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How good is your flavor imagination?

A few days ago, I threw together a few leftovers to make dinner... Grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower and some pasta. I just flaked the salmon, mixed it all in the pasta, and warmed it all up with a little butter. The salmon had been marinated in a sweet soy, so I didn't add any other flavors.
DH liked it very much, and said he would have never thought to make that dish with the stuff in the fridge. He said he can't imagine how things are going to taste together, just by knowing what they taste like individually.
Years ago, I had to instruct him to always use a recipe. He made a few disastrous dishes when we first met, using too much sage in one, I remember. He thought if a little sage was good, lots more would be lots better.
Anyway, I'd never really thought about having the taste of the ingredients in your head - I guess that's why some people are natural cooks, and others just aren't.
Can you imagine how your dinner will taste before you make it? When you taste it, is the flavor what you expected?

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  1. I have pretty good flavor imagination, but I think this is something that becomes better with experience; just having the ability isn't worth much unless you add some food education to it.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sandylc

      Agreed, if "food education" includes exposure to new things. When I encountered kimchi, sambal olek, and the concept of ma-la, my cooking choices were multiplied -> even when I Did Not add those particular flavours.
      However, I've "always" been able to open the cabinet or the fridge and list off 20 things that could be made from 5 ingredients.

    2. I agree that experience helps, as well as knowing the strength and weaknesses of ingredients when mixed together (i.e., too much sage or tarragon overwhelming any other flavor in the dish).

      I did this last night for dinner, using up 4 large cherry tomatoes, some dried pappardelle, a small bag of frozen chopped kale, 1/2 cup chopped roasted red peppers, 1/4 cup reconstituted dried porcini mushrooms, and 1 Tbsp of tomato paste (as well as wine and heavy cream for a "sauce"). It was an "open the freezer and use what works together" type of dinner - and it came out very nicely.

      1 Reply
      1. re: LindaWhit

        yes, i've definitely figured out the ingredients where less is more. rosemary leaps to mind. LOL

      2. I hadn't thought about this point - I was in charge of feeding the family for 40+ years. DH hasn't really ever had to think about dinner, his past spouses took care of meals, and he just ate what anyone put in front of him.
        Now that he's retired and I'm not, he has to think about food a little more.

        1 Reply
        1. re: kitchengardengal

          Yes, the same for us -- my husband did not do much cooking earlier in our marriage, and when he did, his most notorious! dish became known as "oregano soup." Now that he is retired, though, and I am not, he has been cooking for us for years, and has developed a food imagination.

          I think the internet plays a role, here, too -- you can get a much better idea of how much is enough and what flavors seem to show up together than when (as we were back then) limited to a few cookbooks. And making notes as you cook (which he does more than I) can help you remember what worked well the last time.

          So, I do think that this is a skill that can be acquired, but that, like so many skills, those who are really good at it are born with more ability to build on. In this case, maybe their palate, or their memory or ...

        2. I consider myself an idiot savant in that area. It's one of my prized skills, I can do a mental rundown of the inventory, think about various condiments on hand, and figure out how to put it all together in a tasty melange. I think I draw on memories of dishes I've eaten in restaurants to get me started. Or frankly, I love watching Chopped on TV and I think it makes me think more "out of the box" based on some of those creative combos.

          1. It's always been pretty good and has just gotten better, even as my tasting ability diminishes. What I like most about it is having the ability to think up a new dish and rough out the recipe with pen and paper, sitting with a glass of wine at the dining table of an evening (it functions as my desk). Thirty or forty years ago I sketched up car designs; now I sketch food. Well, I'm a hell of a lot better cook than I am a mechanic!

            1 Reply
            1. We often cook that way - what's in the refrig/pantry, what's the temperature outside, how hungry are we, what seems like it will go together. Some of our best meals have been cooked like that, and it's always kind of sad when we realize we'll never be able to make that again.

              1 Reply
              1. re: judybird

                That's my husband only complaint about my cooking! Often times my most "wing it" meals come out great he wants it again but can rarely be duplicated.

              2. That basically describes my way of cooking, save for very few exceptions.

                I hardly ever follow recipes, but instead just "throw stuff together". I'm pretty happy with 95% of the results.

                1. Think I have a pretty good food imagination, too. Right now have some left-over corn (cut off the cob), a boneless/skinless chicken breast, and the broth it poached in sitting in fridge. Thinking some kinda sauce for over rice or pasta... a good "pairing"... dig at post on over-used buzz words.

                  1. Mine is ok, but it used to come much more naturally and easily to me.

                    A few years ago I was misdiagnosed as bipolar and was put on lithium (and other things I forget) for a number of months, and since then my knowledge of what will go well with what doesn't "flow" quite as easily. I used to have a mind like a steel trap but it's more like a sieve nowadays. Ah well. The brain is a fascinating thing...

                    10 Replies
                    1. re: ursy_ten

                      does lithium also dull your ability to taste?

                      1. re: alkapal

                        I don't know - I don't think it was that so much as I lost some brain cells. It's been observed that I turned into a zombie (so, definitely not the right drug for me). I don't actually remember too much about that time, I just know that what used to come easily and instinctively is now not so natural.

                        ETA: Actually I do vaguely remember something about it possibly altering sense of taste, so it might be a factor.

                        1. re: ursy_ten

                          Same thing happened to me several years ago when I was having seizures. A quack talked me into a drug that I've since learned was no longer being used for seizures at that time because it didn't help.

                          Took out some memory, some brain cells, sense of taste/smell, and added about 30 pounds in three weeks. I, too, was a zombie until I refused to take anymore drugs and went for chiropractic care (successful) instead. I occasionally silently wish for bad things happen to this "doctor", who is "tops" in his field - ! But mostly I wish there was a way to keep people like him from harming others.

                          Good side: Things have come back somewhat for me, so maybe they will for you, too.

                          1. re: sandylc

                            I'm glad things have come back somewhat for you. It's pretty scary, the power a doctor can yield!

                            1. re: ursy_ten

                              Yes, it is! And frightening how undeserved that power can be!

                          2. re: ursy_ten

                            Some psychotropic drugs can reset your memory, tastes, smell, etc.

                            1. re: JMF

                              Wow, wouldn't that be nice... I wouldn't mind a reset.

                              1. re: ursy_ten

                                Ummm... not in a good way. You may never again like some things you did before. Foods, drinks, smells, that you once loved, or associated with good or important times, may lose their association, or become actually negative or have no meaning.

                                1. re: JMF

                                  Lol, it's ok - I'm not going to try it. Wouldn't know where to find a psychotropic drug anyway!

                                  1. re: ursy_ten

                                    I'm willing to bet you use them on a daily basis.

                                    Psychotropic drug are ones prescribed by a doctor for psychological reasons. 20+% of the population in the US. Lithium, Prozac, Ritalin, and other "antidepressants, antipsychotics, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs, and antianxiety treatments."

                                    Over the counter like aspirin and ibuprofen.

                                    Then there are the "recreational" ones like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana.

                                    Then the even more "recreational" ones like cocaine, opiates- heroin, oxycodone, etc., ketamine, and more.

                      2. i think i have a good flavor imagination, but i am often not satisfied with my result. LOL. sometimes it is even better, though. i guess it all balances out and helps me along the learning curve.

                        1. Great question. I think I have a good flavor imagination, but as in other creative ventures, a "success" depends on the audience. For example, in your original post, we'd all agree (and most non CHs would too) that too much sage is not good.

                          But for me, tossing anchovies and a few shreds of parmesan left over from last night's takeout Caesar salad into my scrambled eggs this morning is wonderful. My best friend has loved this trick of mine since our college days. For my husband, it ruins the eggs. So I guess it's like looking at certain types of art or listening to jazz. Some people think it's great, others don't (and for the record, I'm not saying I'm an "artiste" in the kitchen...it's just the closest simile I can think of).

                          1. For me, imagination provides the quintessential joy of cooking.

                            1. I think that I have a pretty good flavor imagination, much better than I used to have. But it is certainly not perfect because every once in a while, I imagine a dish will taste one way and it is either a very muted version of what I imagined (then subject to further tinkering) or just bad. On rare occasions, the dish is much better than I imagined. This happened once when I took my Greek salad recipe and added large quantities of fresh chopped herbs to it.

                              But an awful lot of the time, I just wing it in the kitchen when it's an everyday kind of meal--not when guests are coming over. The results are usually pretty good, but I usually have in mind a sort of base recipe that I have made in the past and am working off of that. Therefore, it is not entirely imagined flavor.

                              1. What you are talking about is called Palate Memory. The ability to remember flavors and associated aromas. Then, combined with the artistry of food taste/aroma combinations for the final execution.

                                I've been able to do this since when I was young. I could imagine a dish, and how to prepare the components, to come up with what I wanted.

                                As I got older, and experienced more and more flavors, and a multitude of cuisines, I developed this more. To the point that if I know the types of ingredients a culture uses, and taste a dish, I can usually re-create it. But I have also re-created the flavors in a dish upon rare occasion, using several vastly different ingredients from other cultures, to arrive at the same flavors. And I have been known to come up with quite a few disasters as well.

                                Around 8 years ago I got around to writing 70 vodka reviews in four weeks. I wasn't a big vodka fan before, but after the exhausting study of flavors that time, I at least understood what they were about. A year later I was in a competition that had a section where you tasted six vodkas, all made with different ingredients, and had to try and name what they were from. I was the only person to name what each was made from, and then I named each of the actual brands.

                                I couldn't do that today. It has been too long to remember the brands, and I have tasted too many thousands of spirits since then. But I can tell what most spirits are blind, and name the base products used in traditional products. I don't include flavored products since they can be manipulated so much.

                                When I am creating cocktails, much of the time I think about the main 1-2 ingredients, and what I want the final product to be, and can come up with the exact recipe 70-80% of the time on my first try. 10% more in the first few tries. And the rest of the time, no matter if I try a dozen times... nothing.

                                Recently I had some health problems. Severe osteo-arthritis from working in the wilderness for a decade when I was younger, as a professional mountain climber, white water paddler, backpacker, etc. I tried several medications, and then had reactions to them, that really screwed up my taste perception and memory for awhile. I got it back, but every now and then it goes totally whack for a few days.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: JMF

                                  Thanks! I never thought about it having a name.. I suppose the only way to get palate memory is to taste and compare, taste and compare. And DH is so easy to please, he'll eat about anything - so he doesn't really evaluate what he's tasting...

                                  Your vodka study is very impressive! Could be fun, or could be a very long hangover.

                                  1. re: kitchengardengal

                                    I actually only need a max. of .25 oz. to taste a spirits. So no probs about hangovers.

                                    Not that I get them. I haven't had one since my late 20's. And that was because we ran out of potable water at a summer home and had to drink very strong gin & tonics because tonic was the only non-alcoholic liquid in the house until stores opened the next day. That wouldn't have been a problem, but we ran the hot tub too hot and got dehydrated. An amazingly, insanely, painful, full body hangover!

                                  2. re: JMF

                                    I think there are two different things being discussed here. I was uncomfortable with the term "flavor imagination", but I think "palette memory" helps clarify it for me.

                                    I definitely do not have a palette memory - my first taste of a favorite old familiar dish is almost like tasting it for the first time. What I retain is definitely not the sensory experience.

                                    But as for the functional part of the OP's question, I'm sure I qualify: I can use my experience to combine foods and flavors in new combinations, but I can't literally taste them in my head.

                                    1. re: WNYamateur

                                      Palate is what you mean. Palette is for painting...

                                  3. I'm just not very good at winging it. I can look at a recipe and imagine the end result, or take a recipe and modify it to better suit my tastes, but I don't have the creativity to look at a pantry or fridge full of ingredients and pull together a yummy dish. So, with the exception of things I've made so often I no longer need a recipe, I'm more inclined to turn to a cookbook, a website or CH for inspiration.

                                    1. Like almost any skill it is a combination between nature and nurture. You need the innate nature before you can nurture your talent

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: MVNYC

                                        I think that's the crux of it. One certainly has to have some innate ability to "think in colors", but it requires tasting everything to actually know anything. Even then its only fundamental. Variables in ingredients - two tomatoes, for example, can have drastically different flavors - can have a great effect on the taste of an ultimate dish. Likewise, technique must be learned and practiced. Improvisation must have foundation.

                                        Keep contemplating, keep tasting, keep cooking. How can that be bad?

                                        1. re: MGZ

                                          "Keep contemplating, keep tasting, keep cooking. How can that be bad?"

                                          That's exactly the key. I can't tell you how many times I started with one idea in mind, but as the dish progressed and I kept tasting the flavors took me in a completely different direction.

                                      2. I have it. It's been a running joke in my family that I know what everything tastes like. Because as a kid I put everything in my mouth. It's true, haha, I can look around a room and know exactly what every single item will taste like - the couch, the afghan, the tv, the window - and a lot of things in the backyard. :) (not really recommending this). But when I think about cooking something, it's almost an unconscious, certainly nonverbal, calculation of flavors. I sort of taste the potential flavors in my mind, and can run through options mentally in a pretty vivid way. More so with the foods I am used to - not so clear about asafoetida, for example.

                                        1. Interesting way to think about it - I am a total wing-it cook most of the time. I am usually making it up as I go either to make something out of a good market find or to use up items on hand.

                                          I think I am pretty good at the whole winging it - looking at what's on hand and thinking up a dish thing but in a limited fashion. I am good with certain flavor ways - Mediterranean and Mexican primarily and the related European/ and South Central American tastes - I am much more lost with Asian, African and Indian flavors although I am getting better.

                                          OTOH - I do sometimes (and probably should more often) enjoy throwing myself into recipes - because they can take me places I would not have thought of before and that ultimately helps expand the repertoire It is easy for me to fall into the Italian and Mexcian ruts because that is the first thing that comes to mind usually.

                                          1. It's really easy for me to imagine what different flavours are like in combination. Makes throwing together dinner easy, instinctual, and hard to explain to anyone else.

                                            It sometimes gets me into trouble, though - my husband sometimes thinks its funny to say something like "chocolate covered mashed potatoes with honey mustard" and it literally makes me want to puke. My body responds and I can feel my mouth recoiling. I shout at him and he says, "sorry, sorry!" because he has temporarily forgotten/ can't quite believe I can practically *taste* what he just said.