s acidity with its other tastes is critical to the dish’s ultimate success.
Humans are most sensitive to bitterness, and our survival wiring allows us to recognize it in even relatively tiny amounts. Bitterness balances sweetness, and can also play a vital role in cutting richness in a dish. While bitterness is more important to certain people than to others, some chefs see it as an indispensable “cleansing” taste—one that makes you want to take the next bite, and the next.
In addition to the four basic tastes, there is growing evidence of a fifth taste, umami, which we first wrote about in 1996 in Culinary Artistry. It is often described as the savory or meaty “mouth-filling” taste that is noticeable in such ingredients as anchovies, blue cheese, mushrooms, and green tea, and in such flavorings as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the primary component of branded seasonings such as Ac´cent.
In addition to its sense of taste, the mouth has a sense of “touch” and can register other sensations, such as temperature and texture, that all play a role in flavor. These aspects of food, generally characterized as mouthfeel, help to bring food into alignment with our bodies, and bring some of a dish’s greatest interest and pleasure. The crunchiness and crispiness of a dish contribute sound as well as textural appeal.
I always pay attention to temperature. I look at what I feel like eating now. If it is cold and rainy outside, I make sure that soup is on the menu. If it is hot outside, I make sure there are lots of salads on the menu.
—ANDREW CARMELLINI, A VOCE (NEW YORK CITY)
Temperature is one of the foremost among the other sensations that can be perceived by the mouth. The temperature of our food even affects our perception of its taste; for example, coldness suppresses sweetness. Boston pastry chef Rick Katz, with whom Andrew cooked at Lydia Shire’s restaurant Biba, first taught him the lesson of pulling out the ice cream a few minutes before serving so that the slight rise in temperature could maximize its flavor.
A food’s temperature can affect both the perception and enjoyment of a dish. A chilled carrot soup on a hot summer day—and hot roasted carrots on a cold winter day—could be said to be “healing” through their ability to bring our bodies into greater alignment with our environment.
I would never serve pike on a base of chowder, because balance and texture are so important when it comes to creating a dish. Is there a rich component, a lean component, a crunchy component, and a cleansing component? Are all the taste sensors activated so that you want to go back for a second bite? Cod works better over a richer preparation like chowder. I would also make sure to choose the right technique for the cod: I would not poach it, because if it is poached it would be silky on silky. If it is seared, it is crunchy on silky—which is more appealing because of the contrast.
—SHARON HAGE, YORK STREET (DALLAS)
A food’s texture is central to its ability to captivate and to please. We value pureed and/or creamy foods (such as soups and mashed potatoes) as “comfort” foods, and crunchiness and crispiness (such as nachos and caramel corn) as “fun” foods. We enjoy texture as it activates our other senses, including touch, sight, and sound.
While babies by necessity eat pureed foods, most adults enjoy a variety of textures, particularly crispiness and crunchiness, which break up the smoothness of texture—or even the simple monotony—of dishes.
Our mouths can also sense what we often incorrectly refer to as “hotness,” meaning piquancy’s “sharpness” and/or “spiciness”—whether boldly as in chile peppers, or more subtly as in a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. Some people find the experience of these picante (as the Spanish refer to it, or piccante as the Italians do) tastes more pleasurable than others.
Our mouths “pucker” to register astringency. This is a drying sensation caused by the tannins in red wine or strong tea, and occasionally in foods such as walnuts, cranberries, and unripe persimmons.
WHAT IS PERCEIVED BY THE NOSE
Aroma is thought to be responsible for as much as 80 percent or more of flavor. This helps to explain the popularity of aromatic ingredients, from fresh herbs and spices to grated lemon zest. Incorporating aromatic ingredients can enhance the aroma of your dish and, in turn, its flavor.
Some qualities are perceived through both the sense of taste and smell, such as:
Pungency refers to the taste and aroma of such ingredients as horseradish and mustard that are as irritating—albeit often pleasantly—to the nose as they are to the palate.
Chemesthesis refers to other sensations that tickle (e.g., the tingle of carbonated beverages) or play tricks on (e.g., the false perception of “heat” from chile peppers, or “cold” from peppermint) our gustatory senses.
WHAT IS PERCEIVED BY THE HEART, MIND, AND SPIRIT
“The X Factor”
When we are present to what we are eating, food has the power to affect our entire selves. We experience food not only through our five physical senses—including our sense of sight, which we address first below—but also emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually.
Heightening Flavor with Dominique and Cindy Duby of Wild Sweets
We believe that food preparation is 60 percent ingredients and 40 percent technique.
—DOMINIQUE AND CINDY DUBY, WILD SWEETS (VANCOUVER)
Flavor is the combination of the taste you experience on your tongue and the aroma you experience through your nose. We believe that as much as 90 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually aroma. When you eat a pineapple, the flavor really comes through the nose. So, if your pineapple is not ripe, it won’t have much aroma. It may taste sweet, but it won’t taste like pineapple.
There are two ways to bring flavor to a dish, through aroma or through chemical reaction. We always say that cooking is no different from doing a lab experiment: The minute you add heat to a raw product, you are changing the status of that product. When you use the Maillard reaction—which is what happens when you sear a piece of meat—you are getting a reaction of caramelization from the carbohydrates and amino acids. This chemical reaction creates flavor.
To add aroma to a dish, think of a piece of fish cooked in broth with herbs or lemon. The problem is that the flavor escapes into the air. If you walk into a room and it smells great, that means there is not much flavor left in the dish. The aroma has escaped. So, if you want to add aroma to a dish, the best way is through sous-vide cooking [which cooks encased food at long, slow temperatures]. This method traps the aroma into what you are cooking without letting it escape.
The problem is that sous vide is not available for home cooks. What a home cook can do is “sealed cooking,” where you take a heavy-duty freezer ziplock bag, put in what you want to cook with the liquid, then cook it over a steady heat on your stove. Another method that works is putting the bag in a pot with a single-cup water heater that goes to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit and, from time to time, stirring the water. [Note: Care must be taken with this low-temperature method of cooking to avoid food poisoning.]
This is a way to put—and keep—a lot of flavor in whatever you are cooking.
The visual presentation of a dish can greatly enhance the pleasure we derive from it. Just a few decades ago, it was still possible to taste a dish with the eyes, but only those who’d spent time in worldclass kitchens knew the tricks of such artistic plate presentation. Since the advent of Art Culinaire and the Web, it’s become easier to reproduce a great dish’s elaborate form than its exquisite flavor.
How a dish looks can also affect our perception of its flavor in more direct ways; for example, the deeper the color of a berry sorbet, the more berry flavor is perceived. The stronger the connection between a particular food and a particular color, the stronger the flavor impact—such as berries with red, lemon with yellow, and lime with green.