32

My girlfriend has asked for my opinion on a few dishes that she has been experimenting with, and not being particularly well-versed in the language used to discuss food, I have been having trouble expressing my opinion on two specific dishes (namely, a stew using ground beef and a Thai curry with chicken).

I have eaten several different versions of both dishes over several months, so I have developed a pretty good sense of which versions of them I like the best. We have also tried similar dishes from local restaurants in order to have a common reference point. Generally, I think that the dishes taste fine, but sometimes I feel that they become "bland" (for lack of a better word) from too many spices.

What I mean is that sometimes when she prepares them she will use only a few specific spices or none at all and more fresh ingredients. To me, these versions taste the best. They have strong, distinct flavors, and I think that they taste more like the restaurant dishes that we've compared them to. However, she usually finds these versions under-seasoned, so she also experiments with adding lots of different spices. When she does this, she still isn't happy with the result but she says that the dishes taste more "complete" or more "harmonious" or just generally better. On the other hand, I think that these versions taste same-y or bland, which she doesn't understand since there are objectively more flavors in the dish. I have tried to describe it like the flavor equivalent of that color of brown you get when you mix all the paints together or if an orchestra just played all the instruments at once without regard to the timing.

To me, these versions sort of feel like filling in all the nooks and crannies of the flavor landscape to make the experience boring and flat. She says that I just don't understand flavor and that that's not a thing that happens. She says that adding more flavors complement and round-out the taste.

I am nowhere near as knowledgeable about food words as my girlfriend, and she also has a much more sensitive and discerning palate than I do. So it may be possible that I am just a bad food critic, but I would really like to understand my experience better and hopefully communicate it better to my girlfriend. My question is this: Is there such a thing as "the flavor equivalent of the color brown" in the sense that too many different flavors can make food sort of taste bland? If so, is there a technical way to describe that sensation?

6
  • 6
    Since this does not answer the question, I figured it was suitable for comments (sorry if that is not correct on this site, I'm having trouble finding specific rules). My girlfriend and I sometimes encounter this same issue - we found a way to reconcile the differences between our two preferred dishes. By reserving some of all of the brighter, fresher ingredients, and garnishing each person's dish with those ingredients to their own preferences, you can almost make the two completely separate dishes. One has a a more muddled outcome, and the more garnished dish highlights the fresh ingredients – Zaelin Goodman Mar 31 at 17:15
  • 4
    It's extremely common that newer cooks find a recipe to be "bland" and attempt to fix the blandness by adding spices. The problem is almost always a lack of salt. This is especially true in the case of dishes like curries, soups, and stews. Even a plain piece of cucumber won't taste bland with a dash of salt. Encourage your girlfriend to keep a spoon handy to taste the soup/curry as it's nearing completion and add salt until it is no longer bland. Once it's properly "seasoned", which is how we refer to properly salted food, she can experiment with adding flavor via spice. – Banjoe Mar 31 at 17:44
  • 1
    from what I remember the la riviera episode of the UK version of kitchen nightmares centers pretty heavily on the idea of "too many flavors". not necessarily all that informative but maybe still worth a watch – qfwfq Mar 31 at 19:49
  • @ZaelinGoodman Definitely agree with keeping some ingredients back for finishing, +1. Particularly with something like a curry, the flavour profile of a squeeze of lime juice that's done over the top of a bowl just before serving is a mile away from adding some lime juice at the start of cooking where it loses a lot of its brightness. & there are plenty of ingredients that would fall into that category — particularly anything 'aromatic' or added for texture: fresh leafy herbs (coriander), finely sliced chilli, crispy onions, toasted almond flakes, etc. – anotherdave Apr 1 at 10:17
  • As a follow-up to @Banjoe 's comment let me just recommend this video (for your girlfriend): youtube.com/watch?v=Z9L-tJxPTGY (and the rest of the series). Just this one video did wonders for me when I started cooking more seriously recently. And, spoiler alert, he does discuss the importance of the right amount of salt! – M. Vinay Apr 1 at 12:18
29

With your longer description, I can understand where you are coming from and why you don't like this version of the dishes (and also why somebody else might prefer them). But the term "bland" you chose is unfortunate, and is predestined to create misunderstandings.

"Bland" is a word with a rather well-circumscribed meaning, and means that there is an absence of taste and flavor. To use your color analogy, "bland" would be applied most directly to something that is ecru colored, and, less fitting but still understood, to something that has its own color tone but so little pigment that it is still nearly white. For food, imagine maybe a pudding made with starch and water, nothing else, that would be a quintessential experience of bland food.

The experience you describe doesn't have a unique term, and the descriptive ones I can think of are non-technical. The most specific one I can come up with is "mingled flavors", although this one doesn't strongly evoke that the speaker disapproves of the extent of mingling. You can choose whatever you like and best reflects your own subjective experience. Some examples would be to call it "conflicting", "chaotic" or "overwhelming" taste combinations. Or, if you prefer to continue the metaphors from other senses, you can use "cacaphonous taste" or, more diplomatically, "lack of contrast".

I would also like to mention that your experience here does not validate hers, she is also just as right as you are, and finding a term will not lead to an agreement between you as to what the perfect dish should be. Every one of you has a set point for enjoyable taste, expects to find it in the dish, and is dissatisfied when the dish misses that point. What overwhelms your experience is well-rounded for her, and what is nicely focused to you is boringly one-dimensional for her. In keeping with your color comparison, insisting that only one of the two positions is "right" would be like insisting that painting like Franz Marc is "right" and painting like Caspar David Friedrich is "wrong", or the other way round.

3
  • 8
    After a discussion with my girlfriend, she found the expression "lack of contrast" very helpful and explanatory. I appreciate you detailed answer, and personally, I found it very clear and helpful. – Geoffrey Mar 31 at 16:36
  • 8
    hould probably be invalidate instead of validate – theonlygusti Apr 1 at 10:59
  • +100 for "I would also like to mention that your experience here does not validate hers, she is also just as right as you are, and finding a term will not lead to an agreement between you as to what the perfect dish should be". My wife and I have different tastes in food with significant common ground. And that's ok. But clearing up the miscommunication is a good idea. :) – bob Apr 5 at 14:41
49

I think the description you're looking for is what is often described as "muddy flavors" or "fighting flavors" or "muddled flavors" (though the latter is also a term used for a specific technique, so searching the internet will give lots of results for that).

This doesn't mean that it tastes like a mix of dirt & water--but rather that the flavors are no longer distinct, and possibly fighting with each other.

When you create recipes, the goal is to get all the individual pieces to come together to "sing" like a harmonious chorus. Each element comes together to do it's individual small role so that when it comes together it create a beautiful song. If you use too many strong flavors, they fight with each other--like trying to build a choral group out of egotistical soloists who all want to shine as the center of attention.

That "group of egotistical soloists," in food, creates "fighting" or "muddy" flavors.

3
  • 10
    "Confused" is a word often used to describe this on the show Masterchef (the British version; the others are about egotism and not cookery, so don't bother with them). Too many flavours fighting for dominance. – Graham Mar 31 at 10:14
  • Thank you for this answer! I think the term is quite descriptive, and I'll be certain to keep it in mind. – Geoffrey Mar 31 at 16:43
  • 2
    This is why a cheeseburger might taste good but a blended cheeseburger tastes like crap. – DKNguyen Apr 2 at 3:54
8

I like the comparison to 'the colour brown' & yes, I would agree this is quite possible.
To try stick with this allusion let's consider a generic takeaway ['indian'] curry.

A poor one is definitely 'brown'. I'm with you there. It has no highs & no lows, it's all just a generic 'curry flavour'.

Contrastingly, a good one has depths & highlights.
It has a deep red, an undercurrent of dark, long-cooked flavours. Difficult to tell apart perhaps, but a depth that the rest of the flavours need to sit on.
Then some later additions - a little added garam masala, giving some quick-cooked higher tones, in 'orange'.
Above that, some highlights, occasional stronger tones of 'green'. Maybe a sliver of ginger added just before serving, a flash of fresh chilli, a cardamom you find as a surprise half-way through.
Then above that, the brilliant 'white' of fresh coriander [cilantro], tomato, a squeeze of lime, a few ajwan seeds sprinkled over, a bright side-salad, perhaps also with lemon or lime & fresh chilli.

One other way to ensure these separations of flavour is to make sure all your spices are actually new [I won't say 'fresh' because these are mainly dried] but supermarket spices do tend towards the bland, even when newly-purchased. Specialist grocers might be a whole different colour-palette. I swapped from generic supermarket to an online specialist a few years ago & the first thing I learned was to use less of everything, the flavours were so punchy in comparison.
The same with the fresh ingredients. Supermarket coriander tends to only be green in colour, & that's about all it adds to the food… some green colour. Good stockists sell coriander you can smell from down the street. Bright enough to make you blink ;)

1
  • 1
    I think these observations are quite insightful, and I'll pass on the ideas to my girlfriend. – Geoffrey Mar 31 at 16:42
8

Okay, take a curry with 10 different spices (each of which you are familiar with) for example.

Will you be able to identify each spice in the curry with just one spoonful? If there were only one spice, say pepper, it would be easy to identify. But with the 10-spiced curry, you will only be getting one tenth the amount of pepper, blended in with 9 times the amount of the pepper in different spices (assuming she used a set amount for spices combined).

So if your brain has a hard time identifying the ten flavors, how would you describe the taste of the curry? Every flavor you will be able identify in the mix will be muffled by every 9 other flavors!

It's not like your brain will automatically find another flavor with a name (aside from generic ones like spicy) to replace the mix, so yeah, I understand how you might find the curry bland in a certain manner, though it could be simply overwhelmed.

To be honest, I wasn't very aware of this until long ago when I saw a baking reality show. This one contestant made a cake with like 20 flavors; the judges weren't happy about that, and that almost caused him to lose that particular round.

6
  • Of course you can also go too far in the other direction....consider artificial flavors, which are often too simple/"flat"/"one note"... You will certainly get dinged for that, too.The difficulty is, like the OP is finding, that the Goldilocks zone between too simple and too complex is personal. – user3067860 Mar 31 at 14:05
  • Thank you for this answer! My girlfriend and I discussed some of the issues you brought up here, and we came to the conclusion that she likely has a much more sensitive sense of taste than I do. As a result, she can taste the delicate highs and lows of complex flavor spectrums to a degree that I simply cannot. We think that - for her - one-tenth the flavor is plenty, but for me, it gets washed out. – Geoffrey Mar 31 at 16:39
  • 2
    Bringing up the idea of 10 different spices all "muddied" together, it sounds logical that the mixture might be unidentifiable, and somehow "cacophanous". But think about each individual spice and how many chemicals it may contain all by itself. Somehow our senses/brain (or whatever) identifies a mixture of chemicals as an individual item ("oh: ginger!", "hmmm, tastes like matzo ball soup mix", "... did you put root beer in this?", etc.). I can't see why we wouldn't recognize and like/dislike any combination (no matter how complex) of flavor components without perceiving it as "too muddled". – Lorel C. Mar 31 at 16:45
  • @LorelC. I have an amateur theory here - people seem to have different styles of trying to make sense of their perceptions. It goes in the same direction as people saying things like "I am more of a big picture kind of person" or "I am very detail-oriented". I have tried, for experimentation, to consciously "switch" my focus from detailed to all-at-once for a minute, and it is an uphill battle (but a worthwhile exercise). So, while learning to perceive the flavor "as a whole" is possible, if that's not what the OP's brain is doing by itself, it is cognitively difficult - and thus not... – rumtscho Mar 31 at 19:33
  • ... automatically perceived as enjoyable. Also, beyond a difference in focus style, there is a difference in the total capacity of (grouped) "objects" people can hold in short-term memory, then there is a difference in how they group (that changes as a side effect of experience) and also differences in sensitivity to flavor already on the taste bud level, with people tasting a different subset of the chemicals present. I am sure that what you are proposing is possible, my impression is that when it doesn't happen on its own, getting there is difficult and not immediately pleasant. – rumtscho Mar 31 at 19:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.