2008.7.3 Rich + sharp
There's a culinary principle that I came up with a while ago, a sort of Grand Unifying Hypothesis of Flavor, that has stood me in good stead whenever I've improvised a new dish or sought to modify or complement a food item. It goes like this:
RICH + SHARP = DELICIOUS.
The nice thing about it is that (1) it's about as simple as possible as stated above, and (2) empirically, it's quite effective. Exactly what I mean by "rich" and "sharp," though, requires some explanation, although they're both pretty intuitive terms. Each is a diverse yet coherent set of tastes and flavors.
The upshot is that, in order to achieve an optimum of tastiness, you have to have a balance of these, just like yin and yang. Of course, this is anything but a wholly new discovery — rich and sharp have probably been combined as long as cuisine has existed, and sometimes they co-occur in nature (for instance in fruits, which are often both sweet and sour). What I think is possibly unique is this formulation's comprehensiveness — it distills a lot of specific pieces of culinary wisdom down to the combination of two generalized components. This generalization does have its own precedents — for instance, the idea of "cutting" something over-rich with something tangy, and conversely, the idea of "rounding off" or "enriching" the flavor of something over-sharp with something smooth or sweet. I find that, usually, when a dish tastes unbalanced, it's because it's either too rich or too sharp, and that increasing the opposite one will usually cause a significant improvement.
But to be more likely to persuade you, I should provide a number of examples. This is no trouble; all I have to do is think of great dishes or foods, and they're likely to fit. Although I'm vegetarian, I won't shy away from giving meaty examples. Here we go — this list will probably be expanded over time as I think of more examples, and these will (be forewarned) swerve from gourmet to plebeian and back on a moment's notice. They'll probably give you plenty of other ideas as well.
|DISH||SOURCE OF RICHNESS||SOURCE OF SHARPNESS||NOTES|
|Brown sauce, in general.||Sweetener, browning compounds, and umami (from MSG, soy, etc).||Salt, acidity, spiciness, and herb/spice flavors.||This is why brown sauces are so easy to resort to in attempts to improve a savory dish — they're loaded with both rich and sharp components.|
|Salad dressing.||Oil and/or dairy ingredients.||Vinegar, herbs.||This introduces both factors into a salad, which without it tends to lack them to any great degree, except for the bitterness of certain vegetables.|
|Bananas and orange juice.||Sweetness of banana and orange juice; banana essence.||Acidity of orange juice.||It's good. Don't be a snob.|
|Sushi (American viewpoint here), with the usual condiments of soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger.||Umami of meat and nori, sweetness of ginger, starch of rice.||Saltiness of soy sauce, sourness of soy sauce and ginger, hotness of wasabi and ginger.||Good enough for you, yuppies?|
|Soda.||Extreme quantities of sweeteners.||Extreme acidity (masked by the sweeteners), bitterness and/or spiciness of flavorings.||Hey soda corporations, how about reducing BOTH the sweeteners AND the acid so that your products would taste just as good and also be healthier? No? Oh.|
|Coffee, black tea.||Sweeteners and/or dairy/creamers.||Bitterness of pure coffee and tea.||Some people break the formula here by their preference for black coffee and unsweetened tea; not me. (But what do black-coffee drinkers have with their black coffee? PASTRIES. Sweet and fatty. Richness.)|
|Mint chocolate anything.||Sweetness.||Bitterness of chocolate, freshness of mint aroma.||NOM|
|Anything with browned cheese.||Browning, fattiness, creaminess of cheese.||Saltiness, (sometimes) tanginess of cheese.||NOM|
|Smoked meat.||Browning, umami, smoky flavor of meat.||Salt of meat.||Former NOM|
|Anything with tomatoes and cheese, cooked or uncooked, often with something made from grains.||Creaminess and (if cooked) browning of cheese, starchiness and (if bread) browning of grain ingredient.||Acidity of tomatoes (they're surprisingly sour, as you know if you've ever eaten them while burdened with canker sore), salt of cheese.||The basis of pasta dishes, pizza, burritos, etc. etc.|