Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Flavor? What fucking flavor?!

I try not to rant and not to start flame wars -- at least not too often. Hey, when it comes to food, there is really no right or wrong. It's a matter of experimentation and taste. Or at least that's what I tell my students to make them feel empowered to experiment in the kitchen. But the recent article in chow.com entitled "Beyond Salt and Pepper" reminded me that I tell my students little white lies sometimes. There is right, and there is wrong. And the authors of that article couldn't be more wrong in my opinion.

They state that:
No matter how many cookbooks you read or how much Top Chef you absorb from the television, your home cooking won’t match your favorite restaurant’s. One reason: Professionals use a lot of fat and salt, which tease more flavor out of ingredients. There are other ingredients you can use, however, to boost flavor.
To argue with this statement, I have to get a little technical and actually define "flavor," which they never bother to do. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, flavor is "the blend of taste and smell sensations evoked by a substance in the mouth."

Let's start with the taste. What can we taste anyway? Very little. Human tongue can perceive only 4 sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Everything else we smell. This might come as a surprise, but you can't actually taste herbs and spices (paprika, garlic chile paste, ginger, celery seed, and tarragon) that the authors of the article suggest you use to "boost flavor." You can only smell them. Since your throat is connected to your nasal passages, you smell stuff better when it's in your mouth (thus thinking you taste it better). Smell is a big part of our gustatory experience and those are all wonderful ingredients to use. But the article seems to imply that those are ingredients home cooks can rely on since they can't use as much salt and fat as restaurants do. That's absurd! Substituting salt with tarragon is just like substituting a bar of soap with a towel. They are both part of the bathing experience, but one can help you get cleaner and the other one can help you get drier. You probably won't argue that using soap to dry yourself is not the best idea.

"What about the spiciness?" you might say. "That bity sensation you experience from chiles, raw garlic, and ginger?" Certain ingredients act as irritants (in a good way), which is a part of the gustatory experience too, but you still don't actually taste them. So using less salt, and throwing in more garlic or chiles is not likely to get you a culinary masterpiece.

What other secret weapons can home cooks add to their cooking arsenal? The authors suggest acidic ingredients, like citrus juice, wine, vinegar, and Dijon mustard, and sweet ingredients like honey and maple syrup. At least we are getting to stuff we can actually taste. There is only one little problem. The more sweetness and acidity you add, the more salt you'll need to balance it. That's the art of seasoning that separates good cooks from bad cooks. It's not about whether cinnamon goes with cardamom. It's how much salt to use to balance the sweetness and acidity in the dish.

But hey, you can kill all birds with one stone and use Worcestershire sauce, suggests the article, because it's sour (main ingredient is vinegar), sweet (from molasses and sugar), and salty (from anchovies). Nothing against Worcestershire sauce, but isn't that kind of like trying to get enough of each food group by ordering a happy meal at McDonald's? Technically, it has your protein, starch, fat, vegetables, etc, but probably not in the proportions you'd like.

My favorite part is readers' comments that suggest the use of MSG, soy sauce, and anchovies. Have they ever wondered why those taste so good? Because they are loaded with salt! When I posted my first story on salt last year, one of the readers commented that a way to get around using salt in salads, is to add flavorful ingredients like olives. So why are olives are so "flavorful"? Could it be because they are cured in salt? That goes for capers and all those other salt substitutes. If you want to use these ingredients, be my guest. They are all wonderful (except for MSG maybe). But let's not pretend that they are better for you than plain old salt or that the final dish will have less sodium and taste just as good.

I can't help but wonder why we keep looking for substitutes and why we can't use as much salt and restaurants do. What's so terrible about salt? Somehow, people in Japan and France don't worry about it, and live long and healthy lives. Though, I don't believe they try to substitute exercise with anything either.

I don't remember where I read this, but it's an interesting statistic that many Americans spend more time watching food TV than actually cooking. We can sit in front of TV watching Iron Chef and eating low-fat, low-sodium potato chips all we want. Or we can get into the kitchen, cook a decent meal with no substitutes and go for a brisk walk.

And about fat... It's a big misconception that the difference between restaurant food and home cooked food is pounds of cream and butter. Sure, classic French cooking is extremely heavy on fat, but many modern restaurants use fat, don't abuse fat. How do I know? I worked in one. The difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking is the amount of salt and doneness of meats, fish, and vegetables. Use more salt, cook things less, and your food will improve so much you might not want to eat out.

15 comments:

Alex M said...

While I agree there is no substitute for salt, it does pose health risks and should be used in moderation.

Also, going out for that walk after a good home cooked meal is a lot easier when it wasn't full of salt, butter, or cream.

I do think the brunt of this does not apply to you, your food, and your taste in restaurants, and that to a broader audience that aren't good cooks, eat a lot of inferior foods, the article may have more benefits.

McQ said...

I think the whole point of the article IS that cooking is all about balance. The suggestions seem to be all items that you might not think of adding to enhance and balance your food. Salt and fat are the obvious ones, but adding a bit of vinegar to beans or a dash of worcesterhsire to a salad dressing is not something that home cooks like me think of.

Vilensky, FCCG said...

It is actually a myth that salt is dangerous for most people. I recently spoke to a friend who is a doctor, MPH, and biostatistician and she says that for only a tiny fraction of the population salt is dangerous. For most people, high blood pressure is caused by stress not by salt.

Yes, it is true: we know the pathway by which salt causes high blood pressure (the high electronegativity of Sodium cause the ions to bind very strongly to cell walls in capillaries and leach parts of them off). But, I think for this to happen at danger levels, the amounts have to be quite excessive.

Howard said...

This is in fact a fifth flavor we can taste, Umami which is what MSG stimulates.

mamster said...

Now that's a catchy post title.

marryjane said...

I hate to say it, but it sounds like you don't know what you're talking about. Something like Worchestershire sauce into a dish at the end does make a subtle but huge difference in flavor and balance. Have you ever made a straight vinaigrette? (vinegar, oil, salt, pepper?) Now try it with a tiny spoonfull of mustard and a pinch of sugar added in. HUGE difference that not many people think of. That's how chef's think.

Terry B said...

I for one, Helen, say "amen!" First, their blanket statement is absurd. Home cooks I know [myself included] routinely make meals I'd be happy to pay for in a restaurant.

And for me, the jury is SO out on the use of salt. And regarding fat, etcetera, you're absolutely right about the French. They use plenty of it. They just don't supersize portions. I am appalled when I see 24-ounce, 32-ounce, even 40-ounce steaks on menus. WTF?

christina said...

Marryjane, I think you should think about your response a little more carefully. None of what Helen's post said contradicts with your comment. She's drawing a distinction between flavor (as perceived in the mouth) and our other perceptions of taste such as olfactory input, to illustrate her point that you certainly aren't going to ever achieve restaurant-quality food if you try to cut back on salt and fats by using herbs and spices.
This has nothing to do with using mustard as an emulsifier in a vinaigrette (which, I think, is actually pretty common knowledge and not a particularly great example of "how chef's [sic] think.") She also notes that Worcestershire sauce does add flavor; her quibble is that the flavor is pre-packaged and therefore you can only achieve limited flavor profiles through using it. Also, when someone with restaurant culinary experience teaches classes about cooking, I think it's safe to say they've made a straight vinaigrette before. Next time, try understanding what someone has written before you leave patronizing comments.

Helen said...

Thank you, Christina :) I couldn't put it better myself.

I am not anti-mustard, or Worchestershire sauce. I am just pro-salt. And as far as fat goes, portion control can go a long way.

More later...

jo said...

When I teach my classes and get the inevitable, THAT IS A LOT OF SALT comment from at least one student I go to explain that if you make all of your meals form scratch, season with Kosher instead of table (less salty, larger grains - ergo larger pinches) skip the ramen noodles, the cup a soups,the lean cuisines and other preprepared crap, and you season, to taste, with salt, I highly doubt you would even get close to eating a dangerous level of salt.

Whew! That was one long sentence.

The hardest thing that most people will have in trying to recreate restaurant quality foods is sourcing the finest ingredients (it ain't happening at Shaw's Star or Stop and Spend is it now?), having homemade stocks on hand for reduction sauces, pan sauces, and as you said, knowing to cook your food less or to proper temperature to get the maximum flavour and texture.

Having said all that, I have a great article out of Gastrinomica that talks all about MSG and Umami and gives some great info about the development as well as the fact that MSG is not as bad as everyone has made it out in the past. Drop me a line if you are interested and I can see if I can find it in the heaps and get it off to you.

jo

Jeffrey M. said...

helen...i love the vitriol! now we're getting saucy. i have noticed that i use far more fat, butter, creams, etc in cooking than i used to be willing to. the difference in flavor is huge.

on a quasi-related note (i.e. flavor)...how about a deeply flavorful recipe for seared sea scallops? something that really makes you moan in delight. i've been grilling scallops lately in fairly mild citrus-based marinades but want something a little richer and more moving on the palate.

thanks (and sorry to hijack this very interesting thread).

Deborah Dowd said...

Great post and I disagrree that you can't make your food taste as good as your favorite restaurant, I am not a chef and have never taken a course, but I love playing with food (hence my blog), and I am routinely told by guests who are tough food critics that my dishes rival what they can get at a restaurant (not everything I make, mind you). I agree that we are too fixated with eliminating fats and salt as a "magic bullet" for weight loss, when we would probably eat less food if we judiciously used these ingredients to make really delicious meals that can be savored, not devoured!

Helen said...

Hi Jeffrey and Deborah,

Sorry it took me so long to reply. Too many family events last week (my husband's graduation, my baby shower, and a ton of family in town :)

Seared scallops... it might come as no surprise that my seared scallops only contain scallops, salt, pepper, butter/oil :)

First, you have to start with top quality dry scallops. Follow the link to find out what "dry" scallops are. Remove the little muscle, and dry the scallops really well on paper towel. Set a heavy (if possible cast iron, but NOT non-stick) pan over high heat. When hot, add 1 Tb of oil or butter or a combination of both. Season scallops with salt and pepper on both sides and place in the pan without crowding. There should be some space between each scallop. Cook until browned (no longer than 2 minutes). Flip and cook until browned on the other side. They should still be rare and creamy inside, so don't try to cook them through.

Cheers,
-Helen

tammy said...

Some of the best cooking I've ever experienced has been at someone's house, not a restaurant. I LOVE eating out, but I don't think you can disregard passionate home cooks.

Anonymous said...

This article was great! I was raised in a strict low-fat/no-fat household, and when I sort of accidentally started cooking in a high-end restaurant this year (long story), it was a major hurdle for me to get over the increased amounts of salt and fat in dishes. We certainly use quite a lot more than my mom did! But you know what? A little fat here and there goes a long way. It satiates your palette and fills you up. There is something so infinitely satisfying about a creamy bisque with a huge side salad and a nice chunk of bread. I think that in the end I'm not eating many more calories, I'm just pairing food better and am satisfied with smaller portions. And the secret to a simple-yet-great salad? Maldon sea salt, hands down! I'm not afraid of fat anymore, and I think I am much better off for it.