“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).