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Are Flavor and Taste the Same Thing? The Answer is Surprising

Editorial consulting by the Culinary Institute of America

In the movie Ratatouille, cartoon chef August Gusto states: “Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell, there is excellence all around you, you only need be aware to stop and savor it.” Even though it’s a Disney cartoon, there were some profound truths about flavor presented by the playful characters in the movie. Remy, the aspiring young rodent chef goes on to say, “each flavor is totally unique, but combine one flavor with another and something new is created.” In those words Remy sums up the concept of flavor personalities.

To truly understand flavor personalities, one must first understand what flavor is, and just as importantly, you must appreciate the difference between flavor and taste. We often use these two words interchangeably, but taste and flavor are two different things. Taste is perceived by the taste buds on the tongue. There are only five things we can taste – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Similar to how there are only three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue, which we can mix and match and create a nearly infinite number of colors on the color palate, we can also mix and match the five primary tastes to make up an infinite number of taste combinations. Without the introduction of aroma, however, those taste combinations are very flat and uninteresting. While the tongue can only detect five primary tastes, the nose can identify hundreds of aromas. When we combine those hundreds of aromas with the five primary tastes, we now have flavor, and the more tastes and aromas we can combine, the more flavor depth we have.

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Flavor personalities, or flavor systems, are examples of the concept of gestalt – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take a blueberry muffin, for example. Wild blueberries, butter, sugar, flour and vanilla are combined together and become something more than just those individual flavors. Wild blueberries offer a fruity and pleasantly tart dimension; butter lends a deep richness, vanilla a toasty floral note, and sugar a soothing sweetness to tie it all together.

The best flavor personalities are those that satisfy the has / needs relationship between ingredients. All ingredients have something that other ingredients need. All ingredients need something that other ingredients have. Referring back to Gusto’s insights about good food being like music you can taste, we can sometimes describe flavors as being bright or top notes, and others as being deep or bottom notes. Wild Blueberries tend to be somewhere in the middle, making them an excellent ingredient to solve many flavor personality issues. Wild Blueberries pair equally well with the bright acidic flavors of lemon, pineapple, and apricot, and the deeper roasty toasty flavors of maple syrup, Cognac, and dulce de leche.

Like the utilitarian clarinet, Wild Blueberries can be caramelized with brown sugar to bring their flavor to a lower octave, or pickled with champagne vinegar brighten them to higher register. They can be left in the simple quartet of a peach and Wild Blueberry cobbler (peaches, Wild Blueberries, butter, and sugar), or they can be part of a more complex symphony such as crispy Wild Blueberry fritters in lemon crust with vanilla bean ice cream.

The key to creating great flavor personalities is to understand the synergies that different ingredients give each other. This can be gained through trial and error, or there are several good books that can point you toward great flavor pairings. One of my favorites is Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page. In it, the authors discuss flavors, flavor personalities, and flavor pairings.

Wild Blueberries have their own distinct flavor that can adapt to many systems and styles. They can be used in savory or sweet applications, as top or bottom note flavors, as the star of the show or as the background. That’s why they are used in many culinary applications. They offer a blueberry flavor that is robust, complex, and rounded. As a more genetically diverse crop consisting of hundreds of different, naturally occurring varietal clones that have developed over thousands of years, Wild Blueberries have a unique blend of intense flavors from sweet to tangy to tart and everything in between. In contrast, cultivated blueberries are genetically narrow. By propagating a select few varieties, growers produce a consistent size and color but with a very different character and flavor than the naturally complex wild ones.

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Next time you’re looking to develop a great new recipe, take a moment to stop and savor the flavor of Wild Blueberries on their own. Once you get a sense of what they have, it becomes possible to imagine a plethora of applications.

About the Author 

Chef David Kamen, PCIII, MBA

Project Manager, CIA Consulting

Chef David Kamen has enjoyed a diverse career in the culinary world. He served as executive chef of St. Andrew’s Café, one of five award-winning public restaurants on the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park campus. He’s also been professor of culinary arts at CIA, where he taught everything from culinary skills development, to seafood and meat identification and fabrication, to breakfast cookery. Today, Chef Kamen is a project manager for CIA Consulting, where he is responsible for planning and managing custom projects for professional foodservice operations. A certified hospitality educator, Kamen earned dual certification from the CIA and the American Culinary Federation as a ProChef Level III (PCIII) and Certified Executive Chef (CEC).  He also holds a B.A. and M.A. in Business Administration from Empire State College.