Bite into a forkful of hot steamed fish topped with cool Red Pepper Onion Mango Sauce and the fresh flavors of the Caribbean explode in your mouth. At once you taste the earthy brine of the sea, the sweet of the fruit and the hot spiciness of ginger and red pepper (see recipe, page 46).
This enticing melding of flavors on the tongue is due in part to nature and in part to a chef's careful culinary engineering. "Foods are chemical mixtures, so we seldom encounter any of the basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami) in isolation. They all play a role in our taste perceptions," says Leslie Stein, a scientist with Monell Senses Center in Philadelphia. "The appeal of a mix of flavors like in a rich sauce or salsa may be due in part to ongoing scientific studies that are pointing to the fact that sweet and umami (savory) tastes share the same receptors on the tongue," she says. (See How We Taste, page 44.)
For chefs, sauces (including salsa and chutney) are a particularly good medium for adding an intriguing flavor dimension to menu items. This means incorporating ingredients such as alcohol (wine, fortified spirits) fruits and berries (juices and nectars); honey, and vinegar; and utilizing cooking methods—such as caramelizing to release natural sweetness—to add or enhance incomparable richness to sauces and a wow factor to the overall dish.
"You can completely adjust the flavor of a dish by using sauces," says Chef David Barry, lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, NY.
"Look at ingredients such as wine, fortified wine, vinegars and fruit juices to add nuance and complexity to the overall dish."
In the case of wine Barry advises chefs to consider the dish as a whole to determine the taste "effect" they want to ellicit. "Are you trying for a classic sweet-and-sour sauce to enhance duck? Or, do you want a more savory herb sauce to complement a roast beef tenderloin? The result will depend on the reduction and the type of wine used."
You want the sauce to be an integral part of the dish—to complement the food," he adds. (For some help on pairing wine for sauce, see the sidebar below.)
Barry strongly suggests reducing wines slowly, at low simmer. "You'll get a finer flavor than reducing them by fast boiling," he says.
And onsite chefs, who generally cook in large volumes, need not shy away from using spirits to enhance sauces, says Barry.
"As long as they are used on a consistent— daily—basis to ensure freshness and are not overproduced, onsite chefs can have wonderful sauce bases easily on hand," he says. Gently reduce aromatics and wine down about one-third and reduce demi-glace down, also about one-third. "You can keep it on hand a week or two, as long as it's refrigerated, labelled and only put out at the saute station as needed."
Using vinegars can dramatically define a sauce to enhance the entree it accompanies," says Barry. "Consider a sweet balsamic vinegar. It's used in relishes and salsa to add a hint of sour and it can also enhance the sweetness of a sauce. Vinegar ties all the ingredients together," he says. Other types of vinegar balance butter or flavor content and help to stabilize an emulsion sauce, such as hollandaise.
Fruit juices lighten or brighten sauces with their acid, particularly the citrus and tropical fruit families. "Fruit juices lend incredible flavor concentration," says Barry. "It's suprising how different they become when reduced—incredibly sweet and bright— changing the whole flavor of the dish."
Cooking with Wine
Following are tips from Marianne Frantz, director of the Cleveland (OH) Wine School, for getting the most out of your wine pantry:
How we Taste
It is generally accepted that we taste different flavors—sweet, salty, bitter and sour—on distinct parts of our tongue. Yet research shows that all tastes are represented in each tastebud. Additionally, the taste of umami has been recognized and studied for more than three decades yet has only made inroads to the public concsiousness in the past few years.
"Umami might be the unique sensory experience triggered by glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, tomatoes, peas, and parmesan cheese," says Leslie Stein, PhD, at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Glutamate elicits a sensation which is often desribed as full-bodied, meaty, and savory. Umami differs from the other basic tastes in that it doesn't seem to impart a particular taste quality. Instead, umami appears to interact with other taste stimuli to enhance the flavor of food.
The interesting thing here is that recent biochemical studies have revealed a separate taste receptor that can detect this amino acid, increasing the likelihood that umami is, in fact, a distinct taste sensation.
Still, why does that sweet, hot salsa taste particularly delicious with savory grilled proteins? Because the recent research also suggests that umami and sweet taste receptors share a common structural subunit (the T1R3 receptor).
For an in-depth look into taste sensation check out www.monell.org, the web site of Monell Chemical Senses Center.