Flavouring in Practice

The art of creating flavour is neglected, probably because it cannot be turned into glossy colour photographs or demonstrated on television. It gets relegated to the ‘pinch of salt’, the ‘grate of nutmeg’, the ‘half teaspoon of cinnamon’ or the ‘garlic if liked’. Yet flavour, with texture, is the cornerstone of good cooking and cannot be achieved by slavish uncomprehending measurement.

I have been lucky to watch many of the finest chefs at work, and they seldom measure the flavourings they add. Eye, taste, instinct and experience determine how they flavour the dish. This is something a cook must cultivate. Flavour has to be developed by basic good cooking and a balance struck between the various added flavours which are blended together or placed in antagonism.

This is difficult. Ingredients vary. Those people who cook a dish for the first time especially to honour guests are being optimistic. A recipe is only a guide, a point from which to start. The good cook, like any artist, must back a personal opinion after some careful study and practice. The recipe is then taken into the repertoire – the music can be played with certainty and interpreted to give a good performance.

The amateur must, however, find this a council of perfection. Chefs seem to taste their creations only at points they know to be critical. Most of us cannot practise a dish so often and have to proceed by tasting at intervals, which is often not satisfactory – especially in the early stages of a dish before the flavours have gone together – and quite impossible when for instance, seasoning a terrine of raw pig’s liver. On the other side of the picture, my aunt Molly, a splendid cook, even tastes the water for saltiness before putting in the vegetables. The main thing is to be thoroughly alerted to the world of seasoning and flavour and then one will find one’s own method.

Flavouring in Practice Photo Gallery

As to quantity: obviously the amounts one uses have a direct relationship with the quantity of food in the pot, and one would not measure the salt in pinches when seasoning a whole ox. One does, however, see cooks becoming more cautious when reaching the point of perfection – very often with salt. This is a mistake and almost always results in undersalting.

The reason is twofold. To begin with, most people think of flavouring and seasoning in terms of school arithmetic, of adding – say, one clove of garlic, then two, then three, then four…

Although it is rather obvious that when one gets to twenty, a garlic clove or so is not going to make as much difference as it did when one started. In other words, the more one adds, the less critical the extra additions become.

Conversely, when dealing with small quantities, a small change makes a big difference, and so the smaller the quantity the more critical the addition becomes. There is, for instance, a big difference between a quarter and a half a clove of garlic in a pate – in fact, the same difference mathematically as between 10 and 20. Two times in each case. But whereas many cooks will jump from % to V2 a clove with no thought, the jump from 10 to 20 will cause hysterics.

Actually the jump from 10 to 20 is less in result than from % to because if it takes a small thump to start a donkey, he will not (even if he does not go stubborn) go twice as fast if you thump him twice as hard, poor beast. He soon reaches his maximum speed.

So to produce the same sort of increase as between % to V2 a clove of garlic, one might have to go not double from 10 to 20 but more than double, say from 10 to 25 or 30. And in the end, no matter how many more cloves one added, there would be no change. The palate would be saturated. So one has a law: the smaller the quantity of flavouring, the more critical its adjustment.

Perhaps the most difficult taste to adjust is one in which one has three conflicting elements such as salt, sugar and vinegar in a salty sweet-sour combination such as in the piquant peanut sauce for Indonesian satay. It is easy to sweeten a sour dish to the point of perfection, but, when the third element, salt, is added, it changes the relationship of the other two and for anyone interested in flavouring such a problem is fascinating.

And now a final practical point. The flavouring shelf should be within easy reach of the stove, not at the other end of the kitchen, and although house-proud cooks may opt for a set of matching jars, naturally with labels, I have found that this is a mistake. I like glass bottles so that I can see what is inside (though one should not use clear glass for long storage) and I like them to be of all different shapes and sizes so that I do not have to read the labels and can recognize the bottles even if they are standing behind others on the shelf. It is a truism in the kitchen that the more time one saves the more time one has to cook.

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