Improving the Flavor of Food: Do You Add Balance or Bytes?

Stephen DeAngelis

April 17, 2014

“It’s happened to us all at one point or another,” writes Melanie Pinola, “the dish you’ve cooked is too salty, too spicy, or perhaps just too…meh. The key to correcting — and preventing — this is balance, when all the flavors of the dish work in harmony.” [“Learn to Make Any Dish You Cook Better,” lifehacker, 6 December 2013] If balancing flavors were easy, there wouldn’t be so many cooking competitions on television. Pinola reminds readers that there are basically five tastes that our tongues recognize: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami (meaty or savory). If the last term is unfamiliar to you, read my post entitled “The Taste of Umami.” Pinola continues:

“The five primary tastes are the key to seasoning dishes well so your food tastes as good as it can. As Jeff potter writes in Cooking for Geeks:

‘When cooking, regardless of the recipe and technique, you always want to adjust and correct the primary tastes in a dish. There is just too much variability in any given product for a recipe to accurately prescribe how much of a taste modifier is necessary to achieve a balanced taste for most dishes: one apple might be sweeter than another, in which case you’ll need to adjust the amount of sugar in your applesauce, and today’s batch of fish might be slightly fresher than last week’s, changing the amount of lemon juice you’ll want. Because taste preferences vary among individuals, you can sometimes solve the balance problems by letting the diners adjust the taste themselves. This is why fish is so often served with a slice of lemon, why we have salt on the table (don’t take offense at someone “disagreeing” with your “perfectly seasoned” entrée), and why tea and coffee are served with sugar on the side. Still, you can’t serve a dish with every possible taste modifier, and you should adjust the seasonings so that it’s generally pleasing.’

“When you don’t adjust for the primary tastes, the flavors in the dish will be out of balance and your food may come out too salty, too bland, and so on. … Identify the most dominant flavor, and if it’s too much, balance it out with the others.”

Pinola appears to use the terms “taste” and “flavor” interchangeably — a lot of people do; but, there is a difference. How you pair tastes determines the flavors that will emerge. As one author explained, “While the terms ‘taste’ and ‘flavor’ often are used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. … The taste of a food is what the taste buds perceive; the flavor of a food is the combination of these tastes, plus the aroma and the other sensations.” [“Subtle science looks into delicious foods,” Rocky Mount Telegram, 18 March 2014]

Some researchers are demonstrating that computers are pretty good at finding the right balance between flavors. Lav Varshney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, has created a computer program that creatively combines seemingly unrelated ingredients into recipes. [“Artificial intelligence; tasty real-world results,” by Paul Wood, The News-Gazette, 23 February 2014] Before joining the faculty at UI, Varshney “was working at IBM on a project to rival Watson, the computer who appeared on ‘Jeopardy.’ Some call the project ‘Chef Watson’; others have called it the ‘synthetic gastronomist.’ At any rate, one of the desserts was sublime enough to make the cut for catering at Varshney’s recent wedding.” Varshney calls his program the Computational Creativity System, or CCS. Josh Winters reports, “What makes CCS stand out from a human chef, besides the ability to create millions of recipes within seconds, is that it’s indiscriminate in the ingredients it uses, whereas a human chef may be limited to their own biases. For example, while the combination of brussels sprouts, goat cheese and tomatoes may not have crossed anyone’s mind in the past; these ingredients were combined to create a completely new recipe: Kenyan Brussels sprouts gratin, Varshney said.” [“University professor programs artificial chef,” The Daily Illini, 6 March 2014] Here is how Varshney explained “computational cooking” to Winters:

Computational cooking

— Key Ingredients: Computational Creativity System begins its creative process with a key ingredient chosen by the programmer that the user wants to base the recipe on. Examples would include steak, almonds or apples.

— Regional Cuisine: The programmer then selects what culture or cultures they want to influence the recipe. If the programmer is in the mood for a Thai dish, CCS will be able to accommodate his or her craving in the final product.

— Dish Type: What type of food does the programmer want CCS to create? In this step, the CCS user will tell the program what kind of dish they want, be it a soup, salad or anything else.

— Ingredient Types: Based on the type of dish selected, CCS determines what additional ingredients should be included in the final recipe. For example, a salad may include four types of vegetables, two types of nuts and an oil.

— Preparation: CCS can determine the best way to prepare the foods it creates. It may determine that a food would taste the best if it is seared on the edges, so it will include this preparation step in the recipe.

— Ingredient Constraints: CCS can take additional factors like allergies, dietary restrictions and cost-effectiveness into account before finalizing the recipe if the programmer chooses.

Varshney isn’t the only researcher using computers to analyze recipes. Researchers at Wired.com and FoodNetwork.com have also conducted some interesting analysis. [“How Big Data is Revolutionizing the Food Industry,” by Ashish Thusoo, Wired, 14 February 2014] Thusoo writes, “It makes sense that the industry would take advantage of the same big data services as financial firms and marketing departments to better understand their consumer, increase efficiency and even create new recipes to try.” Do you think you’ve been seeing a lot more advertising for food dishes that include bacon? You could be right. Thusoo explains:

“Bacon has always been a versatile ingredient. It fits in at any meal and is great on its own or added to anything from soup and salad to sandwiches and burgers. Lately, however, our obsession with bacon seems to have been taken to a whole new level, with bacon inundating our desserts, cocktails and even our clothing. A data mining project completed by Wired.com and FoodNetwork.com analyzed this obsession to see if bacon truly was a magical ingredient that made any dish taste better. The project sifted through 906,539 ratings and discovered that sandwiches that include bacon see the biggest improvements in ratings. Unfortunately for those bacon dessert lovers, it was found that bacon does not improve ratings on dessert recipes. Lada Adamic, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan confirmed the project’s results, but also noted several other ingredients that tend to boost ratings: cream cheese, whipped topping, strawberries and avocado.”

Pinola calls bacon “an umami bomb.” Her article also goes on to explain how you can balance tastes to improve the flavor of your food the old fashioned way — by tasting and adjusting ingredients. I suspect that the old fashioned method of balancing tastes to increase flavors will never die out; nevertheless, cognitive computing systems are going to play an increasingly important role in the food industry.