Every Sunday, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
This week I’m reviewing The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. To call this a “cookbook” is not at all accurate. There is not a single recipe in this book. It isn’t going to teach you how to poach or grill or give you a killer recipe for tiramisu. None of that. But it will provide you with a wealth of information, that if used correctly, can lead you down many awesome meals.
The Chemistry of Cooking
While the book doesn’t give you any specific recipes, it provides a base level explanation of Cooking. With a capital C. The first two chapters of this book which span only 33 of the total 380 pages, provide a background on what flavor actually is. When someone says a dish has “flavor” what are they talking about?
Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + “The X Factor”
This is the formula they give that equals flavor. The first chapter goes into detail on what each of these variables include and a few tips on how to include and balance them in each dish.
Through the chapter, they have small snippets of interviews from some of the best chefs of our time.
“My menu may read as unusual, but everything is really just a slight flip on a traditional flavor profile. If I pull out one acid, I replace it with another. If I make a tagine traditionally, it will have preserved lemon. Then I’ll ask, ‘Would it work with lime or orange juice?’ It is still the same flavor profile in that it will still have a cutting acid – just maybe not the one that would be used traditionally.” – Brad Farmerie, Public (NYC)
After the authors spend a few pages explaining, literally, the science behind flavor, they move onto how one would go about making solid flavor in a dish. Anyone who can do so is referred to as a good cook.
But good cooking is harder to define. The authors give an equation, but when it comes down to it, it means having “good judgment.” Knowing when a dish needs a bit more sweetness or bitterness and depending on the time of year and the mood, what ingredient could provide it.
The authors are right to say that making food taste good involves just two things:
1. Understanding the essence of the moment.
2. Understanding the essence of the ingredients.
In just a few pages, a few heavy pages, these authors do a fantastic job of really forcing the reader to think about an ingredient. What comes to mind when you think of something like soy sauce? It’s more than just saltiness. And all of those things help get to the essence of soy sauce.
8 years of study
That’s how long the next 350 pages took to craft. When I got this book, I had no idea what to expect, so I just turned to random page. This is what I saw:
FRISÉE (a fine-leaved variety of curly endive)
Taste: sweet, bitter
Techniques: raw, wilt
bell peppers: red, yellow
… 38 other flavors!
When I saw FRESHNESS before FRISÉE and FRUIT, FRESH after it. I realized I was looking at an alphabetical list of… well… everything food, flavor, and cooking. And I said to myself, “Oh no they didn’t!”
But they did. From achiote seeds to zucchini blossoms, they list it all. It takes some time to learn how to read the charts because they contain so much information. Each ingredient has below it a huge list of “compatible flavors.” By compatible flavors they mean more than just foods that go with the primary food, but flavors. This means that they list stuff like “Chinese cuisine” and “Brandy” and “salad dressings.”
As someone who preaches the benefits of learning to cook and feeling empowered in the kitchen, I started breathing heavily when I realized how much information this book contains. It is a tome and, in fact, a bible.
No recipes needed
This book is more than just a cookbook. It is a challenge to the reader. A challenge to pick flavor, one that you don’t know well enough (or at all) and go down to your market, find it, and cook something with it.
That said, there are zero recipes in the book. If you are looking for a specific way to use any of the flavors, you won’t find it exactly in this book. They give you a pretty darn clear map, but they don’t drive the car for you. Which is even better in my opinion.
Lame analogies aside, if you ever find yourself at a loss as to what to cook or what to cook with, this is the book for you. I have a feeling that it will accompany me through many kitchen successes and mishaps. It is without a doubt one of the coolest, innovative kitchen reference books I’ve seen.