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Technique versus flavors, which should you learn first?

I'm starting this thread because I was reading another thread about what to get a budding young 13 year old cooking enthusiast.

The majority felt getting him a knife and teaching him knife skills would be the better gift (yes, people were concerned about the danger but that isn't the point of this thread). I felt something like a panini press would be better so that he could experiment with flavors by throwing random stuff between bread and seeing what he thought about it.

But it made me think - which is more important to instill first in a young gourmand - appreciation and understanding of technique/skills or flavors?

In the end they are both important of course but which do you think should be taught first or is maybe more fundamental?

While I've already given away my position, maybe I'll chime in again later too :D

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  1. I would think technique would be easier to learn.

    Kinda like playing music. Some need to read music and can play really well and others can play by ear. So which is more important in music. I'd say technique.

    Anyone can follow a recipe for flavor combination.

    2 Replies
    1. re: scubadoo97

      Depending on the music..... I was also going to make a musical analogy: melody and harmony taught at the same time. As a classical violinist, I was trained with a heavy emphasis on melody and technique. Many times at the expense of the music. As someone who has "crossed over" to traditional styles of music, I find that and understanding of "flavor" goes much further than technique, musically speaking.
      Also, differentiating those that "can play really well" and "others can play by ear" is misleading, some of the best players of music, that thing that stirs your soul upon the hearing of it, can't read a note.
      So, I would say flavor, combined with technique. So, a round of cutting skills, like with potatoes, while using different flavors, basic techniques that are changed up with different spices, textures, etc... would be the way I'd approach teaching a 13 yr. old. A panini press is a great way to start, too. One can cut a variety of things that lend flavor, so again, both at the same time. Without being too long, involved, complicated.

      1. re: wyogal

        "Also, differentiating those that "can play really well" and "others can play by ear" is misleading, some of the best players of music, that thing that stirs your soul upon the hearing of it, can't read a note."

        Wasn't a put down of those that can play by ear (I play by ear and can't read a single note) but just pointing out that some need to read music to pay well and others don't. Still the basic playing techniques are important if you are to play music by ear or reading music.

    2. Technique. Because it would be frustrating to keep burning your flavor experiments.

      1. Both important , of course. But if you can't cook it right, then you won't appreciate the flavour.

        But take him out to different restaurants where he can develop his appreciation of the flavours

        1. My first thought was technique, but at that's flavor experimentation might be fun. Sure, pork tastes good with apples but what about licorice? May be fun to try without preconceptions. On the other hand, a few really gross tasting results might turn the kid off cooking. On the other hand (this is an octopus answer, too many hands), couldn't he learn about flavor and technique at the same time? I like the knife idea, could make the lesson slicing, chopping cabbage and all sorts of things that go well with it.

          1 Reply
          1. re: calliope_nh

            Technique all the way.

            Calliope -- I think the important part here is that, yes maybe experimentation would be neat... but a horribly overcooked pork tenderloin with applies or licorice is still horribly overcooked and not going to taste that great.

            Teach fundamentals: how to sweat, saute, sear, braise, simmer... proper doneness standards (especially for meat, and the aforementioned pork), important ratios (vinaigrettes -- which, interestingly, is very similar to most sauces that are fat:vinegar based), etc.

          2. Thimes,

            "The majority felt getting him a knife and teaching him knife skills would be the better gift"

            I personally wasn't set on giving a knife. It was, however, the original poster's question to us, so I answered Phil and said it is a good gift.

            "In the end they are both important of course but which do you think should be taught first or is maybe more fundamental?"

            Like you said, both are very important. To some extends, they are intertwined. I know I learn technique before flavor. Based on my memory, my first cooking task was to learn how to fry eggs, sausage, bacon. Of course, there are salt and pepper, but I would classify the lesson much more on "technique" side than the "flavor" side. For example, how not to make the egg stick to the pan (important skill indeed), how to cook the round sausage so it is cooked through, how to cook the thin bacon without overcooking it. So there was a lot of timing, food control, heat control...etc. Then, I think I learned to grill chicken on a barbecue fork. Something like this:


            In this case, the emphasis was how to start to fire, how to put the charcoal together... then it was about how to properly grill on fire. The lesson was more about technique.

            In my view (based on my experience), technique probably comes first because it is more fundamental. For majority of cooking, the "flavor" depends on "technique", but the "technique" does not depends on "flavor". I can master the skill to fry an egg without learning how to flavor it, but I cannot properly apply different flavors to the egg if I cannot fried an egg (like burning it or making it sticks all over the pan). Surely there are exception to this rule like using these kits, but that is really not the point because they are exceptions:


            This is like many things in life. scubadoo used music as an example. I can use chemistry as an example. It is more fundamental for a young chemist to learn the lab techniques: how to use a balance to weight, how to measure volume, how to wear a goggle, how to use a Bunsen burner..... all of these should be taught before how to run a chemical reaction. A student cannot run a good chemical reaction unless he/she has the techniques down. Can you run a reaction without a Bunsen burner? Of course, there are many cases you can, but it does the students good by teaching the students Bunsen burner early instead of limiting the reaction he/she can run.

            Of course, I can also talk about driving which is probably easier to relate to.

            1. I don't think you can seperate the two. Technique changes the flavor of whatever you're cooking. If you were to give them a panini press and they throw random flavors together will they taste good? Will they be inspired to try another combination? Or will they become discouraged and give up? Would partly depend on how interested this person really is on cooking, but I'd look to give them fundamental skills first. Perhaps a cook book like Michael Rulhmans Elements of Cooking.


              2 Replies
              1. re: JuniorBalloon

                "Perhaps a cook book like Michael Rulhmans Elements of Cooking."

                JB buddy, now you assume the other person enjoys reading. :P

                Technique vs Flavor vs READING, which should you learn first? Ha ha ha.

                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  I love to cook and I love to read but I couldn't make it through Ruhlman's "Elements". It's a good reference though.

                  For a young cook, maybe one of Alton Brown's books. He talks about techniques (his first book really breaks down cooking methods) in a very accessible and graphical manner.

                  Back on topic, I think flavor is innate, but you learn new tastes as you get exposed to new things. Technique needs to be taught, because without understanding basic techniques, you really can't follow a recipe and your results will often turn out poorly. But it doesn't have to be heavy-handed, a kid can pick up a lot just working with and observing someone who knows what they are doing.

              2. How does one learn (or teach) flavor?

                Isn't it sort of innate?

                9 Replies
                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Well, yes, if you take it the most literal and most basic sense. I am guessing that the original does not mean that definition. Otherwise, the entire discussion makes no sense.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I would guess it means trying a variety of flavors as opposed to eating nothing but McNuggets. Italian, Spanish, Asian, BBQ, crunchy peanut butter and creamy.


                      1. re: ipsedixit


                        You probably know what it means. :P

                        My guess is that the original poster, thimes, does not refer learning flavor as in learning salty, sweet, sour, bitter, ...etc, but rather the technique to use, combine and to recognize these favors.

                        It is like saying "Is learning color important for becoming a painter?" I don't think it has to mean learning the definition of red, white, blue...etc. It can also mean to gain the ability to combine, apply and deconvolute these colors.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics


                          That's not the alternative meaning of "learning flavors" that I had in mind.

                          If it wasn't something innate, I had envisioned that the OP was talking about learning how certain foods "should" taste -- either in its primal state or in its basic form.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            His post says "appreciation and understanding of technique/skills or flavors?" I

                    2. re: ipsedixit

                      I think it can be taught. One gains a knowledge of ingredient combination by experience

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        You learn flavors by being exposed to them. If you come from a culture that eats bland food, being exposed to "spicier" flavors broadens your understanding. Like listening to music and being taught about it makes you better able to hear the differences, tasting varied foods makes you better able to distinguish flavors. Very small example: I always used lemon on fish until I was in Tahiti where they served lime. Found I love that flavor and now often use lime where I might have used lemon--and it always makes me think of that vacation.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Not really, maybe in some, not in others. One makes food, eats it. Learns from it.

                        2. When I was cooking as a young adult (middle school and up) I sure didn't know technique. Nor did my mother who let me mess around in the kitchen. She did have tips for me. And I somehow learned to make piecrust, cookies, fried and boiled eggs, milkshakes, egg salad--that sort of stuff. I think just being around food and being given the run of the kitchen is more important than making a decision about technique vs flavors. My kids all cook, and the kid who spent the most time messing around in the kitchen is by far the best cook. I am still amazed at the sheer nerve of some of the early stuff the kid produced. I was not teaching to any extent. You can decide to teach your own kid, but the kid may well have other ideas. I think it best to just get out of the way when real learning is going on. Be a consultant, or guide. Otherwise don't try to make cooking sessions lessons of any sort.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: sueatmo

                            I agree with sueatmo. I took a strong interest in cooking by age 14-15. If someone would have tried to 'teach' me about it in the same sense that you are taught things in school I'm sure I would have lost interest. I would say saftey would be the absolute most important thing to teach a young cook which leads straight into technique.

                            Most young cooks have very little perspective when it comes to flavor, and little respect for established/honest/ethnic or traditional flavors. I am now a professional chef and neither I nor the youngs cooks I've worked with in the past have been much interested in learning a proper flavor base. We just wanted to do some crazy shit and hope like hell it turned out. In retrospect I wasted quite a few years doing just that. I've come to realize that learning how to make something, learning how it is suposed to result, and why it is done that way is key to evolving as a cook opposed to being a slave to every recipie you come along.

                            Take pate choux for example. The ingredients are basic, getting to a good final product is all about technique. You would never know what the proper end result is unless you go through the process of making the boring, tedious, bland version first, but once you have mastered that the posibilities are endless. This is why I think technique is more important. If you had the most interesting flavor combo ever created in the mind of any human being you would fail at turning that into a gnocchi or an eclair if you didn't have the proper pate choux technique mastered.

                            1. re: mikey031

                              So you experimented, had some failures, saw that you needed to learn more, and then you pursued knowledge. Me too, but as a duffer who likes to put meals on the table. I am simply a home cook who taught herself some technique along the way. I think TV has had a lot to do with people wanting to master the finer points of cooking.

                              1. re: mikey031

                                LIke I said I don't think these two things are mutually exclusive but I find this post interesting to me.

                                Sueatmo seems to suggest that "the kid who spent the most time messing around the kitchen is by far the best cook". Which to me sounds like playing with flavors and experimenting (sorry if I'm putting words in your mouth or misinterpreting your post).

                                So when mikey031 says "I agree with sueatmo . . . this is why I think technique is more important" - it makes we wonder if the two are so intertwined that it is hard to talk about one without the other.

                                But then mikey you say "most young cooks have very little perspective when it comes to flavor . . . . as a professional chef, I nor the young cooks I worked with . . . have been much interested in learning a proper flavor base." I wonder what that means and where that comes from. Just learning technique to "fix" that implies that proper flavors will come with proper technique and I'm not sure if I'm ready to believe that yet.

                                Again - these two things are so intertwined but so different at the same time. Maybe in the end any combination of them can lead to the same end point and it is just a philosophical difference - different journeys to the same place.

                                1. re: thimes

                                  My major point was that we shouldn't try to teach kids technique or flavors, unless they are students in our cooking school. One of my kids is an accomplished musician. I never had to tell the kid to practice, ever. Making music became a passion, and we couldn't have stopped this if we had wanted to. Its the same with cooking. I basically think that the best thing a parent can do is to stay out of the way while learning is going on. But not everyone here is a parent to a budding chef. So my observations might not be as valid in other circumstances.

                                2. re: mikey031

                                  "Most young cooks have... little respect for established/honest/ethnic or traditional flavors."

                                  Touché! And not just young ones. Many of my friends (and I'm in the getting past middle age generation) are constantly trying "new" approaches that don't always bring out the best in the ingredients. I've blown people away more than once by making by-the-book preparations of classic dishes like blanquette de veau. You're got to master the basics before you can successfully improvise.

                              2. Initially I was thinking flavor, but I might have to say technique. What I think is really most important is understanding ingredients. Product ID, how to recognize ripe fruit and quality produce, knowing how cuts of meat differ in flavor and texture and why different cooking methods are better for different cuts. If you start with good ingredients, all you really need is salt, pepper, fat, and cooking them right to make good food. See Chez Panisse. Shop well and you're halfway there. I think for many cooks flavor is intuitive. Having tasted or smelled each, they have an innate sense of what will pair with and play off of what.

                                I don't know if you can really separate the two, though.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: babette feasts

                                  Let's just second that for emphasis -

                                  Start with good ingredients

                                  That is so fundamentally true. But I have to wonder if "flavor is intuitive". Ipsedixit was implying the same thing earlier and I just am not sure about that. I've spoken with a lot of well known chefs and most of them REQUIRE and EMPHASIZE the constant tasting of dishes. Many won't let another person cook a dish until they have tasted it for extended periods of time. It is also why you hear chefs constantly asking others to taste and asking "what do you think, more salt? an acid?" They are still learning and fine tuning their "flavor".

                                2. I'm finding this thread fascinating and it has really made me step back and think about things. Even some of the posts seem contradictory to me . . . .

                                  The two are so intertwined but I'm surprised when I think about the technique arguments. Aren't techniques just a means to an end - the end being flavor/taste/whatever word makes you happy.

                                  How many times in a cooking show (I know - reality tv isn't a good argument for anything) have you heard a judge say "did you taste this?" and they say "no, I didn't have time". Or how often do you hear the argument of "their dish was so simple, look at all the techniques I put into making mine - I should beat them" and then they loose because it just doesn't task as good as the "simple" dish. And these are seasoned professional chefs.

                                  There can be such an emphasis on techniques (molecular gastronomy being a prime case in point) where people do things just for the technique (for Top Chef watchers think sweet potato chain fries) with no regard for taste. When the two come together it can be magical.

                                  But for me, I can't help but think if you could instill a focus and excitement on flavors and taste the desire to learn techniques will come.

                                  Again, they are so intertwined but I feel like there is often such an emphasis on techniques that flavor profiles get lost and aren't ever really focused on. How many "think like a chef" or "learn to cook without a recipe" type books are out there. You need those because you never learned flavors - flavor combinations - etc. Can you taste a dish and think - it needs more acid? Or taste a vinaigrette and think - more oil? I know some of us on here can (that is why we are drawn to this type of thing) but I think way more people can't or don't take the time to really taste and think about it.

                                  I've enjoyed all the posts.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: thimes

                                    First... cooking at home should never be compared to the absurdities in cooking competitions (I see you cite where the "judges say"), especially when those competitions are on television. But you have a point.

                                    To my mind technique encompasses the range of action taken by a cook to produce a dish. This includes tasting your food. Now, I can heard you know, "but tasting relies on taste and that relies on flavor!!!"; but taste will come with time and experience. The technique is in regularly tasting a dish to determine seasoning. Again, this is something that should be done regardless of the dish and destination, or familiarity the cook has with this dish or suite of flavors.

                                  2. Question for everyone. What part of making a delicious bolognese is technique and what part is flavor? I have a hard time seperating these two.


                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                      Vegetable, meat prep and cooking technique is the technique part. How you integrate the ingredients and the spices or flavoring components is the flavor part.

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        One recipe that I've read is very specific about the order that the aromatics are to be sweated. First onions, then the garlic and then the celery and carrots. According to them this is done so that the onions have a chance to mellow before adding the others, otherwise they will all take on the flavor of the onions. Technique or flavor?

                                        Certainly a technique that is designed to produce a certain flavor. I'm sure I'm just sleepy this monday morn, but am still having difficulty seperating the two.

                                        Perhaps flavor is the end point and technique is knowing how to get there?


                                        1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                          "Certainly a technique that is designed to produce a certain flavor."

                                          A simple sentence, that is all it took to explain technique versus flavor.
                                          You did it!
                                          (IMO - heeheh)

                                      2. re: JuniorBalloon

                                        Wow that is such a great question, I'm having posting envy ;)

                                        It is a really hard question but here is a round about way of trying to answer it (and I don't disagree that it can be very hard to separate the two) . . .

                                        I would say that if you are starting with a recipe and you follow that recipe then you are doing nothing but technique and someone else has tried to give you a map for the flavor.

                                        (The discussion of what the right way to make a bolognese aside) Let's say you are starting with ground beef and start to cook it - then you add some dairy and let it reduce it a while - have you tasted it yet? Or are you just going by the recipe that says "reduce for 10 minutes". Is it "beefy" enough at this point? Maybe your beef isn't meaty tasting at this point (flavor) so you decide to add some butter and brown the beef in the butter a while in hopes to make it beefier at this point (technique, maybe, flavor maybe). Maybe you decide to add some pancetta to bump up the meat flavor (flavor).

                                        Then you add your wine and let that reduce a while. Do you taste it at this point? (flavor) Is the wine too harsh (flavor)? Do you decide to add some tomato paste at this point to try and correct for that? (technique, maybe, flavor maybe). Once it is all together and you are cooking it down again. When do you stop? After it is "reduced by 1/3"? (technique) or when it taste right? (flavor)

                                        That is how you make a delicious bolognese ;)

                                        1. re: thimes

                                          Thimes, I see you entire post as one technique statement -- a certain taste and evaluate technique to cooking a complex sauce. This has on one had (depending on how it's construed) all and nothing to do with flavor though.

                                          In my current line of work I see LOTS of children being influenced by their parents on flavor (e.g. "don't try that, you won't like it" -- err... they won't like it now!), and I think it's best to allow a persons palate to develop through experience and age, rather than "teaching" them flavor, which I would personally say in VERY hard to teach, especially when compared to technique.