Cooking Without Recipes: Understanding Flavor

updated May 11, 2022
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

When something tastes fantastic, it literally sings in our mouths. And when something doesn’t taste quite right, we know that too–even if we can’t always put our finger on what’s off or how we can fix it.

Ever wonder how chefs and restaurant reviewers seem to know exactly what a dish needs to be perfect? And if this is something you can learn, too? Read on!

Although folks who taste food for a living are a bit ahead of the game, they still work with the same tastes and flavors we all experience.

They break these tastes down into a “flavor profile” and talk about four main components:

Low Notes: These are the deep lingering flavors in foods that form the base or the backdrop for other flavors. Think earthy and umami.

These are flavors like mushrooms, seared meat, and beans.

Mid Notes: Flavors in this range are much more subtle. They’re not as immediately identifiable and don’t hang around as long as the low and high notes.

Think raw vegetables and chicken. (And this is why those often taste bland and boring without any other flavors to fancy them up!)

High Notes: These flavors are the show stoppers. They fizz and zing and dance in your mouth.

This is the splash of citrus, the handful of fresh herbs, and the minced hot peppers.

Roundness: A better term for this might be “fullness.” This is what brings all those notes together and connects them into a unified taste.

You don’t often taste these ingredients themselves because they mostly function to bring other flavors out. It can be something mellow like butter or cream, or it can be a seasoning like salt or sugar.

As you cook and taste, think about each of these components and how they work with each other.

Sometimes you’ll need to add an ingredient–like a squeeze of lemon. Sometimes it’s more about finding the right balance of ingredients you already have–like another teaspoon of salt to bring out the brighter flavors.

As we play with flavors and cook by feel, understanding how flavors in a dish work together can be one of the best skills to learn!

Related: Cooking by Feel: What Are Your Best Fast Desserts?

(Image Credit: Chef Special by Darren Hoover, $16.99 at