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How to balance the five flavour elements

Balancing flavour is both a science and an art, based on professional training, intuition and experience. Here’s an introduction to balancing the five key flavours in your cooking.

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami are five taste elements that build our overall perception of flavour. When each element is perfectly balanced - not only on the plate, but across an entire meal - the dining experience is lifted above and beyond.

Mastering flavour balance takes an understanding of the process as a science and an art.

Flavour balance as a science

Understanding how flavours become balanced starts with knowing the basic rules behind preparing each element. Remember that adding salt to a dish does more than just making it salty - it enhances or counteracts other flavours within the dish.

These are the simple rules dictating how each element will affect the overall flavour:

  1. Sweetness: From sugar, honey, fruits or otherwise, sweetness will counteract bitter and sour flavours. It can also be used to cut down the heat of a particularly spicy meal.
  2. Saltiness: Salt plays two very important roles in flavouring a dish. Firstly, it balances against bitterness. Secondly, it enhances most other flavours present in the dish - particularly sweetness. Think about salted caramel - this flavour combination works so well because of the balance created by the salt and sugar. Similarly, salt is commonly used in tomato-based dishes to bring the natural flavours of the tomato forward.
  3. Bitterness: Though not the most popular flavour generally, bitterness is critical to balance. The taste of grapefruit, dark greens or beer can help to cut through the richness or sweetness of a meal.
  4. Sourness: Think of vinegar and citrus. Acidity works wonders in balancing a dish, adding liveliness and counteracting sweetness and heat.
  5. Umami: This flavour can be hard to pin down, but is the inherent savoury notes in soy sauce, mushrooms, oysters and many cheeses. Umami is best used to complement other flavours - perfect for a dish that seems balanced but is still lacking.

Flavour balance as an art

The above rules will help you navigate the balance of most dishes, but taste still remains subjective. A recipe cannot truly tell you the perfect measure of ingredients for a balanced dish as (for example) one brand of soy sauce may be saltier (or more savoury) than another. Therefore, balancing flavours is also somewhat of an art.

Tasting as you cook and adjusting flavours is a skill that chefs must master to perfect the dish. Stay aware of flavour saturation and cleanse your palate as you taste to ensure your tastebuds do not adjust to the flavours before they are balanced. Mastering the balance of the five key flavours is the hallmark of a skilful chef.

To find out how to become a Le Cordon Bleu qualified professional chef, contact us today.

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