Sweetness. Saltiness. Sourness. Bitterness. Every delicious bite you’ve ever tasted has been a result of these four tastes coming together on your taste buds. We taste them as individual notes, and in concert. Each taste affects the other. For example, bitterness suppresses sweetness. In addition, different tastes affect us in different ways. Saltiness stimulates the appetite, while sweetness satiates it. Take the time to explore the four basic tastes included in this blog post.
It takes the greatest quantity of a substance that is sweet (versus salty, sour, or bitter) to register on our taste buds. However, we can appreciate the balance and “roundness” that even otherwise imperceptible sweetness adds to savory dishes. Sweetness can work with bitterness, sourness–even saltiness. Sweetness can also bring out the flavors of other ingredients, from fruits to mints.
When we banished more than thirty of America’s leading chefs to their own desert islands with only ten ingredients to cook with for the rest of their lives (Culinary Artistry, 1996), the number-one ingredient they chose was salt. Salt is nature’s flavor enhancer. It is the single most important taste for making savory food delicious. (Sweetness, by the way, plays the same role is desserts.)
Sourness is second only to salt in savory food and sugar in sweet food in its importance as a flavor enhancer. Sour notes– whether a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of vinegar– add sparkle and brightness to a dish. Balancing a dish’s acidity with its other tastes is critical to the dish’s ultimate success.
Humans are most sensitive to bitterness, and our survival wiring allows us to recognize it in even relatively tiny amounts. Bitterness balances sweetness, and can also play a vital role in cutting richness in a dish. While bitterness is more important to certain people than to others, some chefs see it as an indispensable “cleansing” taste– one that makes you want to take the next bite, and the next.
Umami (Savoriness): In addition to the four basic tastes, there is growing evidence of a fifth taste, umami. It is often described as the savory or meaty “mouth-filling” taste that is noticeable in such ingredients as anchovies, blue cheese, mushrooms, and green tea, and in such flavorings as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the primary component of branded seasonings such as Ac’cent.
Source: Page, K., & Dornenburg, A. (2008). The flavor bible: The essential guide to culinary creativity, based on the wisdom of America’s most imaginative chefs. New York: Little, Brown.