Learn about how to use fermented foods to add flavor to your meals. This crash course on flavor pairing focuses on how fermented foods can add acidity and umami to your dishes.
A Crash course in flavor pairing
There are five basic flavors.
Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter all directly correspond to taste buds (grade 9 biology anyone?). So it’s pretty easy to tell when something is sweet or bitter.
The fifth flavor, umami, is the rich and savory flavor that comes from MSG. While most people might be horrified at the idea of MSG as a flavor, we’re not talking about the white powdered additive. Umami naturally occurs in lots of foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms, and fermented foods.
- Flavor pairing is about balancing all five flavors. For example, adding a bit of salt to a dessert recipe will sharpen the overall flavor without making it taste salty.
- While science has tried to distill flavors into something quantifiable, the average cook needs to rely on their intuition when it comes to adjusting flavors.
- Understanding flavor and being able to adjust the flavor of a dish is definitely a skill that takes experience to develop. The more you cook from scratch the better you’ll become at flavor pairing.
- Flavor preferences are also cultural. In fact, childhood flavor preferences are set in utero by your mother’s diet.
- Acidity and umami are the most neglected flavors. And it’s one of the reasons why health experts recommend using a squeeze of fresh lemon juice instead of adding salt to a dish. A little bit of lemon can add more flavor than simply adding more salt!
Different Types of acids
We don’t often consider acidity in our cooking, beyond its use in salad dressings and sauces. However, acidity actually brings a lot to a dish, including:
Common acids include citric acid (citrus fruits), lactic acid (pickles and yogurt), acetic acid (vinegar), malic acid (grapes), and ascorbic acid (fruits).
While we often only use one type of acid in a dish, mixing different acids creates a complex flavor, which adds to the overall richness of a dish. It’s why salad dressing recipes often involve a mix of vinegar and lemon juice.
How To Use Fermented Foods For Acidity
When most home cooks think of acidity, they think of lemon juice and vinegar. It’s pretty easy to swap store-bought vinegar for homemade vinegar or kombucha. However, fermented fruits and vegetables are also a great way to add acidity and brightness to your meals.
Here are a few pieces of advice for using fermented fruits and vegetables to add acidity to your meals:
- Feel free to use whatever you happen to have in your larder. Sauerkraut, pickles, and fermented fruit will all provide some acidity.
- To maintain the probiotic benefits, add fermented foods after serving the dish.
- A fork full of fermented vegetables can be added to pretty much every type of dish: soups, salads, pasta, sandwiches. I even add pickles to my lentil sloppy joes!
All about umami
Umami is the Japanese word for rich savory flavors that are particular to fermented foods, broth, and cooked meats. As I mentioned above, it’s probably best quantified as MSG.
Adding umami to a dish provides:
- increased overall flavor
How to Use Fermented Foods For Umami
Fermented foods naturally contain MSG. It’s one of the reasons why so many dishes involve the addition of wine, cheese, vinegar, or soy sauce.
Probably one of the easiest ways to add more umami to your diet is with miso. Miso is fermented through a combination of mold, yeast, and bacteria. The result is one of the richest and most full-flavored ferments that I know of.
Here are a few ways to add miso to your dishes:
- Miso can be used instead of salt in soups, sauces, and salad dressings.
- It can even be added to things like lentil dip or hummus.
- Miso is perfect for a rich flavorful gravy.
- Look for raw and alive miso in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Or try making it yourself!
- If you really get into miso, then why not explore all the different flavors? Some miso is actually sweet, making it a perfect addition to desserts!
Fellow blogger, Onur Malay shared his picture of Turkish kumpir (loaded baked potato) with me. It is a good example of using fermented foods for flavor. It features both acidic fermented vegetables and a rich miso sauce.