The success of any dish depends on a balance of the elements; and as in a piece of music, the elements seem to occupy a frequency range, from low to high end. The basic low-end tastes are water, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, with the degree of dilution comprising a primary element, and the higher end might be occupied by hot peppers or citrus. The midrange is a vast spectrum, populated by savories and aromatics.
We could visualize the meal preparation process as having categories to fill with elements. The meal can be seen like an artist’s canvas, and we are selecting categories of colors from our palette. A balanced meal will have tastes and foods from many of the categories, in varying proportions. A balanced sauce will have elements in all frequency ranges. We could think of it like a stack of mailboxes that each needs to be filled, or a pegboard where we need to put a peg in for each of the different categories. It’s a good supposition to make that if we get a good balance of tastes in our diet from nutritious whole foods, we will also get the nutrition our bodies require.
and the foods that fit them
The Japanese refer to a fifth primary taste that they call Umami, which can be translated as “savory.” Foods such as browned duck skin, or ripe avocados, or fresh potato chips, or a seared piece of meat, smoked fish, or raw clams are all said to possess the Umami taste, as do caramelized garlic, onions and other aromatic vegetables. It might be possible to describe it as “tangy,” but there’s more to it than that. The desire for its presence among the other elements is one reason people might put bacon in a salad. The most common method of producing the Umami taste was mentioned in the previous section; it’s the technique known as caramelizing. Whenever protein or sugars meet flame, some caramelizing is going to occur, and the Umami component is increased. Its presence is said to reduce cravings for sweets.
This component seems to relate closely to savory; many savory foods are enhanced by salt, or the salt brings out their Umami quality, and conversely many of the salty elements also have an Umami quality. Soy sauce, Bragg’s Aminos, Worchestershire, bacon or pancetta bits, Thai Fish Sauce, and anchovy paste all fit into this category. If a preparation is telling you it needs salt, experiment! Instead of reaching for the Morton’s, try substituting one of these other items.
Cheeses, sour cream, capers, olives, pickles, smoked fish all can pull weight in this category, as can lemons, which also add the following…
We put acid and citrus together because they are practically interchangeable from a culinary standpoint, but also because they are both high-frequency sharp tastes, and there’s usually room for only one inhabitant in this elemental zone. The main inhabitants here are vinegar and lemon juice. These can be combined, but there’s some risk of getting too much information going in the high frequencies, resulting in a soap-like complexity of generic sharpness. Flavored vinegars are popular, and there are many kinds to choose from, but the infused flavors tend to come from the lower frequencies. Tarragon vinegar is one example, an infusion with a fragrant, mid-range aromatic. There are many kinds of vinegar; wine, red wine, cider, balsamic, and rice wine are among them. Lemon, grapefruit and orange juices are acidic fruit sources.
This taste is not generally an intentional part of my palette, although I’m sure it has its role. I’m just not aware of it in my cooking, and try to avoid it, and can’t offer any expertise on it. It occurs naturally in some greens such as beet greens, or some lettuces such as raddiccio or endives.
I’ve never seen this identified as a taste, but it makes sense to include it as such. It’s a fair description of an important element of any diet, which could be described as high-water-content raw foods. These would include vegetables such as lettuce, celery, peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, fennel, radish, and zucchini, and fruits such as apples and pears. Every diet in the world says: eat as much of these as you want. No charge!