1. Work with the five basic tastes
A great dish is always a successful combination of salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. If all 5 basic tastes have been considered and applied with skill, you are probably moving in a good direction.
The basic tastes should be balanced, but this does not mean that they should be equal. Memorable dishes tend to “pull” towards one or two of them: Towards salt and umami in a pizza, towards sour and salt in a prawn soup from Thailand, towards bitter and umami in an endive salad with blue cheese dressing, and so on.
If it works for you, imagine a diagram with five corners representing the basic tastes and with your dish in the middle. The diagram does not need to be symmetric, but neither should one parameter be full and another empty.
Every component on the plate need not be balanced, but the dish must be balanced as a whole. The salt and umami in the meat, the concentrated sweetness of the glaze, the sourness and saltiness of the pickled vegetables, the smooth, creamy umami in the potato purée, and –not least – the deep, peppery flavours in a tasty sauce that creates a balance between all of these.
2. Start with the details
The expression is so worn that it has almost lost all its meaning, but in the world of taste it truly applies: The difference is in the details.
A pinch of salt flakes and a little butter turns boiled potatoes into a culinary experience. A single drop of truffle oil does wonders to an ordinary vegetable soup. A squeeze of sourness from a ripe lemon makes the sweetness in carrots come across as exciting. Fried bread is more fun than just bread. And so on. Starting with the details can be a method for getting a grip on the big picture.
3. Visit another world (of taste)
A long time ago people laid their hands on whatever foodstuffs they could find locally and found combinations that worked and developed and improved them. This happened all over the planet for thousands of years – although it’s easy to think that people did a better job in some areas than in others. When you run out of inspiration, visit another world of taste:
Take a chicken drum stick – you don’t have to start with the protein, but it is often the easiest way to go – and make a mental flavour trip from the northern Mediterranean, to the southern Mediterranean, to the border between the USA and Mexico, to Polynesia, to Thailand, to the sweet, hot, and/or soya based kitchens in China, via the spices of India and back to central Europe…
Some helpful tips before you start
- Don’t change everything at once. If you are unsuccessful, you will not be able to identify which one of all the things you have changed is the problem. Go forward one step at a time and adjust, adjust, adjust.
- Every single thing on the plate must have a purpose.
- Finger food, buffet food and any variety of “tapas” should not only have different tastes, it must taste a lot – so thatyou can tell one thing from another. That is the whole point.
- Full grown dishes can have more subtle tastes than the above, but all dishes need something that pops out, with mildertastes as a suitable background.
- Go ahead and switch ingredients – but maintain the balance. Less of what’s strong and more of what’s mild. Not the otherway round.
- Dare to go forward. Don’t be afraid to fail. Feel free to experiment – but not on your guests.
4. Follow the taste thread
A good basic kitchen wisdom to keep in mind: If flavour 1 goes well with flavour 2 which goes well with flavour 3 which goes well with flavour 4 which goes well with flavour 5, then it is very likely that flavour 1 will also go well with flavour 5 – and that all flavours in this “thread” will go well with each other. If you don’t believe us, try it.
Taste threads often – but not always – have geographical roots. A theory to support this is that flavours from the same areas have developed together for millions of years, and have been cultivated and refined by humans for thousands of years.
5. Switch protein
Exchanging one protein for another can change the basic character of a dish. Professional chefs tend to think of chicken as the most interchangeable protein of all.
6. Copy the best
In a professional kitchen a novice is expected to keep an eye on the head chefs, to be inspired by them, to copy them and learn from them. Junior chefs who show a lack of interest will not be long-lived in the trade.
Even if you do your work in the kitchen in your home, you can still keep an eye on the best. Choose professional chefs when looking for recipes, tricks of the trade and inspiration. Watch good food-shows on TV, read cookery books and make a habit of watching instructive film clips on the internet.
7.Go menu surfing
Many ambitious restaurants also have an ambitious homepage where they keep customers up to date and flaunt their menus. Bookmark some favourites and visit the menus whenever you run out of imagination.
8. Succumb to the seasons
Cooking according to what’s in season means you will be using produce when it is at its best – and at its best price. It also means your behaviour will have a minimal impact on the environment. When you can’t come up with ideas, let the seasons do it for you: Switch protein and vegetables to whatever happens to be in season at the moment. Setting strict limits is often a good way of triggering your imagination.
9. Work with textures
A common mistake often made by amateurs is to pay too much attention to the flavour of food and too little to mouth feel, the tactile experience in your mouth. Nobody appreciates soggy chips, a grainy red wine sauce or a rubbery steak.
A great dish must present more than one texture and these must be – just like basic tastes – balanced. A soft piece of fish and a creamy sauce and a silky potato purée and a smooth guacamole, is not a good composition. Build your dish variations of soft, hard, crispy, smooth, fatty, coarse, juicy, crunchy, fluffy and warm and cold.
10. Work with the techniques
Different techniques applied to the same raw material will lead to different results. An egg can be boiled, poached, fried, and more. Applying a new cooking technique on one or more of the ingredients can be a way of opening up new dimensions of taste and mouth feel.
11. Start out from a classic
To take your cooking to a reasonably advanced level you must know your basics. Preferably, you should also have a command of “classic” dishes.
For example, in traditional western cooking there are 7 basic sauces. All other sauces are variations of these. (The art of mixology, mixing cocktails, is also based on a limited number of drinks. The rest are just variations.)
Things get a little trickier when composing an entire dish, since nature presents an almost inexhaustible pantry. To make things a little less daunting, start off with any one of the many classic recipes that have survived for generations. Be creative with one ingredient at a time and see where it takes you.
This is a method from the finer schools. This is where the chef ignores the general, helpful rule that you should preferably not try to change all parameters in a dish at once. When you deconstruct a dish, you do it from the ground (or not at all).
The worlds most avant garde chefs get up to this kind of stuff, but this does not mean you have to get carried away with jellies, foam or liquid nitrogen. The basic idea is simpler than that:
Take the ingredients in a tested, solid classic dish, and combine them in new ways. For example: Fried eggs and bacon on toast becomes, after deconstruction, a 65-degree egg yolk and bacon reduction inside a butter fried wheat waffle crust – or something to that effect.
In the world of deconstruction there are no limits except your knowledge of the basics and the tools you have in your kitchen.
13. Serve it with a twist
This is as easy as it sounds, but it can still be used to great effect. Serve the same dish more or less as usual, but serve the soup in a glass, serve the protein on a stick on the side, make a show out of the vegetables, reduce the runny sauce to a buttery paste, use a flat rock from the beach instead of a plate. And so forth.