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Monday, October 17, 2011

Dominant vs. Complementary Flavours

Many herbs and spices are naturally more potent than others, and if you put them in a dish in any quantity, they will immediately, and unconsoleably wrest control of the palate.  

Take cinnamon, for example.  She will beat the living $#!t out of anyone you try to make her play with... but why try to change her?  She's beautiful as she is, anyway, so why not just let her take centre-stage?  That's not to say you can't bring some subtle friends to the party, as long as they're relatively unassuming and pliant.  

Some other dominant herbs, just off the top of my head, are: sage, oregano, cumin, dill, tarragon, ginger, fenugreek, and cloves.  I'm sure there are more, just as I am sure that some people may disagree with my categorization. I imagine this sort of thing is highly subjective.  Note that this does not mean that 'dominant' spices can hold up an entire dish by themselves.  They may be able to, depending on what you do, but what I'm referring to specifically here by labelling them dominant, is their ability to be the strongest (read: most identifiable) flavour in a mix of relatively equally-proportioned flavours.

The second half of this argument is that some herbs and spices really work best when there is someone bigger and stronger around to look up to.  

Take marjoram, for example. She's a veritable wall-flower. She prefers to defer to louder, more boisterous people in the room, rather than make a scene. She absolutely loves to sidle up behind someone a little more sure of themselves, like basil or oregano, and she positively flourishes in a room with lots of others. This does NOT mean that she flounders on her own, and can not make an understated, but wholly mesmerizing, impact all by herself. Nor that there aren't some foods out there which jealously vie for her attention solely – take carrots. A splash of marjoram on some steamed carrots is ALL you'll need.

Some more subtle, complementary herbs, again just off the top of my head, are: thyme, basil, parsley, bay, rosemary, chervil, nutmeg, turmeric, paprika, and lemongrass. 

So, know that I am not suggesting you follow my categorizations to the letter; I encourage everyone to discover which herbs and spices register as dominant and complementary on their own palates. It is the use, combination, and juxtaposition of these herbs to which I am speaking here.

By recognizing where each flavour rests on your own spectrum of potency, you can master the art of combining flavours.

For a subtle taste, limit one dish to a single modest herb; a single well-chosen herb by itself can turn any dish into an understated masterpiece. Example: add a very small dash of thyme to some butter or oil and drizzle loosely over some vegetables.

For a more complex arrangement, try to ensure that there is only one dominant flavour in the mix; having two (or more) potent flavours competing can go from being a simple distraction, to being an all-out cacophonous disaster. Instead, aim for a smorgasbord of cooperating flavours to wash taste buds with a myriad of senses. Example: toss some cooked pasta in some oregano, fennel, and parsley and some olive oil, for a deliciously symphonic pasta a la olio. Toss the same ingredients in a tomato sauce with some diffused garlic and onion, and you have something very close to ijj's Perfect Perfected Tomato Sauce.

For an accent-piece, use one single herb which is going to be either very flavourful in combination with your dish, or which can command attention simply by existing. Example: In a minimalistic white sauce, throw a sprig or three of basil in, and that's all you'll need to assault your palate with an all-out attack of awesomeness.

While almost all of this is very open-ended, and not intended to be exceptionally restrictive, I hope that if you're going to come away from this rant with anything, it is my imploration that you never pit competing flavours against each other.

There truly is a time and place for everything, and it is a true pity when some lovely flavours get lost in a muddle of complacent underachievers, or worse, when a dish is turned into a bloody battlefield by one-too-many overbearing obnoxitrons all vying for power.

By mastering the art of combining flavours, you can wow your diners with a table set with a spectrum of flavours varying from the subtle to the complex.


  1. What are your thoughts on substitutions? For example: can parsley substitute for cilantro? or mint? I have seen recipes that will call for parsley/mint ... to me those are 2 very different tastes!

  2. That's a good question, and allows for an interesting discussion.

    My opinion: I'm generally not in favour of substitutions. Mostly because I agree with you that the majority of herbs have very different tastes.

    That said... I have also seen recipes which suggest substitutions... and as far as I've ever been able to tell, they're not necessarily meant to REPLACE herbs (as though they might have the same flavour,) but more that they could be used INSTEAD, and still adequately complement the whatever else is seasoning the dish.

    As for parsley vs. mint, I wholly agree with you - they are very different. While you could make (and I have personally, made) the same dish with parsley one day, and mint the next (peas, for example) and have them both be delicious, they would nonetheless taste very differently.

    In the interests of this discussion, I feel I should mention that I (again, personally) find a FEW, small amount, of herbs to be relatively similar (for example,fennel and anise) which could be unilaterally substituted. But they are very few and extremely far between.

    The bottom line is that you should feel free to try any combination of herbs at all. It is up to your taste-buds, actually, to determine whether something should go in, or go in together with something else...


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