Why your cooking doesn't always taste good

Introducing the Culinary Color Wheel

Purple Asparagus, a healthy-food-for-kids charity that I volunteer for, is a "no yuck" zone.  The kids in the cooking classes are not required to like everything we make but they are not allowed to say "yuck!"  Instead, we challenge them to be more descriptive when it comes to taste, texture, and flavor and to learn more about food beyond "I like it" or "I don't."

I love to challenge the adults in my cooking classes to approach food the same way.  So often I hear from students that they made a recipe they found online or that Grandma used to make, and it just doesn't taste good when they make it.  They can't pinpoint why, though, so it just gets chalked up to a bad recipe or a dish to not make again.  

Does this sound familiar?  I used to experience the exact same thing before I went to culinary school and learned to season and balance the tastes during the cooking process.  (Instead of just saying "yuck!"--or the grown up version, "meh"--at the table.)

Using the tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, etc), we can often identify WHY something doesn't taste good.  This cake is just too sweet.  I don't like collard greens because they are way too bitter.  This salad dressing is way too acidic.  Instead of just being "bad" often the problem is that one taste is just too dominant.

You can see the wheel pictured above, I treat these major tastes like colors on a color wheel that work in opposition to each other and help balance each other out.  

For example, if you've added a lot of lemon to a salad dressing and it's too sour (or acidic), you can help balance out that extra acidity by adding more oil (oil is fat and fat is directly across from acid in the wheel) and also by adding a little salt, sweet and bitter. 

Another example?  Say you are trying to get your children to eat their broccoli but it's way too bitter for their little palates?  Try adding just a touch of something sweet (sweet and bitter are opposite each other on the wheel) to counteract the bitterness of the green vegetable.  Note: this works on old, grouchy palates too.  

Feel like you are getting the idea?  Download the full 2-page graphic to see how other tastes like umami (meaty), pungent (hot spicy) and astringent (drying) fit in.  American cooking recognizes 4 tastes; Japanese, 5; and Indian, 6.  I combine all the systems in my culinary world, so this chart will help you with identifying and balancing 8 major tastes: salty, sweet, acidic, fatty, bitter, pungent, astringent and umami.  

The download also includes a helpful series of questions to go through when you make a dish like Is it too bland? Is it too rich?  These will help yourself start to identify what's wrong and how to fix it.  Print it out and keep in your kitchen for your meal prep this week.

My students have been loving this graphic, which was brought to life by my amazing designer friend Dorey Kronick

Do you like the culinary color wheel? Let me know if it's helpful to you in the comments below.