Eating engages all five senses but taste is surely one of the primary ones. That’s why if you want to be a better cook, fundamentally understanding the five tastes and how they interact is so important. This article will cover the bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami tastes, explaining their properties and how to balance them while cooking. We also break down two bonus categories, fat and pungency, which aren’t officially recognized as tastes but play a very important role in developing the final flavor of a dish.
It’s believed that our ability to sense bitterness is rooted in self-protection, as many toxic compounds are bitter. That said, bitter foods like brussels sprouts and cocoa are considered healthy, providing antioxidants and catalyzing an adaptive hormonal response in the body. Bitter compounds also stimulate the digestive process, which has led to the development of a range of bitters today, prepared in cocktails or simply taken as a few drops on the tongue. It balances sweet as well as rich foods and can be countered with salt. Common bitter ingredients include all cruciferous vegetables, citrus peel, coffee, cocoa, sesame, and red wine.
Sweet foods indicate the presence of carbohydrates, which is our primary source of energy, and precisely why they are so universally liked. There are many different kinds of carbohydrates like starch, sucrose, glucose, fructose, and lactose. Foods that contain high levels of starch include potatoes, rice, and whole grains, while sucrose is the technical term for table sugar, most often derived from sugar beets or sugar cane. Fructose is dominant in fruits, honey, agave, while lactose belongs to dairy products. Sweet flavors balance bitter, salty, and acidic ingredients, so you can also work in reverse and add any one of these three to remedy a dish that’s cloyingly sweet. On this note, adding a spicy ingredient or a touch of fat may help, too.
Salt is one of the most integral flavors used in cooking since it enhances nearly any dish, from savory entrées like steak to desserts like salted chocolate chip tahini cookies. It balances bitter and sour flavors and enhances sweet and umami ones. Salt also improves the texture of foods in distinct ways, including tenderizing meat and giving bread its volume. Amongst the varieties, Kosher salt is a go-to choice for chefs and foodies because its structure clings well to food. There is also a range of finishing salts, which are best for adding a characteristic flavor and texture. For example, fleur de sel is collected from the surface of evaporating seawater and has a light, flaky texture perfect for the last touches on a dish.
Whether it’s tamarind in South India, limes in Mexico, or sumac in Turkey, there are many ingredients that achieve that mouth-puckering experience we’ve come to define as sour. Acidity, or sourness, is a great foil to both sweet and spicy flavors, which is why it’s so key to dishes like sweet and sour pork. Acid also cuts fat, so if you have an exceedingly rich sauce, adding a hint of something sour will help to balance it. Ingredients like vinegar are perfect for deglazing a pan, and if you want to splurge on a high-quality variety, you can readily use it for a fresh vinaigrette. What’s more, sour ingredients have long been used in food preservation, which has led to some pretty tasty results like escabeche.
Umami is a Japanese word that means “pleasant savory taste” and not surprisingly, this fifth basic taste was discovered by a Japanese scientist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. Its characteristic flavor is due to the presence of a specific amino acid, glutamate, and is the reason why foods like meat, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fish sauce are so tasty. Unlike many other flavors, umami is perceived on the entire tongue, where it also lasts longer and facilitates saliva production. Its strength can be increased seven to eight times simply by adding ingredients that are high in either inosinate or guanylate. In practical terms, inosinate is found in meats and fish while guanylate is concentrated in many mushrooms. Besides the ingredients we’ve already covered, find umami in kombu, katsuobushi, aged cheeses like parmesan, and miso. Generally, it enhances sweet, salty, and sour flavors and balances bitter ones.
There’s debate over whether fat is a proper taste or simply a tactile experience, but as more research surfaces, it looks like fat is indeed the sixth taste. Though, for as tasty as a bowl of full-fat ice cream or slice of avocado is, our ability to taste fat appears to function more as an alarm system, alerting us to when the fatty acid composition of what we are eating isn’t right, which happens in the case of rancid fats and oils. What isn’t debated is the rich, velvety texture that fat imparts, as well as its ability to extract both the aroma and flavors from foods. This makes it a welcome addition to nearly any dish, including those you wouldn’t normally expect it in, like lemon sorbet with olive oil.
Foods that are pungent include chile peppers, ginger, peppercorn, clove, and garlic. They aren’t a distinct taste, but pungent ingredients are so commonly employed in cooking that it’s worth covering how to maximize their potential. Fundamentally, these foods produce a heating sensation, which is perceived by pain and temperature receptors on the tongue. Generally, it helps to balance pungent ingredients with those that are naturally pleasant, like umami, sweet, and salty foods. Fat is also a great companion because it maximizes flavor and aroma; a concept that is perfectly demonstrated by chile oil, a staple in the Chinese pantry.
Mattson, Mark P. “What Doesn't Kill You...” Scientific American. U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2015.
Hartley IE, Liem DG, Keast R. Umami as an 'Alimentary' Taste. A New Perspective on Taste Classification. Nutrients. 2019;11(1). doi:10.3390/nu11010182