There are a limited number of tastes that we can detect on the tongue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). Unlike flavour, which is widely subjective, personal, and influenced by memory, smell, mood, and environment; taste is functional. Our brain navigates through the five key tastes to build our understanding of flavour, using smell to create variety and individuality. Playing with this foundation of taste through experimentation with ingredients can change our perception of taste and flavour completely. Just as we know mixing yellow and blue makes green, we can use one taste to enhance the other and build layers of depth and complexity.
A pinch of salt, for example, seems like a small addition to a dish but it has the magic to intensify or mellow other tastes. A pinch of salt in coffee reduces bitterness. A salt rim on a margarita can enhance sourness. Salty with sweet (an addictive combination!) helps mellow sweetness. But salt itself has variations in its flavour.
Move over Sommelier and make way for the Selmelier. They exist to help cooks decide which salt to use for a given dish. They use language usually reserved for wine to detect the salt’s meroir, the qualities it derives from the ocean.Watch the brilliant Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, explain the wonders of salt here.
It's why seasoning anything you make is such an important part of creating flavour. We reached out to Ixta Belfrage, an incredible chef, author and Guardian columnist who worked with Yotam Ottolenghi on his book Flavour, to ask her for the best advice she’s been given on building recipes. As well as telling us to taste as you go, she said,
‘Most dishes can be elevated dramatically by a simple sprinkling of flaked salt or a squeeze of lemon, lime or tangerine (or all 3!). Layering flavour and texture is also really important – something I learned from the inimitable Yotam Ottolenghi.’ - Ixta BelfrageSo, it seems taste can’t really exist without flavour, but we all have favourites within the five that can be lifted in a delicious way by balancing ingredients.
For us, sourness rules. As a child, Bethan loved all the tangy mouth-puckering sweets, and when she worked in wine, tart Rieslings and steely Champagnes made her go weak at the knees. So, when she decided to create Mother Root, she used apple cider vinegar to bring about that much-loved sour taste. It’s our liquid seasoning, and Bethan describes it as the cook’s secret weapon. Here we asked her to tell us a bit more about balancing ingredients and her sour obsession.
How did you go about balancing the sourness in Mother Root?
You need to ensure there is just enough sweetness to take the edge off the sourness, without losing the crisp, mouth-watering flavour of the apple cider vinegar. Adding richness by giving the drink texture and weight in the mouth is very important too and in our Ginger Switchel, this comes from the honey. We’ve developed some exciting new recipes with Ixta Belfrage that we’ll share this summer. Ixta loves fresh citrus acidity in her cocktails, so these new drinks are bright, fresh, and utterly delicious. But citrus is a completely different acidity profile to vinegar, so she mellowed it with sparkling water or tea to help balance the two.
Tell us your most interesting flavour fact.
Vinegar enhances everything. It’s the cook’s secret weapon. Don’t just think about it as something that’s reserved for salad and chips. Just a splash of acid balances and boosts the other flavours of your dish (or drink). Start thinking of it as your go-to seasoning.
Is there a word that you love to use that describes sourness?
Racy. There’s something old school about it, but it’s perfect for describing the bracing impact vinegar has in our Switchels.
You're choosing popcorn. Do you go sweet or salty?
80% salty, 20% sweet, with a dash of hot sauce for good measure.
Where did your love of flavour come from?
I think I’ve always been into flavour. I was a “good eater” as a child and my parents were both into food. Special family treats usually revolved around food in some way; nice meals out, or fancy dishes made at home. Though I'm sure I went through picky phases, I became quite adventurous when working at a Spanish restaurant in Edinburgh. My delicate Scottish palate was awakened by explosions of big, bold flavours: patatas bravas, aioli, olives, Boquerónes, sobrasada, gambas…delicious. Then, when I went to work within food and wine, I was fascinated by the sheer variety of flavours you could get from essentially one ingredient: grapes.
What item in your home sends you back to a particular flavour memory?
My manual whisk. One of those ones where you need to turn the handle to get it to move. It reminds me of perfectly chewy meringues served at family dos with lashings of sweet vanilla double cream.
Enter our Flavour Playground and discover more curious stories about flavour here.