Saturday, September 3, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Flavor Bible

If you don't care about the review, check out my tip on matching flavors at the end. You might find it useful.

I heard a lot about The Flavor Bible. Some from press releases and professional reviews, and some from less professional sources. A lot of people were wowed by the book.

The concept is that you can look up an ingredient - let's say asparagus - and then you read the characteristics of the ingredient and then see a list of other ingredients that are compatible.

I picked it up at the bookstore, browsed through it, and put it back. I didn't see the need.

But people were adamant. When you're stuck, you can turn to this book for inspiration.

Well, okay. But I still wasn't convinced. I already know what flavors I liked together. People would say, "Yes, but have you ever imagined this would go with that?" And then someone else would chime in and say, "Well, yes, those are common ingredients in this classic preparation."

I decided that it was the kind of book where you wouldn't know if it was useful or not until you lived with it for a while. But still, I was hesitant to spend the money. Because I'm sort of cheap. I was more than happy to have a review copy, though.

On the plus side, it does have a pretty comprehensive list of ingredients and what they match with. If you want to be more creative in the kitchen, but you're not sure which flavors pair well, this could be very, very handy.

One test I gave it was to see if I could think of anything that should have been added to the list. I chose an ingredient that had a fairly short list and might be difficult to pair: sauerkraut. One of the things I use sauerkraut for is pierogi. I combine the sauerkraut with cabbage and mushrooms. and I serve with sour cream. Interestingly, cabbage, mushrooms. pasta, and sour cream weren't named. Hmmm, okay...

The other test was whether I was surprised by any of the pairings. Shocked, no, Surprised, not really. But there were some that I hadn't thought about before, so that's a good thing,

The one slightly annoying thing about this book is that there are bits that you can't understand until you read the beginning of the book. When applicable. the items list the season, taste, function, weight, volume, and techniques.

Okay, starting at the bottom of the list, techniques is simple. Those are the cooking methods used. But volume? Foods are listed as quiet, moderate, loud. This made no sense to me. So I read the beginning of the book. This refers to the strength of the flavor. So, okay, why not call it strength or flavor intensity? Why use a word that's not commonly used for food, unless we're talking about snap, crackle and pop?

Then there's the weight. Weight actually refers to the density of the food. So why not call it density?

Function refers to whether the food has a warming or cooling property. Mint is cooling, while pepper are warming. Taste is sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Okay, that makes sense, too. I suppose that's handy if you've never tasted something.

:Last is season. It's pretty straightforward - it's the season when the ingredient is available. Given that the authors chose to call flavor intensity "volume," I couldn't trust that the word meant what it did.

Now that I know what all the definitions mean, it's all good. But I thought it was an odd decision to made it less than obvious.

Before I owned this book, I was skeptical about it. Now that I've got it, I can see how it might be very useful for a lot of people. I browse through it once in a while for inspiration, but I haven't had that AHA moment where I praise the book for pointing me to something astonishing. Maybe that's still coming.

The interesting thing is that this is one of the few books that I think would be much better in electronic form. particularly if it was user-editable. For example, I recently had an eggplant dish that included golden raisins. I thin that chopped dried apricots would be great, as well. But there were no dried fruits at all listed with the eggplant.

I suppose I could start scribbling in the book, but then I'd have to go to the dried apricot section and add the eggplant as well... and then I'd probably give up on the idea. It would be so much better if this was an editable database. And if you happen to hate the combination of eggplant and pine nuts? Delete it from your personal database.

Overall. my opinion of this book has improved. It's a good brainstorming tool. I'm going to keep it hanging around.

How to match flavors:

Here's my time for matching flavors. It works for me - maybe it will work for you,

When I'm making a dish - let's say chicken soup - and I think it needs something extra, first I taste the soup, then I go to the spice cabinet and I sniff the spices. Much of what you taste is a function of your sense of smell, which is why food tastes so lousy when you're stuffed up with a head cold. So if you've got the flavor in your mouth and the scent makes it better, you've got it right.

If you're not familiar with the spice, it's not a bad idea to add a teeny bit to a small amount of the soup and see if you like the result - there are some spices that have undertones that might not match as well as you hope.

This also works when trying to decide what flavors to pair. Smell them together. If you like they way they smell together, you should like the way they taste together.

Give it a try. Let me know if it works for you.


Sally Mc said...

Another informative and useful article, especially your tips at the end which don't take money away from my budget. They were Ahas for me, hadn't ever given it thought to take a taste and then a sniff of spices. One of's so simple and makes so much sense but I hadn't ever thought of it before. Thanks.

Donna Currie said...

Sally, I'm glad you found it useful!

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