When cooking and baking, flavor is the number one thing I look at and what I work the most towards perfecting. Of course there are other aspects to great food like textures and presentation but without a great flavor the other parts will mean nothing to the final product. But how do you build the flavor to create a great dish? And what should you look for when creating something in your home kitchen? Before I can talk more in depth about ways to take your food to the next level, we first need to start with some basic understandings about what flavor and a flavor profile are and the various routes you can take when making something others will remember for ages.
So first off what is flavor? In the most basic principle flavor is the distinct taste of a specific thing. Although most of the time I talk about flavor in terms of food, pretty much everything in the world has a flavor. There's even studies on the flavors in space by looking at the distinct chemicals that make up various stars and other planets. But back down on Earth, when we talk about food, flavor comes in both individual terms for specific ingredients and then come together to create the flavor of a dish or pastry when you bring multiple ingredients together. Flour itself has a flavor but when you add it to a baked item it will add a "bready" flavor. When we look at the individual aspects of a product's flavor and map them out that is what is referred to as the flavor profile, the various tastes and flavors in something.
Flavor profile is like an ingredient list. It shows the individual flavor components in a dish. When a chef talks about flavor profile we aren't thinking in terms of the actual ingredients but the many flavors any of the ingredients bring to the flavor profile. A lemon isn't just lemony. It's sour/acidic, after the initial taste it has a little sweetness, of course there's the flavor we associate with lemon but that is made up of a lot of various chemical compounds that create it. The primary chemical is a type of terpene called L-limonene. Limonene has other forms that exist in other citrus (like in an orange it's D-limonene), many types of trees like various pines, douglas fir, and red maple to name a few, and even in cannabis. That's why other citrus like limes have a slight "lemon" taste. They have similar chemical makeups. Our minds over years connect these chemicals to specific flavors that we are used to but depending on where you grew up, your culture, and what you ate this can change person to person.
So back to flavor profile, when we make a dish we want to look at these various chemicals that bring different flavors to the table. It's best to make sure we complement the various flavors so that we get a delicious final dish, but at the same time play with these flavors to take the diner on a taste adventure. Kind of like writing a story. At this point you can go crazy with different combinations or even keep it simple and hone into a few simple flavors. Sometimes it's hard to know the combination routes to go. On this part I first started using The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It's a great book to use as a resource to see what professional chefs combine with flavors. I won't go into detail of how it's set up but look up an ingredient alphabetically and see a list of other flavors that work and which ones stand out more in cuisine. It's super easy to use and a great resource I tell everyone to get.
As you cook more you will find what taste good to you specifically, but there are some awesome combinations out there that not everyone thinks of. I quickly realized using this book that many of the common known complimentary flavors come from the same cuisines or regions. I still go back for reference for something different but to start just think of geography. If you are using an ingredient that is common to a specific region look at the other flavors common to that region to start building some great dishes.
At the end of the day though flavor is like most things in life, there's not perfect way. Everyone has different preferences, likes, and dislikes. It's one of the hardest things as a chef to make food that so many people will enjoy but it's also good to remember that the most important person to please is yourself. If you don't like it and won't eat it, then don't do it. Making good food is about expanding your world and seeing what other people sometimes ignore. So play with your food. Make new flavors. And have some fucking fun in the kitchen.
P.S. Keep an eye out for more on this topic. I love talking flavor and I want everyone to see how interesting and fun it can be!