Ahead of her month-long residency, Angela Clutton explores the merits of the five different tastes
Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami—the five tastes that every dish we cook and eat is a balancing act of. The challenge is to get that balance just right and so as I begin my month-long residency exploring the tastes, here’s my top tip: always think about Take That. Yes, yes, the pop band. Stay with me here, folks, for pretty soon I expect you will be nodding your head in agreement with me on this.
Let’s think about sweetness—surely the most immediately appealing of the tastes. And yet, too much sweetness quickly becomes, well, too much. Like Take That with too many Mark Owens. You see? That wouldn’t work in the same way at all—but happily Gary, Robbie, Jason and Howard (for I am talking about the original full complement incarnation of Take That here) are there to balance things out.
Often the best taste partner with sweetness is saltiness—what Robbie Williams is to Mark Owen in the analogy you may be relieved to know I am now going to set aside to just simply expound on the joy of salt. Mashed potatoes—indeed, any kind of potatoes—are nothing without a hefty dose of salt to bring the flavours out. Salt quite simply makes all food taste better. Not necessarily taste ‘salty’, because then you have gone too far, but just better. Salt-rich ingredients are some of the most useful to the cook. Think of feta, soy, prosciutto, anchovies, capers and olives and let your mind wonder to all the wonderful things you like to eat that have those ingredients leading the flavour charge.
Oomph up deliciousness
Many ingredients that are salty are also umami. That was the last of the tastes to be ‘discovered’, by which I really mean to be analysed and given a name: the Japanese word for ‘delicious’. It couldn’t have been better christened. Umami-rich foods such as parmesan, anchovies, tomato sauce, mushrooms and Marmite are guaranteed to oomph up deliciousness. Umami gives a dish its heart and soul. It is, I cannot help saying so, the Gary Barlow in my band of tastes.
Sour and bitter notes often take the back seat, but without them the balance of a dish can be thrown off completely. Deep-fry some fish and it’ll be lovely. Squeeze some sour lemon over the top and the whole thing is lifted. Equally, I so often find myself reaching for the bitter aniseed-rich ingredients such as anise, fennel and dill. They can make all the difference to the flavour balance of a dish.
What to do, though, if you have gone too far in any one taste direction and need to bring the balance back? Here’s a handy guide to re-balancing the tastes:
—Too heavy with the salt or salty ingredients? Try adding sweetness (maybe a little honey).
—Too bitter: add a little salt or a salt-rich ingredient. Or umami, or sweetness.
—Too sour: again, umami and sweetness are your heroes here.
—Too much umami (if that is possible) can be balanced out with any of the other tastes.
Throughout May I’ll be celebrating each taste in turn in the Demo Kitchen—join me to discover more about why the five tastes rule all our culinary worlds.
Join Angela for tips, tastings and recipes in the Market Hall Thursday 2nd May (salty); Friday 10th May (sweet); Thursday 16th May (sour); Thursday 23rd May (bitter); and Thursday 30th May (umami), 1-2:30pm