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:


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.

Rich includes:

  • sweet
  • creamy
  • oily/fatty
  • starchy
  • nutty
  • browning
  • umami
  • a host of sweet-seeming aromas, e.g.:
    • vanilla
    • banana
    • coconut
    • maple
    • almond
    • caramel
  • other rich aromas, e.g.:
    • buttery
    • smokey
    • garlic

Sharp includes:

  • salty
  • sour
  • bitter
  • spicy
  • alcoholic
  • sharp or "fresh" herb & spice aromas such as
    • ginger
    • mint
    • licorice
    • caraway
    • dill
    • celery

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.

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.