If you watch cooking shows or read other cooking blogs, you’ve probably come across the term flavor profile. Was it defined, or did the writer simply assume you knew what they were talking about? Was it a collection of ingredients, and maybe a cooking style or two? Were speaking of a single dish’s flavor profile, or of a cuisine as a whole?
In fact, flavor profile has such an elusive definition, there isn’t even a Wikipedia article for it!
The concept of a flavor profile isn’t a new one. Flavor profile charts for wines have been around for quite some time, and beer have notoriety more recently. I suppose it comes from our desire to classify everything, but in a way, it helps. By being able to describe things in an empirical way, we can remember them and recall them later on with more accuracy. As a food writer, I realize that I have an obligation when describing food, to do so in a way that conveys how food the I prepare tastes in a way that is meaningful to those who read it.
The Flavor Profile of a Cuisine
If a cuisine is defined as the ingredients, equipment, style and methods of a particular geographic region, then a cuisine’s flavor profile is how those things are used to produce the dishes of that cuisine. For cuisine purists, it’s how they choose the elements that will go into a particular dish. But it also how locavores would construct a dish as well.
[This is, by the way, the reason I laugh at people who try to define Modern Israeli cuisine. Our agricultural profile is, as near as I can tell, based entirely on the economics of practicality, without any concept of diversity whatsoever. There’s one cucumber in Israel. Small or large, it’s the same thing. Pickling cucumbers? English cucumbers? Indian Yellow cucumbers? Unheard of. And why would salmon appear anywhere in a cookbook on Israeli cuisine?]
The Flavor Profile of a Dish
When you put food into your mouth, your tongue, your nose, your palette, and even your teeth register the sensations they receive. Your brain interprets the sensations and provides feedback based on your experience. Depending on your choice of ingredients (or more likely, whatever you happen to have in the pantry), you can wow people with your “Asian-inspired” or “Cajun-influenced” food. By using your knowledge of ingredients and methods, you can fine-tune the dish you’re preparing, identify a missing ingredient, or take a dish in an entirely different and unexpected direction.
The Elements of a Flavor Profile
When defining a flavor profile, it is important to keep these eight elements in mind.
Meat, eggplant, mushrooms, beans, MSG
The degree to which glutamate is detectable in food. With no coherent definition in English, umami referes to the savoriness of a dish, using ingredients whose flavors are commonly described as earthy or meaty. This is the elusive “fifth taste” that registers on a person’s tongue. Technically, it is the detection of glutamates in food. Glutamates are an amino acid, the metabolic product of protein. And, if it hasn’t dawned on you yet, it is the ‘G’ in MSG – Monosodium Glutamate.
Fire, ice, liquid nitrogen, sous vide
Cooking, by its very definition, is the addition of heat to convert food physically and chemically in the pursuit of varying and improving the other elements of its profile. Throughout the world, cooks have harnessed heat in numerous ways in order to prepare food. Whether over open flames or through electrical induction, heat converts simple, raw ingredients into a limitless array of dishes. Conversely, chilling or freezing is the removal of heat from food. Aside from chilled dessert family of dishes, we tend to limit our use of cold for preservation and picnic salads.
Temperature is as much about the expectation as it is about the experience of hot or cold temperature. For a somewhat pedestrian example, consider potato salad. American cuisine demands that it be served cold, where German potato salad is served warm to hot. Hot American potato salad is not only distasteful, but could be potentially harmful, owing to the billowy clouds of mayonnaise. The same holds true within cuisines as well. Consider again potatoes, this time in Vichyssoise and Potage Parmentier. Essentially the same exact dish – potato leek soup – served at temperature extremes, provide completely opposite gustatory experiences.
Sugar, honey, maple syrup, jaggery
The degree to which sugars are detectable in food. Sugar is by far our favorite flavor sensation. We eat entirely too much sweet food. Considering that refined sugar only entered the industrial age in the eighteenth century, it quickly became an integral part of cuisines throughout Europe. Prior to that, other means of sweetening foods were more common, including honey, palm sugar and date syrup. Sweet is the primary taste component in desserts, but is also frequently paired with sour and salty for contrasting flavors in savory dishes.
Fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, cocoa, coffee
Bitter flavors provide counterpoints to sweet and savory foods. Bitter is more of a sensation than a flavor description. It is detectable in coffee, mustard, cocoa, olives and citrus peel. We have a funny relationship with bitter. We enjoy it with other things. Coffee with cream and sugar, mustard with meat, cocoa with sugar and fat. By itself, not so much.
Salt, soy sauce, red miso
The degree to which sodium is detectable in food. It is the oldest known flavoring agent in the world. Salt acts to enhance flavors in food by brightening the other flavors in the dish. We all know the taste of salty. The crunchy snack food industry is built on pushing the envelope of salty food. Lot’s wife was punished with salt because she betrayed her guests by requesting salt from her neighbors, alerting them to the presence of strangers. When used properly, salt is almost a background element, only noticed if it’s missing. Too much salt, and a dish can become unpalatable.
Citrus, vinegar, acid
The degree to which acid is detectable in food. Acidity is used to temper the richness of foods that are high in fat. It’s also very popular as a counterpoint to sweet flavors in numerous cuisines, as well as in sour candy. We have learned to harness and control the souring of food and convert it into foods like cheese, wine, pickles, and the like.
Creamy, flaky, chewy, rich, sticky, crunchy, spongy, slimy
Also known as mouthfeel, this element is the sensory experience of food in your mouth. Eating the same thing over and over again can get boring quickly. With a variety of textures in a dish, especially contrasting ones, we can alternate between different textural sensations, enhancing the dining experience.
Cinnamon, black pepper, chili peppers, ginger
The degree to which capsaicin, piperine, or other spicy elements are detectable in food. Like salt and sugar, spicy ingredients are used to enhance the flavor of the other elements of a dish. The interaction of the spicy elements on the tongue doesn’t affect the taste as much as it triggers pain nerves directly. When experienced in conjunction with taste, it has an amplifying effect. The degree of spiciness is as much a personal preference as it is a profile element.
Not all food has to be spicy. In fact, a large part of it isn’t. But the experience that spicy foods provide is found in cuisines throughout the world. Pan-Asian, Indian and non-North American food is known for its kick from various types of hot peppers both fresh and dried. Many European cuisines employ heat-inducing ingredients such as black pepper, mustard and horseradish. North American cuisines, of course, use all of it.
I hope I’ve managed to demystify what a flavor profile is, both for a dish and for a cuisine, and given you another tool in your batterie with which to use to make your food spectacular. And finally, if you’re the kind of person who likes infographics, I’ve prepared the Elements of a Flavor Profile.