The Harmony Between Taste and Flavor

Chef David Kamen, now a project manager for CIA consulting, was previously a professor of culinary arts at the CIA. He’s now researching the effects of salt on the senses.
Chef David Kamen, now a project manager for CIA consulting, was previously a professor of culinary arts at the CIA. He’s now researching the effects of salt on the senses. CIA / Keith Ferris

We use the words taste and flavor nearly interchangeably, but they really do have two different meanings. When we talk about taste, we’re talking about just the stuff that interacts with your tongue, the sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami taste buds. Flavor, on the other hand, is a combination of taste, aroma, texture, what you can hear, what you can see—all of those senses coming together to take the experience to another level.

One of my favorite ways to illustrate this is to play a small sound clip of violin music for students, and it’s really nice, but it’s just a plain old violin by itself. Then I play the same piece of music with the violin solo, but all the other instruments in the orchestra come in. The piece sounds so much richer and deeper with the accompanying harmonies. So, I try to describe taste and flavor like that.

To translate these concepts into the kitchen, we, as chefs, need to take fairly aggressive measures to, first, develop flavors, and second, build these flavors into flavor systems.

When we speak about developing flavors, we need to think about the craft that we’re executing. If I’m going to make sautéed chicken as it really should be, I need to have the right-sized pan, it needs to be hot at the right temperature, and it needs to have the right amount of oil inside the pan. All those things are going to give me that really nice browning on the outside, that pleasantly chewy but not tough and leathery kind of crust, and the flavor of the proteins as they caramelize. It takes a little bit of skill to actually do that.

Developing flavor, then, is like learning to play a violin: What are the techniques, how do you know when it’s right? Because you can play a violin all you want, but if you don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, you have no idea whether it’s right.

The second part of enhancing the dish is saying, “I’ve got a piece of nicely sautéed chicken, so now what?” I’ve got to think about which ingredients I’ll put into the sauce, and then about what else is going on the plate. Is it some pasta or potatoes or rice or vegetables? In doing that, I’m bringing in instruments to support the violin. I can also set the lighting or have a backdrop on the stage—all with the purpose of enhancing the violin.

Students may quickly grasp this analogy, but I think the biggest challenge students often have in differentiating taste and flavor comes from the variation in their upbringing. One great example is what we call tolerance for salt.

We often find that our young students who come here are typically on the very low end of the salt threshold. And we’re encouraging them to season a little bit more aggressively. Salt is like a volume knob. Salt turns up the volume on flavors that are already there. So, it’s OK to turn it up a little to be able to appreciate the flavors that are going on—of course, when you turn it up too loud, it becomes painful—but if you don’t have it up much, it’s like you can’t hear.

And the hard part is getting them to be a bit more aggressive with the seasoning but also think about balance. If the tuba is out there and he’s just blowing away, obviously you’re not going to hear the violin, so we need to think also about restraint in the different ingredients and components of the plate. Of course, if you want the tuba, if it’s a tuba solo, well that’s fine too, but that’s where you have to decide: What do you want this dish to be? Is it a chicken dish with garlic, or is it a garlic dish with chicken? Either way is fine with me.

Chef David Kamen is project manager for CIA Consulting, a part of The Culinary Institute of America’s Continuing Education Division, which tailors foodservice programs in R&D and flavor exploration.

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