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I'd love to be able to cook well and I think a part of that is identifying flavors.

We all have different palates, but there are probably some basic techniques that can be used to figure out what the meal is made out of.

For example, there is a spicy Indian dish at a restaurant nearby that I love and it's pretty simple (chicken and rice), but I can't identify the contents of the marinade, and the owner wont tell me what it is.

So, outside of trying every spice there is, what are some tips to identify flavors?

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-1 for the owner! –  kajaco Sep 16 '10 at 16:45
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Taste as often as possible: while cooking, when you have raw ingredients at hand, etc. etc. –  Jeroen Oct 11 '12 at 19:56

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

This is a really difficult topic to approach, and I think the only reliable way to identify flavours is through years and years of practice using those flavours in your cooking.

To start with, I think the easiest thing to do would be to understand the different types of flavours. Those are:

  • Sweet

    Everybody knows this one. Sweet is the taste of sugar, candy, and so on.

  • Sour

    Sour is the taste of acidity. Citrus fruits like lemons/limes, vinegar, pickles, and so on.

  • Salty

    This is the taste of, well, salt. Needs no further explanation, I hope.

  • Bitter

    Bitterness is what makes you want to grimace - but many people do acquire a taste for it. The best examples of bitter are probably coffee and beer. Leafy greens and horseradish are other good examples.

  • Savoury or Umami

    This is the taste of "hearty" foods - meats and cheese especially. Specifically, it's the taste of protein. Glutamates (i.e. MSG) also provide this flavour.

It's actually a lot more involved than this - our taste receptors can detect many more subtle flavors, but those are the easiest to tell apart. The most notable "quasi-flavour" is probably Hot or Piquant (not to be confused with pungency, which is a more general term for anything "strong" tasting such as horseradish or garlic); this type of heat is due to capsaicin, which is found especially in chili peppers, and I call it a quasi-flavour because it doesn't actually work on taste receptors, it works on pain receptors, and it's addictive due to the subsequent release of endorphins.

Anyway, all that aside, the place to start would be to get used to the five basic flavours above. Eat some foods that are chiefly one flavour - a caramel, a lime, a few flakes of horseradish, a hunk of meat, or... a dash of salt, I guess. Get used to what they taste like.

Then you should be able to start recognizing combinations - for example, a cured sausage will be salty and savoury. Lemonade is sweet and sour. If you're able to start identifying the flavour types then you can start trying to narrow down the actual ingredients and ask yourself, "What could be adding this [bitter] flavour?"

Most full entrées will try to establish a balance of all of these flavours with all of these flavour elements. For example, a Chinese stir-fry sauce will include sweet (sugar or honey), sour (rice vinegar), salty (soy), and umami (sesame oil), and used on vegetables which are primarily bitter (i.e. broccoli). Whenever you're eating a food that's really great, expect it to have something contributing to all the basic flavours and try to think about what elements could be used to create them. Even if you only manage to figure out 4 out of 5, chances are you can substitute something else for the 5th and manage a similar taste.

Of course, it's worth repeating that this isn't just going to come magically to you. You need to pay attention to what you're cooking; only when you've constructed hundreds if not thousands of your own concoctions will you be able to deconstruct the ones that others have made - and even then, it's kind of tricky if the recipe is complicated, because lots of preparation steps will change the flavour, like browning (Maillard reaction, adds sweetness) or roasting (tends to add savouriness).

As far as spices go, they're pretty much all in the same flavour category (which I'd really just call "spicy") although they may also lend varying amounts of umami or pungency to the final dish. The only way you're ever going to be able to identify spices is to start experimenting with them - lots of them - and learn what they taste like separately and together. I would say that this takes years for most cooks, and sadly, I don't think there are any shortcuts.

Well, that's it for my intro. Hope that helps!

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Not all heat is capsaicin; there's also isothiocyanates (in mustard and horseradish), cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon), or even the bite from freshly diced raw onion. –  Joe Sep 16 '10 at 0:53
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@Joe: I'm not sure if I'd call those things "heat" - that's why I added the alternate word "piquant." My intent was to refer specifically to that heat (the kind from capsaicin), which is easily distinguishable from the other kinds. –  Aaronut Sep 16 '10 at 1:56
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@Aaronut I would definitely say there are different kinds of "piquant". Living in Thailand I can now easily and clearly distinguish between when a dish has chilis in it and when it has black pepper. Cumin spice is also completely different, as is horseraddish. It's not all capsaicin and it's not all the same heat flavor. –  Daniel Bingham Sep 21 '10 at 4:01
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@Daniel, I never made that assertion. As I already explained to Joe, I was referring to the specific type of heat from capsaicin (not capsicum). Black pepper is not "piquant" and neither is cumin. Horseradish, wasabi, etc. are considered "pungent", not piquant. I will add a clarifying note but I do not agree that there is anything to "fix." –  Aaronut Sep 21 '10 at 14:19
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@Aaronut Ah, fair enough. But I still don't think the distinction is clear. Your sentence structure "The most notable quasi-flavor is hot" still leads me to believe you are talking about all hot or spicy flavors. And even the pungent clarification doesn't do much to assuage that. I think it would be better to generalize it (hot or spicy is detected by pain receptors and is produced by a variety of chemicals). Or specify very clearly that piquant refers only to capsicum heat and that it is just one of the "heat" flavors. –  Daniel Bingham Sep 26 '10 at 2:59

Here's a little story about one successful day of palate training. I would think a similar exercise would work with all kinds of flavors. Just pick a handful of complementary flavors at a time.

I went "back home" for a few months a couple of years ago. My dad came to me and asked my help with stir-fries. He wanted a better feel for the seasonings, how to put different flavors together, creatively and freehand, to create sauces. I thought that sounded like a fun challenge. I took his credit card and went shopping. My poor dad didn't have any idea what he was getting into :) I came back with garlic, ginger, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, sesame oil, chili oil, oyster sauce, five spice, mirin, soy sauce, sriracha, chili paste, fish sauce...you get the idea. I also got a tube of plastic 2 oz portion cups. The only seasoning ingredients he was really clear on were ginger and garlic, he always started his stir-fries with those, so I started there. I sauteed some ginger and garlic and simmered that for a few minutes in a big stock pot of chicken broth.

Then we just started tasting, one ingredient at a time mixed with a few tablespoons of broth. I had a little saucepan out for ingredients that benefited from heating a little bit in the broth. We went back to ingredients several times, we adjusted concentrations, we just played like that for a couple of hours. Then we started, "No peeking, what's this?" Once he got good at that, we started with combos. He had a real epiphany with sesame oil when he tasted it with soy and cilantro. That was probably the best moment of the whole exercise. When we were finally done playing, he made soup for the family's dinner. He just threw stuff in, tasting after each addition, correcting as he went, and made a very nice soup with nicely balanced, complex flavor. I was very proud.

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The book "The 4-Hour Chef" covers this quite well. If you can get a copy, take a good look at Lesson 02: Scrambled Eggs and the flavor chart that follows.

Testing different flavor combinations

Scrambled eggs cooked in grapeseed oil are the best base for testing different flavor combinations. Grapeseed oil is neutral and makes sure that the oil doesn't add a different flavor.

Your goal should be to simplify various recipes into the core ingredients. "Lemon and herb" chicken is always a base of lemon, olive oil, garlic, plus some mystery herbs.

What I would do is mix some garlic with the eggs. Scramble it under a low fire in olive oil. And add the lemon after cooking. Then try the mixture with different herbs until I get a great tasting combination. From the same batch of scrambled eggs, you can prototype a dozen different "lemon and herb" recipes, at low cost!

Some popular combinations, greatly simplified from The 4-Hour Chef:

  • North African: Lemon + parsley. This is a great combination for a lot of dishes, from chicken to couscous to fish.
  • North East African: Garlic + cumin + mint
  • West European: Olive oil + garlic + various herbs (oregano, basil, or parsley work great, tomatoes are popular too)
  • Mexican: Lemon + chile
  • Indian: Cumin + ginger + garlic
  • East European: Paprika + fat/lard + onion
  • Indochinese: Fish sauce + lemon/coconut/curry
  • Japanese: Tamari + sugar
  • Chinese: Tamari + scallions + ginger

Deconstructing different flavor combinations

The others have given good advice on identifying flavors, so I won't repeat those.

Remember that you have taste receptors at the top of your mouth and in your intestine. The nose makes up for a lot of flavor... taste is what's on your tongue, flavor is the whole experience.

Don't just roll food on your tongue. Sniff it. Add a little bit of warm water to a spice, roll it in your mouth, and swallow it. A lot of herbs taste like leaves, but have different smells that only come out with water/swallowing. Many herbs/spices are really hard to remember, try to associate them with a dish that you know they're used with, e.g. rosemary with lamb.

Try to identify individual flavors that make up a dish. It's hard to tell what's in your food unless you know what everything tastes like. Taste a bit of the rice, the chicken without the marinade, and then the marinade itself. If you think you can identify the spices used in the marinade, test it out with the scrambled eggs trick.

Indian food is a challenge because it can contain a lot of strong spices, and few people use the same spices.

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I highly recommend the book, "Taste What You're Missing" by Barb Stuckey. She's a 'supertaster' and a professional taster, and her book includes suggestions for testing and improving taste bud tastes (salt, bitter, umami, etc.) at the end of each chapter. She also covers how we taste and why some of us taste things differently than others. Lots of great information. (No affiliation.)

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Identifying a spice mix is hard, but you can get familiar enough with individual spices to narrow down the likely components, particularly the dominant spices in the mix. Since the dish in question is an Indian dish, good candidates would be cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, black peppers, coriander, ginger, asafoetida (aka hing), and cayenne.

If I'm trying to reverse engineer a spice mix, I take a bite and see what flavors I can detect. Sometimes it's obvious. Things like cumin, coriander, and cayenne can be very noticeable if you've eaten enough of them to be familiar. Some have unique colors, such as the golden yellow of turmeric.

If I were trying to duplicate the sauce or marinade from a particular restaurant, I'd just tinker with the mix until I got something I like, and approximates the original.

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Learn oenology. A big part of it consist in flavour identification.

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It's designed for wine flavours, so it's a little limited for general culinary use, but Nez du Vin sets might help. See this one here, which contains 54 aromas and costs £249.50 (about $400).

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To continue with smell: much of the flavor of food is the combination of tastebud sensation (sweet/sour/etc mentioned previously) and the fragrance of the ingredients. Many herbs have tiny bit of bitter or sweet, or even a little sour perhaps, but they have radically different fragrances.
Something you can do is close your eyes and sniff herbs and spices and concentrate on the sensations you experience. If you want to get really experimental, try stirring some into hot water to see how their fragrance gets transmitted into a medium. If you are really, really, really serious about learning NOW vs. gaining years of experience, do some experiments. For example, get a tiny frying pan and something bland like tofu or chicken breast. Cube the tofu/chicken, then saute up a cube at a time with different spices. Clean the pan between each cube, put in a dab of fresh oil, repeat with a new spice. Consume each bite by sniff, tasting, thinking about initial impressions, aftertaste, anything. Take notes! If you have all day, try 2- and 3-spice (or herb) combinations. Change proportions. Think like an engineer :-)

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One thing that my mother suggested to me when I first started getting interested in learning to cook beyond blindly following a recipe was that I try making scrambled eggs with one single spice in them to see how that flavor affects the taste of something I know well. It's actually a pretty good way to train your tastebuds to understand what flavor a particular spice imparts. You could then move on to combinations of spices.

For Indian food, however, they're probably using a combination of lots of spices. Garam Masala can be up to 12 different spices, not counting aromatics such as onions and garlic. So you may be better off trying to compare different recipes for that particular dish and seeing what the difference is with those particular spice mixtures.

In general, I'm a big fan of trying different things and seeing if you like them. For example, I can't stand the flavor of black licorice, and so I avoid anise and all variants. However, I wanted to try making a chicken pho which called for star anise. I tried it, and found that in very small amounts, I actually like it. So go and experiment. Try different recipes for the same things, and try modifying your own recipes a bit at a time. Sometimes it may not work, but even then you'll be learning a lot.

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I really like the tip about trying a new spice with a dish you know well! –  Sherwin Yu Jun 7 '13 at 4:22

I wish I could offer more, as I'd like to get better myself ...

The only thing I can think to suggest other than what's already been said is to make sure to smell the food -- and as Michael said, it can help to close your eyes. Although the basic flavors are carried through taste, a large component of flavor comes from scent (which is why everything tastes so bland when you're congested).

And it doesn't help with spices so much, but when trying to identify foods, I also consider texture (although cooking and preparation are a big component of this), and other aspects of the food that aren't just the flavor (eg, is it astringent? how does it feel in the mouth? does it clear your sinuses? if it has heat, is it a fast attack and go away quickly, or does it build slowly and linger?)

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I don't think there are any shortcuts to trying the individual spices. If you only want to figure out that Indian dish, you could practice with just the typical range of Indian spices. It is often helpful to close your eyes while tasting and try to really imprint the flavor in your mind, and associate with the name and appearance of the food you are tasting. (I find I have a terrific memory for food and terrible for wine. I think the reason is that wine all looks you know, pretty much the same, so I have nothing visual to hang the flavor memory on.)

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Agreed ... you have to know what spices taste like individually to be able to figure things out ... but you also have the issue that some spices will mellow or intensify or otherwise change as they're heated ... that's actually a key part of some indian dishes where they toast, grind, then fry the spices. –  Joe Sep 16 '10 at 0:29
    
I agree, when it comes to the flavour spices and herbs impart you have to start with those herbs and spices. Smelling them or choosing a dish to cook based on the spice you'd like to work on is good. With curry to get good at this you might need to start making your own curry paste and spice mixes, Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible is an excellent resource for this. –  vwiggins Sep 16 '10 at 12:03

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