There is a big difference between a good meal and fantastic meal. Yes, one most likely has a better visual presentation, but most people would agree that the most important factor is taste. A question I get very often from my customers is, “how do you get it to taste like that?”. Fortunately I am not one of those chefs that keeps a tool box full of secrets. And as can be seen from my first grade report card, I like to share with others.
I could use words like “balance”, “symmetry” and “contrast”. But I like the word “dichotomy” best. The word dichotomy is defined as: a separation into two divisions that contradict each other. Or more simply put; two things that are opposites to each other.
Without getting too philosophical here, life is made up of opposites. The sun and the moon. Black and white. Good and evil. Hot and cold. Man and woman. Our universe is made up of opposites and It wouldn’t exist without them. Well, neither would good food!
One of the tools that I use in preparing meals that pay the bills, is the concept of a dichotomy – both from a visual standpoint, and a taste standpoint. If you’ve ever taken an art class, you know that the picture you’re painting looks best when it balances. There has to be empty space to compliment the full space. You have to dampen bright colors with dark colors, and so it is with the arrangement of food on a plate. When you’re preparing a dish, you’re essentially painting a 3 dimensional picture. But the factor that keeps customers coming back is always the taste, and good taste is all about a properly balancing and opposing your flavors.
Picture a meal that is just salty. No other taste, just salt. How about a food that is just nothing but sweet? Not very enjoyable in my opinion. There is no dichotomy there. What a good chef will do is balance two flavors just right. When I make desserts I always balance the sugar with a bit of salt. You can’t really tell the salt is there, but you just know that it’s very satisfying to your taste buds! You’d be pleasantly surprised by how many recipes would be improved by opposing two flavors instead of focusing on one. Next time you make tomato sauce, for example, add half as much sugar as you add salt and you might notice a great improvement. Whether you combine salty with sweet, or sweet with sour, or spicy with sweetness, it really is an improvement over using just one flavor. So take your six main flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy and umami (spicy is technically a sensation and not a flavor, but we’ll just add it in there) and begin to experiment with pairings to take your cooking to a deeper level. The fast food restaurants have done it for years to keep you coming back. How much sugar do you think it takes to balance an umami (the flavor of MSG which is similar to salty) meat patty?
The concept does not stop with flavors. The dichotomy also lends itself to temperature and to texture. A perfect example of these two would be a crispy, hot slice of apple pie topped with a cold, soft and smooth scoop of french vanilla iced cream. The crispy texture of the apple pie is opposed by the soft, velvety texture of the iced cream, and the temperatures of hot and cold are also opposed. By the way, most iced cream you buy at the store contains a certain amount of salt to counter the sugar.
I hope that this will help you to understand what makes your favorite foods so enjoyable, and I would be happy to know that this has made your cooking just a little bit better!