Rachel Laudan

Creating Flavor in the Home Kitchen: A Quick Historical Overview of the Last Half Century

Since today is the official publication date of The Art of Flavor by Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel, which I have already written about here, it seemed a good moment to put down some thoughts about what home cooks have been told about flavor in the last fifty years.

This is not a history of the science of flavor or the technology of flavorings (for that see Nadia Berenstein’s Flavor Added blog), but of some of the ideas that have guided home cooks, apart from the scattered suggestions that I referred to in the earlier post. (BTW, if you want an accessible account of the science of taste with lots of interesting, do-able exercises, turn to Barb Stuckey, Taste: What You’re Missing (2012)).

Acknowledgements to the readers who sent in their comments after my last post are listed at the end.* So helpful, many, many thanks.

With the gradual demise of the humoral theory and the advent of the affordable cookbook in the eighteenth century, home cooks increasingly began following recipes rather than trusting their inherited knowledge and senses for creating flavor.

Post the Second World War, some of the big trends were these. (I have lots to say about each of them, by the way but not in this post).  Here I’m just trying to get a historical overview.

1970s Flavor Principles

In the 1970s, and to some extent to this day, many home cooks have found the the idea of specific flavor principles for each different cuisine helpful in preparing meals. In 1973, in Ethnic Cuisine: The Flavor-Principle Cookbook, Elisabeth Rozin suggested that “if we look at any ethnic cuisine . . . we will find within each culinary tradition the pervasive used of certain combinations of flavoring ingredients.”

These combinations of flavoring ingredients are what she and her then husband, Paul Rozin the pioneering and enormously influential psychologist and sensory scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, call “flavor principles.**  John Prescott, author of Taste Matters (2012), describes their their theory here.

So to quote Rozin:

Soy Sauce–Rice Wine–Gingerroot (China)

+ Miso and/Garlic and/or Sesame (Peking)

+Sweet-Sour–Hot (Szechuan)

+Black Bean-Garlic (Canton)

Lots of authors, including I suspect Mark Bittman in his very popular How to Cook Everything drew on these principles.  Make a basic dish, add paprika for Hungarian, wine and cream for French.

A big step forward in understanding culinary differences around the world, do-able, but ultimately a bit mechanical, I’d say.  Neither does it give enough attention to the way cooking changes the flavors of basic ingredients.

2010s Flavor Profiles

The idea of a flavor profile had been around for half a century, developed in the Arthur D. Little Company, when it seems to have suddenly gained popularity for home cooks in the 21st century. A flavor profile, according to the Society of Sensory Professionals,

“describes flavor in terms of 5 major components: character notes or attributes, intensities of those attributes, the order of appearance of the attributes, aftertaste, and amplitude (a complex phenomenon defined as the overall impression of the blendedness of the analyzable and nonanalyzable flavor components).”

Given its abstraction, I’m not sure how much, if at all, it was used to guide home cooking though google the term and you will find lots of advice for home cooks.

I have heard chef-historians claim that flavor profiles survive even dramatic geographic or political changes, so that African-American cooks or Native American cooks still prefer their traditional flavor profiles. It’s not clear what evidence there is for this.

2010s Food Pairing

Again, this idea was developed by the flavor industry. Aroma compounds in foods are identified with techniques such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography.  Foods that have flavor components in common are assumed to go well together.

When Heston Blumenthal, owner of the famed Fat Duck restaurant in England worked with the world’s largest flavor company to figure out why caviar goes well with white chocolate, it got a ton of publicity.

Then Yong-Yeol Ahn et al, in  “Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing.” Nature Scientific Reports. (2011) argued that Asian cuisines did not give so much priority to common flavor components.

This sparked a flurry of commentary, including by Wilfried Houjebek of the blog Crypoforestry on problems with food pairing and attempts to pull off a more fine-grained cross-cultural analysis.  Still waiting on that in my opinion.

Once again, advice for the chef and the home cook flowed.  See, for example, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs (2008) and Niki Segnit, The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook (2010) or the commercial site Food Pairing.

2010s Techniques and Ingredients

Around the same time, a big time for flavor it seems, other authors explored how technique could influence flavor.  See for example, Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook’s Manifesto (2011) and Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking (2017).

2017 The Art of Flavor

Back to Patterson and Aftel.  Their aim is to encourage cooks to abandon the flavor-pairing approach which they argue gives too much weight to dominant aroma molecules and not enough to other molecules that can be just as important.

Instead cooks should attend to their own senses and adjust flavors according to accessible, cook-friendly principles.

I am having a lot of fun with this ground breaking and practical book that returns authority to the cook–and some nice successes exploring their advice.


What am I missing here?

And has anyone tried any of these approaches and have experiences they would like to share?

*Thanks Cindy Bertelson, Kay Curtis, Elatia Harris, Kim Lewandowski,  Bala Selvakumar, Linn Steward, Barbara Wheaton for comments on my earlier post.

** For his more technical approach, see 1978. Paul Rozin. “The use of characteristic flavorings in human culinary practice.” In C. M. Apt (Ed.), Flavor: Its Chemical, Behavioral and Commercial Aspects (pp. 101-127). Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. Etc. See also https://web.sas.upenn.edu/rozin/publications/

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8 thoughts on “Creating Flavor in the Home Kitchen: A Quick Historical Overview of the Last Half Century

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    I’m reminded of my father’s recipe for “glop”, a celery-tomato-ground beef stew whose other ingredients varied wildly: the joke was “soy sauce makes it Chinese, white wine makes it italian, red wine makes it French, and garlic makes it good.”

  2. C. M. Mayo

    Thanks for this, I will be sure to get a copy of Barb Stuckey’s TASTE: WHAT YOU’RE MISSING. My own flavor innovation of late has been a stunningly simple one. I put my spices into nice fat glass jars and taped on a laser-jet printed label (in my favorite font, Langtry). It ocurred to me today, as my writing procrastination project, to make pumpkin muffins with– there it is, I see it!– chai spice mix! Turned out yums. Saludos from your fan in Coyoacan.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      You crack me up, Catherine, with your down to earth ideas. I am a huge fan of your box of cards for passwords strategy.

      1. C. M. Mayo

        Thanks, Rachel, glad to hear it. You know that Grandma’s Recipe Box Solution for Internet Passwords may have won the most outraged comments ever on the Cool Tools blog. OK, back to the typewriter…

  3. ganna

    In his Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury dedicated a chapter to his Granny and her cooking. Despite cracked eyeglasses, randomly grabbed jars of unlabeled spices, and a general lack of any system whatsoever, she managed to turn out mouthwatering delicacies. So what that nothing was repeatable?

    Then an Auntie arrived to correct the disorder. She got Granny a new pair of glasses, neatly labeled the spices and condiments, and bought a huge pile of cookbooks. Granny bravely played along but alas, her new and improved food tended to taste of moldy cardboard. After a while Auntie gave up, Granny found her good old cracked glasses, lost the labels, and misplaced the books, and the family could dine on good dishes again.

    I laughed until I cried reading that. My cooking style is just as vague and erratic. And I totally trashed my glasses climbing a fence in 1985 without seeing the need to replace them since (well, so I cannot see my toes, either. Who would want to admire their toes all the time anyway?) Cooking is all about smells, not watching the pot that never boils!

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