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3 Handy Flavour Building Cheat Sheets for Chefs

Chef tasting a dish flavoured with herbs and spices.Aroma is responsible for as much as 80 per cent of the flavour of a dish. This helps to explain the popularity of cooking with herbs and spices. Incorporating them in a dish enhances the aroma of the dish and, in turn, its flavour.

Remember that most herbs and spices do not like to be categorized into rigid boxes. Some will fit into more than one box. And then there will be those that don’t seem to fit in anywhere.

When cooking with herbs and spices use these cheat sheets as a guide to create new flavour combinations, or to enhance your favourites. Follow your own palate. If for example you can’t distinguish between spicy and pungent, group them together.

Cheat Sheet 1: Basic Tastes

This cheat sheet is handy when you’d like to balance the basic taste of a dish.

Bitter
Most herbs and spices are essentially bitter.

Salty
Capers, celery, fenugreek, hyssop, lovage.

Sweet
Stevia.

Sour or Tangy
Lemon, lime, sorrel.

Cheat Sheet 2: Basic Aromatic Groups

Use this cheat sheet to compliment the flavours of the main ingredients in your dish.

Aniseed or Liquorice
Anise, chervil, dill, fennel, liquorice, star anise, tarragon.

Citrus
Citrus, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon thyme, lemon verbena.

Fresh (or cool)
Borage, parsley, salad burnet.

Minty
Apple mint, chocolate mint, eau de cologne mint, ginger mint, mint, pineapple mint, peppermint, spearmint.

Nutty
Sesame seed, poppy seed.

Onion-flavoured
Chives, garlic, garlic chives, shallot, Welsh onion (spring onion).

Pungent
Allspice, arugula (rocket), chilli, cloves, ginger, horseradish, mustard, nasturtium, pepper, watercress.

Spicy
Cilantro, curry bush, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme.

Sweet
Bay leaves, cassia, cinnamon, coriander, juniper, paprika, pineapple sage, rose geranium, stevia, sweet basil.

Warm and Earthy
Caraway, cardamom, cumin, curry leaves, mace, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric.

Cheat Sheet 3: Loudness Groups

You can also group herbs and spices according to their volume or loudness.

This cheat sheet is handy when you want to determine:

  • How overpowering a herb or spice is. The louder the more overpowering.
  • How much of the herb or spice to add to a dish. The louder the less you’ll use.
  • When to add it to a dish. The louder the longer they can withstand long cooking periods.
  • Which flavours will complement each other. A loud herb will silence a soft one. To balance their marriage you’ll need to use more of the soft one than the loud one.

There are two basic loudness groupings: soft to moderate (the mild herbs and spices), and loud (the robust or strong herbs and spices).

Soft to Moderate Volume

The soft to moderate volume herbs have the following characteristics:

  • Predominantly annual herbs.
  • They combine well with most other low volume herbs and spices.
  • They combine well with louder flavours; and most can be paired with a loud herb, if the two complement each other.
  • Their flavours become more moderate when used in cooked dishes.
  • They are mostly used in larger quantities and with greater variation, than their loud cousins.
  • They work very well in raw dishes or recipes that have very short cooking periods.
  • Examples are sweet basil, bay leaf, chervil, chives, dill, marjoram and parsley.

Loud Volume

The loud herbs (and most spices) have the following characteristics:

  • Predominantly spices and a few perennial herbs.
  • With the exception of garlic, most pair well with other loud herbs and spices in duets.
  • They are often used in stews and casseroles and recipes that use long cooking periods. They are well suited to the ‘slow cooker’ used by many of today’s busy cooks.
  • Their aromas change subtly during the cooking process. Some aromas will fade slightly while others may intensify.
  • They retain their flavour profiles well when dried.
  • Examples are garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, and the spices.

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