A Feature Review of
The Art of Flavor: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food
Daniel Patterson / Mandy Aftel
Reviewed by Andrew Camp
Learning to cook starts with proper techniques, from knife skills to cooking techniques. With these tools in our arsenal, we are able, given access to the right ingredients, copy a recipe with relative success. However, to move beyond this level of cooking to experimenting with different flavor combinations is a whole different skill.
Unfortunately, most cookbooks tell us what to do without explaining why we should combine those flavors. Where are we home cooks to turn, then, to move beyond mechanistic cooking, relying on what others say to a more creative, confident home cooking where we can create food that is personal, fun, and attentive to who we are? Thankfully, Daniel Patterson, a chef, and Mandy Aftel, a perfumer, together hope to fill this gap with their newest book The Art of Flavor.
Their purpose in writing this book is to “teach [us] to become a creative, confident cook who knows how to think about and respond to the ingredients available to [us] in ways that result in delicious, memorable food” (3). For Daniel and Mandy, delicious, memorable food lies not only with the ingredients we have access to, but also at the intersection of our experience, the specific chemistry of our taste buds, our moods and cravings, and the bent of our imagination.
Experimenting and playing with flavor begins with discernment. Consider an apple. There is a flavor we generally call apple, but within that broad category, different apples have very different flavors, like a Gala and a Granny Smith. But even that can be too broad, for we have all had Gala apples that vary wildly, depending on factors such as where they were grown and when they were picked. Therefore, we must pay careful attention to what we are tasting, not just noting the dominant flavor, but the secondary and tertiary flavors. As we cultivate and grow in our awareness of our ingredients, this awareness becomes the foundation of what and how we cook.
(Brief pause: I realize that what I just wrote can conjure up imagines of sommeliers tasting wine using language that is hoity-toity and ethereal. I get it, but that’s not what Daniel and Mandy desire. They want us, as we taste the specific ingredients we have at our disposal to simply be aware of the nuances of flavor, and to use our language to describe it. The goal is to begin to verbalize what we are tasting as simple as it may be.)
So how do we go about creating flavor?
Great, exciting flavor is truly happening on the chemical flavor. Daniel and Mandy write, “What’s actually happening when ingredients take that quantum leap to exciting flavor is they are interacting on a molecular level in ways that heighten, layer, tame, and connect all the nuance of which they are composed, bonding together in a pleasurable way” (60). In cooking, we sometimes chance upon a new, exciting flavor combination, but in order to recreate that flavor, we need to learn how to orchestrate and manipulate flavor in repeatable ways.
(Brief pause again: Now you are thinking, “Great, not only do I have to have the vocabulary of a master sommelier, but now I have to have an advanced degree in chemistry?” Please do not give up. The rest of the book is about distilling down the hard work into digestible, literally and figuratively, pieces to help us all move forward in our cooking ability. But also realize that this is a lifelong process.)
They start by giving us the Four Rules of Flavor (which I found most helpful): 1) Similar ingredients need a contrasting flavor. 2) Contrasting ingredients need a unifying flavor. 3) Heavy ingredients will need a lifting note. 4) Light flavors will need to be grounded. Consider a pot roast with carrots and mashed potatoes. While this is comfort food at its finest, pot roast, carrots, and potatoes all have very similar flavors, most notably earthy. And they are all heavy ingredients (think cold, winter day). A contrasting flavor that also provides a lift can be as simple as sprinkling fresh Italian parsley (none of that curly leaf stuff) on the plate. Or as we continue to experiment and grow in our confidence, we might want to consider how citrus and that same parsley might combine in a traditional gremolata.
The next tool in developing flavor is the flavor “compass.” This tool is “meant to help guide [us] in the right direction by revealing both the similarities and differences among member of each major group. Our aim is to help [us] develop the attunement and sensual intelligence—and imagination—that will allow you to make connections in an easy, joyful, and fruitful way” (97). The four directions of flavor are spices, herbs, citruses, and flowers.
The next step in learning to develop exciting flavor is understanding the concepts of locking and burying. Locking is “what happens when ingredients combine with impact that seems to be more than the sum of their individual characters” (143). This can be as simple as combining strawberry and vanilla or as complex as the perfect mole sauce. Burying is the scientific art of properly and proportionately subduing strong flavors that can have a subtle, transformative effect on the whole.
Taking the next step as a home cook requires us to discern which cooking method would work best with a given ingredient. Given a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, we are wise to do the least amount with it, and simply enjoy its pure, unadulterated flavor. But that same technique would probably be a horrible idea with beets from the same farmers’ market. Let the ingredient dictate the technique. Or when a hearty stew is needed during the dead of winter, we need to understand the differing cuts of beef and which is best suited to a long, slow stewing.
They conclude their exploration of flavor by giving us the seven dials. They write, “With food, there are basically seven different kinds of adjustments you can make to balance what you have created: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, unami, fat, and heat [think spice, not temperature]…. They do not create flavor, but they fine-tune it in a magical way” (220). Like all other aspects discussed in this book, the seven dials come back to the all-important notion of smelling and tasting as you cook. Flavor is dynamic, so as you adjust one of the dials, you might need to go back and adjust another.
As I read this book, I found myself waffling between being curious and paralyzed by the scope of flavor. This is not a book we can read once and surmise, “I understand flavor.” This is a book, I, for one, will be returning to time and time again as I continue to hone my craft as a home cook. No matter where we are in our skill and ability to cook, this book will help all of us slow down and truly enjoy the ingredients we are surrounded by and the cooking processes of transforming them into something truly magical.
Now if you will excuse me, I am going to go experiment and create flavor: I am thinking of a duck sausage flavored with dried cherries, sage, and orange, accompanied by a parsnip puree, with a duck stock cognac reduction.
After working as a professional chef for seven years, Andrew Camp is the spiritual growth pastor at Mountain Life Church in Park City, UT, where his focus is on pastoring and leading small group leaders. He has a Masters in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care from Talbot Seminary. He and his wife, Claire, have lived in the Park City area for four years, and have an daughter, named Hazelle.