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What is the formal definition of "savory" when used in cooking? I hear a lot about things coming in either sweet or savory forms — e.g. crepes — but in context it doesn't seem that savory is the term for all things that are not sweet. Does it have to do with preparation methods? Ingredients? Taste of the final product?

I have been assuming that "sweet" means something like "sugary," as it does in common usage; please correct me if that's not the case here.

  • In french, Savoyard (often translated as Savory, but which is not a good translation for Savory) simply means : that comes from Savoie, a particular region of France. – user29470 Nov 23 '14 at 0:12
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In cooking, "Savory" does generally refer to a flavor profile that is anything other than sweet.

"Sweet" doesn't have to necessarily be sugary sweet...basil, tarragon, fennel, carrots, beets, etc. have sweet flavors that are not excessively sugary sweet.

The term "neutral" is typically used for things like crepes and choux paste (eclair paste) because when made in their traditional style they are neither savory nor sweet and can work with either flavor profile.

  • The middle paragraph of this is a little confusing; if someone were to make say a carrot, beet, and tarragon salad, without adding any sugar to it, I can't see that they would call it sweet. That would traditionally be thought of as savory. (The rest I agree with). – Michael Natkin Aug 15 '10 at 19:44
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    Carrots, Peas, and lots of other vegetables have sweet flavors to them. Have you ever had a stock made with too many carrots or one where the carrots broke down to mush...it produces an overly sweet tasting stock. Sweetness as in all flavor profiles comes in varying degrees and does not always mean "sugary/cloyingly" sweet. Why is unsalted butter labeled "sweet butter"...it doesn't taste sweet but it's because it isn't salted. – Darin Sehnert Aug 16 '10 at 14:36
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    I totally agree with you, those things do have a sweet taste with no added sugar. The original question is about the distinction between sweet and savory in common usage. In general, a dish made with carrots and peas will be part of the savory courses, not a dessert - so they will be thought of as savory. For example, if one were to make a buckwheat crepe, filled with peas, carrots and cheese and a bechamel made with sweet cream butter, and ask most people if that is a savory or sweet dish, they will say it is savory. – Michael Natkin Aug 16 '10 at 16:46
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    @Michael: Lord Torgamus asked if "sweet" necessarily meant "sugary" as he was inclined to believe. My original point was in reference to the fact that individual items can have sweet flavors and taste that is not directly linked to intense sugariness. I did not make mention specific dishes (such as your salad and crepe examples) where they would be functioning in a savory role. – Darin Sehnert Aug 16 '10 at 17:20
  • Counterexample: american-chinese sweet and sour sauces (think spring roll sauce as an extreme example) ... very sweet, yet definitely in the savory realm... – rackandboneman May 19 '17 at 7:54
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Savory, called Umami in Japanese, implies the presence of Glutamates, the carboxylate anions and salts of the amino acid glutamic acid. The identification Glutamate receptors on the tongue only took place in the past decade, although the ability of the tongue to detect glutamates has long been know. In the early Twentieth Century, a Japanese scientist isolated monosodium glutamate (MSG) while researching the savoriness of seaweed broth.

In short, just as saltiness signifies sodium ions, savory signifies glutamates.

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    This is a correct explanation of umami, and indeed umami can be thought of as the "savory sensation". But this question appears to be about the distinction between sweet and savory, which is a different use for the word savory. In that context, which is how it is broadly used in distinguishing sweet from savory dishes, savory simply means any dish that isn't primarily sweet. For example, pasta with grilled eggplant, olives and mozzarella has very little umami, but would definitely be described as a savory dish, not sweet. – Michael Natkin Aug 16 '10 at 16:11
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There isn't a formal definition, but you have the correct basic idea. Sweet means something you would think of as sugary enough to qualify as dessert, or at least like a breakfast muffin - any case where sweetness is the most dominant of the basic tastes (sweet / salty / sour / umami / bitter). Savory is everything else.

There are plenty of cases where this line can be quite aggressively straddled to the point where which category a dish fits in would be debatable. This is especially true in the sort of hypermodern 30 course Alinea / El Bulli type menus, where there are often specific courses that act as a transition from the savory to the sweet world.

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Sweet and savory are not opposite flavours or tastes. They can and do coexist to some degree in most food ingredients, example the tomato. Beef is savoury but contains some sugars. The only tastes that are opposites are sour (acidic) and bitter (alkaline), these cannot co-exist for long as they react together to form new flavours. So its not the absence of sugar but what the dominant taste is. The ancient romans put honey with virtually all meats and fishes. Weather the dish turned out as a sweet or savory depended on how much honey they added.

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Savory means any food stuff that requires the addition of salt and pepper.

  • Almost all baked sweets also call for salt, so that's sort of a wash. Fewer call for pepper, although I can still think of a handful of spicy "sweets". – Erica Dec 25 '15 at 22:55

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