To create amazing food consistently, learning how to combine and balance flavors is an essential skill. Most chefs will argue there is nothing more important in the kitchen. They frequently taste test their food to ensure the balance of flavor is perfect.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the types of taste so that you can make delicious food without a recipe. You’ll discover how flavors are used in cooking, the tastes of common ingredients, and how to combine them for the best results.
Table of Contents
Balancing and enhancing flavors
Every food we eat has a unique flavor. In cooking, it’s all about combining ingredients that balance or enhance each other. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how that might look in the kitchen.
- A side dish of bitter-tasting rapi or Brussel sprouts will cut through a heavy meat dish.
- Sweet hoisin sauce balances out a spicy stir fry.
- Salty gravy can be enhanced by a splash of sour lemon juice.
- Sweet vanilla ice cream is delicious with a swirl of salted caramel.
Introducing the flavor hex
To balance the flavor profile of a dish, it’s helpful to understand that foods can be categorized into salty, sweet, umami, sour, bitter, and spicy. Once you learn to identify what a type of food tastes of, you can use the following diagram (we named it the flavor hex) as a powerful tool. It helps deliver amazing food by creating balanced dishes.
Got a spicy meal planned tonight? Make sure you have something sour, like ponzu sauce, to provide some relief. Cooking a heavy roast dinner? Some bitter greens will complement the rich meat nicely. The flavor hex is invaluable for creating mouth-watering food.
A diagram explaining flavor profiles
What tastes can we detect in food?
Let’s take a closer look at some good examples of each type of taste the human tongue can detect. We’ll also discuss how to rescue dishes that are out of balance.
Salt is a linchpin for any dish. Used in moderation, it does a great job of enhancing the other ingredients. Without it, many dishes would be quite bland.
A good quality kosher salt, Fleur de Sel, or sea salt flakes will bring the best out of any dish. Cheaper table salt tends to taint the flavors.
Salt isn’t the only way to dial up the saltiness. Other options include dried meats, capers, hard cheese, olives, smoked salmon, and salami are just a few examples of salty food. In Italian cooking, anchovies are often added to pasta sauces and other savory dishes to enhance the saltiness of the dish.
If you’ve experienced salty gravy you’ll know there is such a thing as too much salt. In any recipe, always add salt slowly through the cook and frequently taste. If it’s too late for that, try to mask it with a sweet burst of honey; acidity from vinegar or lemon juice will also help. Salty black bean noodles are great with ponzu sauce that’s sweet and also sour thanks to the addition of citrusy yuzu.
On its own in ice cream, or used to balance savory flavors in the main course, sweetness is a welcome addition to many dishes. It can be added to food using products like sugar, molasses, and agave. There is also an increasing range of low/no sugar options such as monk fruit or stevia.
For a natural approach to adding sweetness to the menu, try using honey, bell peppers, butternut squash, onions, and most fruits. Vegetables that have a subtle hint of sweetness like sweet potatoes or beets are enhanced by the umami flavor from roasted mushrooms or miso.
Too much sweetness is never a good thing. To provide some relief from the onslaught of sweet, almost any other flavor will help. Salt is excellent added to overly sweet ice cream; spicy chili powder adds extra depth to a simple hot chocolate; tart lemon balances the sweetness of lemon meringue pie.
A swig of vinegar or a mug of lemon juice tastes awful to most of us. The intense tangy and sour punch is too much for most sensitive taste buds. But their high levels of acidity brighten dull food. Whether you have a sweet, spicy, or salty dish, a burst of sour is a good option.
Sweet and sour Chinese dishes are popular and Indian chefs will often use yogurt in their curries to offset the spiciness. They’re both examples of sour ingredients improving a dish.
Sourness can come from more than just lemons and vinegar. Other examples include fermented kimchi, pickles, some apples, tamarind paste, rhubarb, wine, yuzu, and soy sauce. Dairy products like goat cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk also have a sour element to them.
If there is too much sourness, then counter it with salt. People who eat raw amla fruit often add a sprinkle of salt to deal with its sour, astringent flavor.
Adding sweet ingredients may also help. An unpleasant sour lemonade is drastically improved with a scoop of sugar.
The thought of eating bitter food can make many people cringe, especially when it’s overly astringent. Eating raw grapefruit on its own is a challenge for some. But bitter ingredients are wonderful at balancing a plate, especially when used in moderation.
A sweet bowl of mousse or ice cream is transformed by the simple addition of candied grapefruit peel on top. Coffee beans dipped in milk chocolate are divine. A heavy slow-cooked meat dish that is rich in umami flavor tastes better with a side of kale or dandelion greens.
Most of the time, bitter food plays a supporting role rather than taking center stage. Cooking bitter food can help to neutralize the harsh, astringent taste. Rapini is notorious for its bitter notes, which reduce when cooked the right way. Find out more about rapi here.
Quick tip: Many vegetables and herbs develop bitterness as they age. For a more mellow taste, choose young shoots.
If you want to tone down the eye-watering bitterness in your meal, adding sweetness works well. Honey, orange juice, and butter melted onto bitter greens are delicious. Sweet salad dressing and a sprinkling of currants work wonders when mixed into a kale salad.
The flavor of umami is a relative newcomer to Western flavor profiles, although the Japanese have used the term since 1908. If you’ve ever salivated over a rich, savory piece of meat or earthy roasted mushrooms, then you’ve experienced umami.
Some of the best-known sources of umami are soy sauce, miso, winter squash, legumes, and grains. A classic Japanese dashi sauce, made from bonito flakes and nori, is rich in umami flavor. Aged cheese, roasted meat, and smoked fish are also excellent sources of umami.
Salty food can be added to an umami-rich dish to balance the flavors. Also, the subtle addition of sour or sweet ingredients will usually benefit the dish.
Most traditional flavor profile charts won’t mention spiciness, but we had to include it because it plays such a big part in so many cuisines around the world. The addition of spice will also help to balance food by adding vibrancy, heat, and added flavor. Onion provides a sweet, sharp hit of flavor without any heat. At the other end of the scale, chili peppers can add intense heat.
If your food is too spicy then it can be balanced out by incorporating sweet, salty, and even sour ingredients. Although not part of our flavor hex, creamy foods also help balance the spiciness. Yogurt or sour cream relieves the heat by coating the tongue and partially cutting off the heat receptors.
Frequently asked questions
What is a flavor profile?
A flavor profile is a combination of flavors that we taste in sauces, beverages, or any dish made up of a range of ingredients. In cooking, foods that have a similar taste tend to work well together. Contrasting flavors can also combine to create a delicious flavor profile.
How many flavors can humans taste?
The human gustatory system can detect a vast range of different flavors. Up until the 1980s, the four accepted tastes were salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. In 1990 umami became recognized at the International Symposium on Glutamate as the fifth taste. In addition to the main five tastes, there are many more including spicy, creamy, kokumi, metallic, and coolness.
Common Ingredients By Flavor
|Bell pepper||Lime||Green tea||Anchovies|
|Maple syrup||Rhubarb||Ginger||French Fries|
|Corn||Sour cream||Brussel sprouts||Soy sauce|
|Sweet potato||Tamarind||Dandelion greens||Dressings|
Every ingredient has a unique flavor profile that plays its part in the dish it’s added to. Most people don’t enjoy lemons on their own, but when added to a creamy, sweet pie, their sourness comes to life. Used in the right proportions, we can balance flavor and create delicious food that dances on the palate.
Understanding flavor in food is an essential part of learning to cook without a recipe book. Once you’re familiar with the taste of everyday ingredients, you can combine them to create a balanced flavor profile. In Thailand, cooks have used contrasting flavors for centuries. A sweet coconut milk soup mingled with spicy curry, and kaffir lime combine to make a perfect meal.
Now you can start to put the theory in this guide to good use at home. If you have salty rashers of bacon in the fridge, try grilling them in maple syrup or honey. Experiment with a sweet mint sauce next time you cook lamb. What other matches can you find in the kitchen?
With your new knowledge of flavor, you should check out our ultimate guide to aromatics. You’ll learn how to build layers of flavor into a meal from the start of cooking. We also include some of the best aromatic combinations from around the world. Master these and you’ll be able to cook a wide range of cuisines without a recipe.
If you’d prefer some quick tips to help improve flavor in your cooking, then read our 16 seasoning secrets.
Flavor Profile Chart
- 10 Best Fish Sauce Substitutes
- Top 13 Sweet Chili Sauce Substitutes for Cooking
- Top 20 Ponzu Sauce Substitute for Cooking
- 10 Tasty Substitutes For Umami Paste
- 11 Best Adobo Sauce Substitute For Cooking
- 11 Best Hoisin Sauce Substitutes for Cooking
Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami are five taste elements that build our overall perception of flavour. When each element is perfectly balanced - not only on the plate, but across an entire meal - the dining experience is lifted above and beyond.What are the main flavor profiles? ›
5 basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami—are messages that tell us something about what we put into our mouth, so we can decide whether it should be eaten. Get to know about 5 basic tastes and learn why they matter to us.What are the 4 flavor profiles? ›
Up until 2002, scientists recognized 4 'official' tastes: 1) salty; 2) sweet; 3) sour; and 4) bitter. However, in 2002 umami was crowned the fifth flavor. Umami simply means yummy in Japanese, and it's hard to describe what the flavor of umami tastes like.What are the 7 types of tastes? ›
The seven most common flavors in food that are directly detected by the tongue are: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, meaty (umami), cool, and hot.What flavor is umami? ›
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste sensations. It's most commonly defined as “savoury”, but the characteristics of umami can also be described as “meaty”, “complex” or even just “deliciousness”. A Japanese word, umami is pronounced: “oo-ma-mee”.What flavors pair well together? ›
- Roasted/Toasted & Salt/Salted.
- Tomato & Basil.
- Apple & Cinnamon.
- Chocolate & Hazelnut.
- Lemon & Lime.
- Chocolate & Brownie.
- Mango & Passionfruit/Maracuja.
- Tomato & Ketchup.
The Flavor Rule
Finally, the “Flavor Rule” permits a dog food name to include any specific meat… fish, lamb, chicken, and so on… even if there isn't a speck of that meat in the product… as long as the word “flavor” is used with it.
Some foods that are high in umami compounds are seafood, meats, aged cheeses, seaweeds, soy foods, mushrooms, tomatoes, kimchi, green tea, and many others. Try adding a few umami-rich foods to your diet to reap their flavor and health benefits.What flavor is the most popular? ›
Vanilla is arguably the world's most popular flavour and is derived from mature pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia.What does 31 flavors mean? ›
Website. baskinrobbins.com. The company is known for its "31 flavors" slogan, with the idea that a customer could have a different flavor every day of any month. The slogan came from the Carson-Roberts advertising agency (which later merged into Ogilvy & Mather) in 1953.
To the ranks of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, researchers say they are ready to add a sixth taste — and its name is, well, a mouthful: "oleogustus." Announced in the journal Chemical Senses last month, oleogustus is Latin for "a taste for fat."What are the 10 basic tastes? ›
- Sweet. What we perceive as sweetness is usually caused by sugar and its derivatives such as fructose or lactose. ...
- Sour. It is mostly acidic solutions like lemon juice or organic acids that taste sour. ...
- Salty. Food containing table salt is mainly what we taste as salty. ...
- Bitter. ...
How do you describe all different types of tastes? Scientists describe 7 basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent (eg chili), and umami. There are however 5 basic tastes that the tongue is sensitive to salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami which is the taste of MSG.How many flavors can humans taste? ›
The sense of taste has classically been limited to the 5 basic taste qualities: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami or savory.Is Worcestershire sauce umami? ›
Worcestershire sauce is really an umami delivery vehicle, a cousin to fish sauce or soy sauce that the family kind of forgot about. And we tend to forget about it, too—but at the end of the day, you can use Worcestershire to add flavor to anything saucy much in the same way you'd use soy or fish sauce.Is umami just MSG? ›
Instead, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and umami were thought to be the same thing. It wasn't until the late 20th century that scientists agreed that umami was the fifth flavor, listing it alongside salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. They realized that, unlike umami, monosodium glutamate doesn't naturally occur in foods.Is peanut butter umami? ›
Peanut meal could provide a source of novel umami flavour compounds and enhancers, say the researchers. Two novel peptides identified in peanut protein could produce strong umami flavor and umami flavor enhancing abilities, according to researchers.What are two foods that don't go together? ›
- Cereal and orange juice. The acids in orange juice destroy the enzyme that helps digest starches present in cereal. ...
- Melons and milk. ...
- Fruits after meals. ...
- Beans and cheese. ...
- Ghee and honey. ...
- Tomato and cheese pasta sauce.
Common rules of food combining
Avoid combining starches and proteins. Avoid combining starches with acidic foods. Avoid combining different types of protein. Consume dairy products only on an empty stomach, especially milk.
Mega fans of Dr Pepper believe the 23 flavors are (in alphabetical order) amaretto, almond, blackberry, black licorice, caramel, carrot, clove, cherry, cola, ginger, juniper, lemon, molasses, nutmeg, orange, prune, plum, pepper, root beer, rum, raspberry, tomato, and vanilla.
The product must contain at least 25% of the named meat ingredient but no more than 95% of the ingredient. The 3% or “With” Rule. This rule states that any food label that contains “with” in the description must contain no less than 3% of the meat ingredient listed.What is the 5 ingredient rule? ›
Stick to the 5 ingredient rule: Choose foods with less than 5 ingredients and all things you recognize and know are real food, such as tomatoes, water, or salt. Or if there are more than 5, make sure they're all food or spices. Buy only packaged foods with ingredients you can pronounce or recognize.What is the flavor triangle? ›
What is the flavor triangle? The flavor triangle consists of 3 points – acid, sugar, and umami. Umami is a savoury flavor which gives food its rich, meaty and salty edge. When creating any sort of food you want to balance the flavor triangle and this is how you create the best meals possible.What are 3 finger foods? ›
Foods that squish easily between your fingers are a safe bet for babies and younger toddlers. Think cooked peas, raspberries, chunks of banana, diced avocado, and soft cheese.What is the weirdest food combination you have ever tried? ›
- Coca-Cola and Peanuts.
- Tuna Salad and Fruit Punch.
- Cheese Quesadilla and Bananas.
- Apples with Salt and Pepper.
- Vanilla Ice Cream and Soy Sauce.
- Orange Juice and Oreos.
- Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Marshmallows.
- Pizza with Nutella and M&Ms.
- Power Pairs. 1/15. ...
- Avocado and Dark Leafy Greens. 2/15. ...
- Chicken and Cayenne Pepper. 3/15. ...
- Oatmeal and Walnuts. 4/15. ...
- Eggs, Black Beans, and Peppers. 5/15. ...
- Bean and Vegetable Soup. 6/15. ...
- Steak and Broccoli. 7/15. ...
- Green Tea and Lemon. 8/15.
The Umami Information Center has a list of the most umami-rich foods. Topping the list are tomatoes (especially dried tomatoes), Parmigiano cheese, anchovies, cured ham, seaweed, mushrooms, and cultured and fermented foods (especially cheese and soy, fish, and Worcestershire sauces).How many flavors exist? ›
Essentials. There are five basic tastes that humans can perceive: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.What food has all 5 tastes? ›
|Sour Sweet Salty Bitter Umami*||Citrus fruits (lemons, kiwi, blueberries Apples, watermelon, carrots, sweet potato Celery, rhubarb, bok choy, sea vegetables Leafy greens (arugula Tomatoes, mushrooms|
Is Avocado a umami? This is usually the taste of glutamate, which is an amino acid found in foods like meats, dairy, fish, and vegetables. An avocado definitely does not fit into any of the other categories, and umami is the closest category I could find that accurately encompasses the very mild flavor of an avocado.
Chicken eggs contain high-quality protein with well-balanced amino acids, as well as the vitamins (B6, etc.) necessary to metabolize the protein inside the body. This is why, along with milk, chicken eggs are called “complete foods.” Egg yolks contain the umami compound glutamic acid.Is balsamic vinegar umami? ›
Yes! Balsamic vinegar is also very rich in umami, and is a great way to add flavor to vegetable… | by Kaki Okumura | Medium.What flavor is each nerd? ›
Strawberry, grape, orange and lemonade. Don't forget watermelon, that sweet little spark. Each NERD has its sweet, tangy, crunchy hallmark.What taste do adults prefer? ›
Adults also preferred sweet more than salty29,34,55 Preference for sweet or salty tastes was generally reduced with advancing age until older adulthood was reached, when a preference for more intense flavours of sweet and salty emerged.What is America's favorite flavor? ›
Chocolate is number one, followed by cookies 'n cream, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate chip. Ice cream makers chose roughly the same roster of flavors, swapping in mint chocolate chip for regular chocolate chip.What is the most popular ice cream flavor in America? ›
The poll shows that if you're looking to please a crowd, most Americans like vanilla ice cream (59%) and half like chocolate ice cream (51%), with about one in 10 calling each of these flavors their favorite.What does the 4th flavor taste like? ›
|The Fourth Flavor|
|Type||Ice cream flavor|
|Used By||Dessert Monks|
|Appearances||Operation: F.L.A.V.O.R. Operation: Z.E.R.O. (mentioned)|
Umami, which is also known as monosodium glutamate is one of the core fifth tastes including sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese, and its taste is often described as the meaty, savory deliciousness that deepens flavor.Do taste buds change every 7 years? ›
In conclusion, we were able to VERIFY the answer to Maddie's question is no. Taste buds don't change every seven years. They change every two weeks, but there are factors other than taste buds that decide whether you like a certain food.What emotion is salt? ›
Positive emotional states associated with the salty taste include courage, zest, confidence, and enthusiasm. On the other hand, salt can make you feel greedy, irritable, possessive, overambitious, and addicted when consumed in excess.
Spice is not a taste
The sensation that accompanies spice does not come from tastants, but rather from other chemicals called capsaicinoids. These chemicals trigger heat and pain receptors in the tongue.
It was previously assumed that starch was tasteless, but the new findings suggest that starch is broken down into glucose oligomers by an enzyme in our saliva, called alpha-amylase, and these so-called glucose oligomers can be tasted, Lim said.What is Hypergeusia? ›
noun. Medicine/Medical. a condition in which the sense of taste is abnormally acute:Hypergeusia is difficult to quantify but is rarely a symptom that requires medical attention.Is umami the 5th taste? ›
Umami, which is also known as monosodium glutamate is one of the core fifth tastes including sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese, and its taste is often described as the meaty, savory deliciousness that deepens flavor.What are the 6 Flavours? ›
Ayurveda identifies 6 Tastes by which all foods can be categorised: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent.Is shrimp a umami? ›
Shirmps and prawns contain an amino acid called glycin, and this, combined with glutamates and inosinates, serve to create a unique umami taste. South East Asia is home to a number of fermented seasonings made from shrimps and prawns, all of which are rich in umami.Is ketchup umami? ›
It turns out ketchup is an umami speedball. Ripe tomatoes are full of L-glutamate, and so when all those tomatoes are cooked and reduced, and then cooked some more, the end result is a sauce brimming with delicious amino-acids.What is the most famous flavor? ›
Vanilla is arguably the world's most popular flavour and is derived from mature pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia.