The taste buds on our tongues can distinguish five different flavors: sweet (sugars), salt, bitter, sour (acids), and savory (also known as “umami”). Everything else is a scent, something we smell. And there are thousands of scents, and differences in flavors that come from the different chemical components, the molecular biology, of the products we use. So what makes up “flavor” is very complex. The only way to determine which are the most appealing to you is to smell and taste, but do so systematically.
The concept is simple: side-by-side sampling. If you taste one cabernet today from Napa and another a week from now, most of us do not have accurate enough recall to know which we really prefer, and more importantly, why we preferred it. But if you open two bottles of different Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wines and taste them side by side, you will soon learn which of them you prefer. If you do this again the following week with the preferred wine and a new one, you will again be able to choose, and over time you will develop discernment. This is almost impossible to do unless you do side-by-side tasting and preferably do it “blind” (have a friend brown bag the wines so you don’t know which is which and are only relying on your senses, not on your recollection of a label).
So how do we do this for the basic products we buy in the grocery store? Same principle: smell and taste.
One of the most basic of ingredients in Italian cooking is parmesan cheese. (Let us set aside for the moment the issue that Parmigiano Reggiano, from Parma, Italy, as the most “authentic.” What we are focusing on here is comparison of the different available flavor experiences.) Go to your local grocer and buy the grated parmesan in that green round container. Go to Trader Joe’s and buy “Trader Giotto’s” grated parmesan in one of the plastic tubs of prepared cheese. At Costco buy one of their containers of grated parmesan. And finally, visit your favorite delicatessen and buy some of their grated parmesan, no doubt, actual Parmigiano Reggiano from Parma, Italy. Take all four of these home, open them at the same time (freshness counts) and put a tablespoon or two of each into small condiment bowls. Then carefully savor each one. Smell them. Take a tasting spoon and take small bites of each one. Do it a couple of times over 15 minutes. Clean your taste buds between tastes with some small cubes of bread such as ciabatta. Rank them. Then assess them according to cost. Is one cheese four times as expensive as another but only gives you five percent more satisfaction? Buy the less expensive of the two preferred cheeses except for those special times when you want the best.
Now that you have a favorite, go to four different upscale providers. Here in the Bay Area you might go to Molinari’s Delicatessen, Whole Foods, Lunardi’s/Andronicos, Draeger’s, or Genova Delicatessen and buy four “upscale” (higher-priced) parmesans. Repeat the experience and see if you can decide which of the four of these cheeses you like the best.
There is no right or wrong in this type of experimentation—especially since we each have different flavor preferences. Some prefer spicier, some blander, some saltier, some less salty. Each of the cheeses will have subtle flavor differences depending upon when packed, whether preservatives were used, how long they were aged (older cheeses will have lost more water through evaporation during the aging process), or how much salt was put in the brine before the cheese was set out for aging. The point here is to discover which one is best for your flavor preferences.
We all use vegetable, chicken and beef stocks when cooking, as moisture is needed to braise or stew, to make a soup or any number of preparations. But which stock will yield the best finished dish? Which stock will make your food taste its best? Follow the same testing process.
Go the grocery store and buy three versions of chicken stock. You can buy “regular,” “low sodium” and “bone broth” probably from the same brand, and compare those differences. Take them home and put a couple of ounces in a tasting glass and see if you have a strong preference for one or another.
Once you have a preference, buy four different brands of that variation of broth or stock, and again open them all at the same time and put in tasting glasses. Smell and sip from each glass two or three times, until you have found your favorite. Then you can rely on that stock in your cooking. But only after you do one more experiment….
Make a batch of stock yourself. Buy a batch of chicken parts from your butcher. Use water, onions, carrots and celery and make your own broth with the bones, or even with a whole chicken. Compare the homemade to the boxed or canned varieties. You might conclude that the homemade is better (most professional chefs will stress this point), but you may also decide that the difference is not worth the effort. This is your own personal standard that you are setting.
Next, we will select olive oils. “Extra virgin” is for salad dressings or finishing a dish, not for frying or a sauté. (It will lose its distinctive characteristics as you heat it.) Buy a variety of extra virgin olive oils from Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, California. Look at the color. Put a little of each oil in a teaspoon or tasting glass, and then observe, smell and sip. Some will be more yellow, some more green, some lighter, some darker. It should not surprise you that these different oils will not taste the same. Some of the “greener” ones will be more peppery or more herbal, even causing a “harshness” to be felt at the back of throat. Others will be milder, more rounded, and smoother. Again there is not a right or wrong, good or bad. Some vendors label olive oil based upon the variety of olive being used—different varieties of olives, like different varieties of grapes, contribute different flavors to the finished oil. The idea is to determine which flavor profile you prefer and what effect each will have on the dish you bring to the table.
Same experiment, again. Buy canned San Marzano tomatoes and Italian-style tomatoes. Buy Italian-packed and California-packed. You will find that the contents of some cans are more densely packed, and some are less so. Some of the fruit will yield less juice and less seed, that is, more flesh, per pound of product. Buy three or four brands and compare. When tomatoes are in season taste fresh farmers market tomatoes against store bought ones. Try different varieties of fresh tomatoes. Through these experiments you will soon learn you have favorites.
Now, make some pasta and dress it with four different types of pesto—frozen, canned, store prepared but freshly made (look for plastic tubs in the deli section), and a batch of homemade. Again, you will soon develop a preference. But then it gets more complicated, because pesto is a preparation. It uses parmesan cheese and olive oil, and depending on the outcome of your taste tests on olive oil and parmesan you might find that the pesto will taste differently if you change the brand or source of the parmesan or the olive oil.
You can do the same experiments with canned tomato sauces, with various hot sauces, with vinegars. Did you know there are different kinds of salts that yield different flavors and have different textures? And you will find that there are some things where side-by-side tasting probably does not yield much information. For example, different round green cabbages are probably pretty interchangeable. As are Romaine lettuces. But not parsley. Flat leaf, curly leaf, Italian, cilantro—each will give your preparation a different flavor profile. Eureka lemons differ from Meyer lemons. Lemons impart a different flavor to a fish preparation than do limes. White peaches versus yellow peaches. Blood oranges versus regular oranges. Tangerines versus mandarins. The comparisons can go on and on. But what you will probably find if you go through these types of flavor and quality comparisons is that your shopping choices will change and become more discerning.
There is no right or wrong in this process, just a series of experiences. It is not only about knowing your ingredients but about discovering yourself through your flavor preferences. You will develop not only your palette of ingredients, but also your own palate, and unleash your creativity in your cooking. Enjoy the exploration!