Flavor Layering - Complementary Contrasts
Flavor layering is balancing flavors by adding harmonizing ingredients at various
stages of a recipe, and taking every opportunity to bring out the unique qualities
and contributions of each ingredient. This can be a daunting task, especially if you
are trying to balance taste with nutrition. Often, those things we enjoy most are the
last thing we need in our diet. However, that does not need to be the case. Today,
we will take a brief look at “WHAT to add” with respect to balancing acids.
COMPLEMENTARY CONTRASTS AND BALANCING ACID
A critical part of layering and boosting flavors is selecting ingredients that
complement one another. Complementary flavors are often contrasting. What?
Complementary contrast? While this may seem this is an oxymoron, they are both
key principles in layering flavors. Combining certain foods not only deepens flavor
but also increase the nutrients your body absorbs from the foods. In some cases,
certain substances, when eaten together, produce a greater effect than when each
is eaten alone – a discussion for another time. Complementary contrasts permit
chefs to blend tastes, textures and aromas while preserving the individual qualities
of the ingredients.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how to balance acids and play with our
Example 1: Returning to Grandma’s Italian sauce example, it is a delightful
combination of tastes and textures playing off each other to create the experience
you enjoy each time you eat it. The tomatoes provide both the sweetness and
acidity components of the experience. However, depending upon the type of tomato
and the time of harvest (ripeness), adding sweetener (sugar, molasses or slow
roasted onions) may be required to balance or soften acidity in the sauce.
However, if meat is an ingredient of the sauce, the sweetener may be omitted
altogether because the protein and fat in traditional Italian sausage tends to
balance the acid component as well as soften the way the flavor lingers on the
tongue. This is similar to the way a fillet mignon steak will soften a Cabernet
Sauvignon or other robust dry wine and accentuate its character and subtle flavors.
Hint: Homework assignment coming.
Example 2: Lemonade would be an unpleasant experience if it were not for sugar.
In correct proportions, the sugar balances the tartness of lemons. Check our
website in a couple days for my Dad’s homemade lemonade concentrate recipe he
keeps in the fridge. Just add water and rock your taste buds.
Example 3: In a basic mushroom sauce, a dry red wine accentuates the natural
flavors in the beef stock and onions; too much wine will create a sickly sweet sauce,
while none will provide a relatively bland or boring sauce. Remember, it is often
best to add acidic notes near the end of cooking because they mellow out with long
exposure to heat - this is especially true of citrus juice.
Example 4: As a general rule, when making acid-based salad dressings, such as a
vinaigrette or citrus-based dressing, use about a 4:1 to 5:1 ratio of fat (olive,
canola, or vegetable oil) to acid (balsamic vinegar). The natural sugars in the
balsamic vinegar also help create the balance as well, more so than other vinegars.
To demonstrate the concept of balancing acid with complementary contrasts, I have
a homework assignment I want you to try. While this does not required adding
ingredients to one specific recipe, it does demonstrate how contrasting elements
can complements each other. Open a quality bottle of a medium body, relatively dry
cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, pinot noir or other dry red wine, and allow it to
“breath” for about 30 minutes. Do NOT taste it until you have finished following the
remainder of these instructions. During the 30 minutes, season a fillet mignon or
New York strip steak with a medium fat content and grill it until medium or medium
rare, then allow it to rest for at least 5 minutes. Cut a few wedges out of a lemon.
You are now ready to start this exercise.
You will do a taste test in three individual steps. I will be doing this with you, at least
STEP ONE: Pour some wine in a large wine glass filling to only about 1/3 of the
height of the glass to allow for swirling the wine in the glass. Swirl the wine around
in the glass to further aerate the wine and coat the inside of the glass with wine.
Bury your nose in the glass and take a strong sniff. Take a mental note of the
experience trying to notice unique characteristics of the aroma. I write these down
in my wine journal along with my comments on color, clarity, legs, etc.
STEP TWO: Now take a sip of the wine while pulling air making a slight slurping
sound. Swirl it all around tongue. Swallow it and exhale through the nose, and
notice any of the lingering tastes or dry textures you feel on your tongue. Note this
in your wine tasting journal.
STEP THREE: Now cut one bite from the steak, chew it coating your tongue, and
enjoying the flavor of a nicely caramelized steak, follow the process in Step Two.
Notice how the wine is not nearly as strident, and in fact probably tastes a bit
sweeter, and mellower. Make particular note how the wine does not taste quite as
dry and has a softer mouth-feel. This is because fat coated the tongue somewhat
as well as both the fat and protein chemically reacted with the acid molecules in the
STEP FOUR: Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice on the steak, take a bite, then
repeat the process in Step Two. This time, the wine should come to life in your
mouth, and the subtle fruity characteristics for which that particular wine is popular
will no longer be subtle. In this case, the small amount of lemon juice, in concert
with the steak, preconditioned the tongue, muting the wine’s acidity thereby allowing
the more delicate flavors of the wine to come forth. Many of my students tell me that
after they have tried this exercise, they have never used any kind of steak sauce
again, using only a few drops of lemon juice, and enjoy the wine and steak twice as
much because they can taste both to a higher degree.
A final example of this balancing act between acids, proteins and fat would be those
who order a slice of mildly sharp cheddar cheese with tart fruit pies, such as cherry,
apple, rhubarb, strawberry, etc. The fat and protein cleanses and prepares the
palate for more of the citric acid in the pie.
Optional STEP FIVE: Prepare two steaks, two Yukon gold baked potatoes with
toppings, grilled seasoned asparagus and share the experience under candle light
with soft music, preferably jazz.
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