If you don’t have a recipe, how do find a perfect pair of flavors? My oldest son once called me during a layover in Vegas on his way home asking me to make Mexican lasagne for dinner. I had no idea what that was. He described it as a layered dish with lasagne noodles, meat, red sauce seasoned with a ton of spices like you’d use in tacos plus those in traditional lasagne, and cheese. I told him I’d give it a shot.
In that instance, I imagined the flavors in tacos. For that flavor profile, I chose salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, and cumin. For the lasagne flavors, I added oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary. I combined both of these profiles using sight, smell, and taste to judge the amount of each to add. The result turned out better than I would have guessed when he suggested it.
This request didn’t throw me because I rarely use recipes when I’m cooking for my family. So how do I know what to put in the pot? I’ve probably mentioned before that I imagine flavor combinations in my head. I do. But there are several things in play when I’m cooking.
For one, I use my sense of smell. If you hold your head over a pan and smell for a moment, you’ll realize you can smell salt as well as garlic, and curry powder, and basil. When the balance of the aroma is off, the taste will be as well.
I also use my eyes. If I’m adding beans to chili or cranberries to a salad, I use proportions that look pleasing. This results in a full combination of flavors in each bite.
Throwing something together often begins with inspiration or imagination. Sometimes I take a bite of something and have a sudden thought that it would pair well with X. Other times, I take the ingredients in my refrigerator and imagine different combinations of the flavors there. Sometimes I do this when I’m choosing my groceries for pickup or purchasing items at the farmers market.
Beyond my senses and imagination, I use memory. I both watched and helped my grandmother cook. I think about how she seasoned things. I also pay attention to the flavors and ingredients I can identify in restaurant dishes. And I envision combinations I’ve seen in recipes before.
Even if I can remember the general ingredients, once I get started I have to determine proportions. Knowing how something should look is helpful. If I’ve seen the consistency of pancake batter, then I can tell if there’s too much liquid or not enough.
Cooking experience is valuable as well. If you’ve baked a lot of cakes, you’ll have an idea what the ratio of flour to sugar, oil, and eggs should be. It’s probably worth noting that when you make gluten or dairy-free versions, traditional rules may not apply.
The best gluten-free sandwich bread I make has a dough that’s more like batter than dough. But once you’re practiced in these adaptations, you’ll still be able to rely on experience to help you.
If you have never cooked, or watched anyone cook, from scratch and cannot imagine flavor pairings, there’s a handy tool called The Flavor Bible that tells you what to mix and match. This comprehensive reference book of compatible flavors was named by Forbes as one of the 10 best cookbooks in the world of the past century. It also won a James Beard Book Award.
Following a specific recipe to the letter will yield a more consistent result, but using a flavor guide can introduce playfulness into your cooking. Life is made of so many repetitious chores, I like to add a sense of fun and play whenever I can. Sometimes the best way to do that is to try to find yet another perfect pair.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”