Rachel Laudan

Reading and Pondering: The Art of Flavor

“Do you know of any cookbooks that tell you how to create flavor?”

I was flattered to be asked because the questioner was the California perfumer, Mandy Aftel.  I’ve always been in awe of those who feel confident around perfume, and who more so than Mandy Aftel?

So I thought for a moment, scratched my head, and managed to come up with a tiny handful of suggestions.*

The more I thought about it though, the more gaping the hole seemed.  I could think of lots of books that concentrated on how to save money or time or how to impress your guests or which offered impossibly perfect photographs to emulate.

But flavor?  No, if you followed the instructions, it would, apparently, just mysteriously taste right.


So I was full of anticipation when an advance copy of The Art of Flavor: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food turned up in my mailbox the other day.  To write it, Mandy Aftel has teamed up once again with Daniel Patterson, the famed California chef, who has gone back and forth from fine dining to fast food.

And sure enough, just skimming the chapter headings and the content suggest there’s a wealth of ideas to follow up. Here’s an indication.

Creating flavor.  Here Aftel talks about top, middle and base notes, while Daniel explains how cooking techniques make food more complicated than perfume.  Then there’s the constant rule of citrus and the need for neutral ingredient.

The four rules of flavor.  Similar flavors need contrast, contrasting flavors need unifying, heavy flavors need to be lifted, light ones grounded.

The flavor compass. The different roles of spices, which can be sweet, fresh, and earthy; herbs, sweet and savory; citrus; and flowers.

Locking and burying.  How to combine flavorful ingredients so as to make them more than the sum of their parts, and how to order the flavors so that the balance is perfect, illustrated by chocolate and coffee–mocha, curries and moles.

Cooking and its role in flavor creation.

The seven dials of flavor–salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, fat, and “hot” (pungent)–and how to dial them up or down.

I really like the fact that the authors do not command, as is so common in cookbooks, but encourage the reader to experiment and to create their own flavor vocabularies.  I’m also a little intimidated as I have worked by following recipes all my life. Well, more or less. Is this something for the busy home cook?  And can I even do it?

Well, I’m going to give it my best shot, sometimes using their recipe suggestions, sometimes applying their ideas to my own tried and true repertoire of recipes, and sometimes just branching out on my own. A year’s worth, perhaps a lifetime’s worth of pondering from The Art of Flavor, a welcome sign that the question of flavor creation is moving center stage.


Here’s the list of cookbooks with discussions of flavor creation that I came up with. I’m sure you can expand it and would love suggestions.

Madeleine Kamman had some fairly detailed instructions on adjusting the flavor and texture of French sauces (pp. 172-77)in In Madeleine’s Kitchen (1984).  Camellia Panjabi talked about creating Indian flavors (pp. 21-49) in 50 Great Curries of India (1994)  and so did Julie Sahni (pp. 7-89) in Classic Indian Cooking (1980).

I tried the question of flavor out on a tableful of colleagues during the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium in 2016.  No results, except for the lawyer turned professional chef and food historian, Cathy Kaufman, who independently came up with Madeleine Kamman. I talked to leading Mexican chef Iliana de la Vega. She was eloquent on the balancing of flavors in a mole and how it was accomplished but said that there was no cookbook that explained how to do it. Chinese culinary historian Michelle King reminded me that the Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin (ch. 2) talked about flavor in Chinese Gastronomy (1969).

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16 thoughts on “Reading and Pondering: The Art of Flavor

  1. Mandy Aftel

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful post about my book and work. I am so deeply appreciative. The creation of flavor is so like the creation of perfume (I think of fragrance as disembodied flavor ) It is exciting to begin to take the dynamics apart. Please don’t be afraid of the recipes in out book. They are all teaching recipes with simple steps and ingredients and meant for the home cook. And after you have done one you can apply it to other cooking situations. Thank you! Mandy

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Not so much the recipes, Mandy, as a whole new way of approaching the kitchen!

    2. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Not so much the recipes, Mandy, as a whole new way of approaching the kitchen.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Thank you Mandy. It’s all clear, it’s a question of re-thinking some of what I do.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Cindy. I will do a roundup of all these suggestions tomorrow.

  2. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton

    There is Niki Segnit’s The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Bloomsbury, 2019. It’s such a pretty book that I assumed it was lightweight. Recently I took it off the shelf and really looked at it, and was both delighted and impressed.

  3. Linn Steward

    You review is inspiring and I’ll definitely take a look at The Art Of Flavor because I want to expand my flavor language skills. I cook intuitively and kinesthetically which is probably why I’ve never been good at following or writing recipes. I recently started working through a book by Samin Nosrat who cooked for several years at chez panisse. Not for the recipes but to study how she used language she to describe flavor development with the four elements she chooses to focus on. The book is Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30753841-salt-fat-acid-heat

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      This is very much of th moment. A whole lot is coming out on this right now. Thanks for reminding me about Samin Nosrat’s book which I have seen but not read.

  4. Costa Di Biase

    At last! In wine tasting we are taught to consider the individual components of acid, tannin, sugar and alcohol, and whether they were in balance, or how the balance affected the wine. We were taught how to affect these components. But it never went as far as the aromatic components. For years I have wondered why recipes were not approached in this manner also.

    Also, I once saw a prosciutto maker in San Daniele balancing his prosciutto by opening or closing windows on different sides of his curing room depending on what was flowering at the time or being harvested, why don’t cheese makers, wine makers approach their curing and ageing in the same way?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Wow, that is some sensitivity to what is in the air? With all the salt and the strong flavor of pork, do you think it made a difference?

      1. Costa Di Biase

        Absolutely. He walks the fields to work a few times a week to see what is about. He stops frequently to crush leaves and flowers to smell and keep his nose in training (something I copied when I was in the industry). Then he uses a thin piece of horse bone to poke into a few hams of each batch and decides how they are going. The curing room is on the third floor, it is square and has three big windows on each side with removable boards. They make thousands of prosciutti a year. San Daniele prosciutto is considered the best in Italy.

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