Explain layering of flavors to me...

This is a companion to my thread about what I’m missing by not being an expert in things, in this case food.

Food show judges will often tell the contestants that their dish needed an extra “layer of flavor”, sour, sweet, crunchy, soft, etc. and I notice the Asian contestants often point out they wanted the natural flavors of the ingredients to come through.

Maybe it’s because I’m Japanese/Okinawan and live in Hawaii, where almost nothing is authentic to the nation of origin, but I like simple food, that tastes like what it is, warts and all.

Earlier today, I ate some sashimi, Korean style with a little sesame seed oil, sesame seeds and tobiko. And just a few minutes ate some choy sum with sesame oil with cold plain rice and loved everything I ate today because it tasted like what it was, rice, fish and choy sum.

My favorite way to eat a steak is with salt and maybe a little pepper. Same with my burgers. No need for any sauce, and don’t think I’d know “flavor layering” even if I had it.

So could someone explain what “flavor layering” is?

I’m with you and wonder the same thing. I have seen Andrew Zimmern watching a cook and describing how they build up layers of flavor a few ingredients at a time. As though if they just put all the seasonings in at once (which is what I do anyway) it would somehow taste different.


Yeah, that always just seems like what judge/fancy chefs on those shows say to fill out their comments. I’m just a home cook but I have a flair. According to my Chef SIL.:slight_smile: I mostly don’t try hard enough, though. I’m kind of a lazy ass these days.

One of many, many explanatory articles from the Google hits on “flavor layering”.

:confused: Are you saying that the timing and sequence of adding seasonings and other ingredients doesn’t make the result taste different? Because if so, that’s silly.

Maybe if you’re just using a few rather similar dried seasonings then the timing is unimportant. But it makes a huge difference if, say, you’re sauteing minced garlic in butter at the beginning of cooking a dish versus adding roasted garlic at the end. Likewise, a dish with fresh herbs added at the end of cooking or in serving does not taste identical to the same dish with a soggy lump of fresh herbs that have been stewing in it for an hour.

I understand the concept and sometimes do add herbs and other ingredients at different times, but still lost about what the judges are picking on (other than to just nitpick for TV), especially on shows like Chopped or Top Chef where the contestants are given key ingredients to work with. I realize that everyone just grilling steak would make for boring TV, but is it really enough to make the difference between an excellent winning dish and a great one? If I were judging, say a steak, I’d brush away all the topping and see how well it was cooked. After all, they make a big deal about being able to fry the perfect egg.

I really started thinking about starting this thread last night while watching Chopped and one of the judges said one of the dishes could use a bit of lemon or cilantro for an additional “layer”. I could maybe understand if the additional layer was similar, say a squeeze of lemon or a dash or wine, but what does a “layer” of lemon or cilantro have in common???

they wanted acidity cause the acid in lemon brings out flavors

you added crunch from the sesame seeds, if the sesame oil was toasted you added umami, the tobiko added salt. Sounds like layering to me. Sashimi is often served with soy sauce which is rich in umami, ponzu which adds a citrusy sweet/sour taste, and of course the pungent wasabi.

To me, Asian food has more layers or flavor. For every fresh ingredient you have things like soy sauce, fish sauce, fermented black beans, rice vinegar, dried mushrooms, sea weed, and other flavors to balance it off.

Perfect description.

When I get my coriander chutney just right, about half the time now after twenty years’ practice, you get distinct flavors: salty, then sour, then sweet, then hot (sometimes a little too hot).

A lot of the time I suspect what people call “layered flavors” is mostly a balance between the senses of taste and smell, which is why people often apply the terms to smoked foods and those that involve slow-cooked or charred aromatics. Or another way to think about it is this: imagine a chocolate-covered caramel. Now imagine someone added a little coffee to the chocolate. Now imagine someone else added some coarse salt to the caramel. Then a third person dusts just a hint of grated chipotles (smoked jalopenos) on top. That’s about as well as I can describe it.

Like the woman said: “salt, fat, acid, heat”.

Sorry, but I’m still stumped.

If a take a baked potato and add salt, butter, cheese, chives, bacon and sour cream to it, I’m “layering” flavors? Is it as simple as that? If so, I’ve been doing it for years and even more so, don’t understand what the judges are griping about.

Layers are both built, and they are tasted. In the culinary world, this is known as a “flavor profile.”

A steak dinner with mashed potatoes and carrots is different from a pot roast, even though they contain the same nominal ingredients.

Just as wines all taste the same to someone who just wants something alcoholic to drink, 5 star foods taste the same as McDonalds to someone just looking for a bite to eat.

When you prepare a dish, you don’t just throw all the ingredients all together, there is a process for each one (or groupings, you don’t always just do one at a time), that brings out its distinctive flavors. You can then add another ingredient with its seasonings to alter that flavor, but if you had just put it all in at once, it would be distinctively different. You may even cook different ingredients separately, and only combine them at the end for the final plating.

Sometimes that is because you are caramelizing, and different things caramelize at different speeds, and will caramelize differently based on the heat, the moisture, and how crowded the pan is. Sometimes, it is because an ingredient will absorb any seasonings, so you leave it out till later, to allow the seasonings to flavor other parts of the dish, or you put it in sooner, so that it gets the seasoning flavor and the rest of the dish doesn’t.

When you eat a dish, the layers that you would be talking about are the distinct different flavors that you experience. You shouldn’t taste them all at the same time as soon as you put your fork in your mouth, there should be some flavors that come out first, and others that take longer to develop. It does require a recipe to be followed correctly, rather than just throwing everything in all together, in order to properly achieve this effect.

And of course, the first layer is the aroma. Before your tongue touches it, your nose smells it, and the aroma can be distinct from the flavor as well.

But, just as fine wines are wasted on the vast majority of people who are not able to experience the deep flavors that have been fermented into it (I am largely one of those, never cared for wine, except for to cook with), most people will not catch the subtle nuances of a complicated flavor profile.

I see a flavor profile similarity to any other work of art, and I can even visualize it, both in what I am tasting, and what I am creating. This lets me appreciate the work that was done by the Chef in perfectly caramelizing the onions and shallots before adding the garlic, that the reducing wine was properly evaporated before they added the main ingredient, that the food was seared with a dry heat before it was finished with a moist heat method… stuff like that. The same thing that differentiates a work of art from random brush strokes, or a symphony from a cacophony of noise.

Sure, you are layering flavors.

It’s not a complicated flavoring, or subtle and nuanced, and most culinary judges wouldn’t actually refer to it as such, but yes, you are combining different flavors to make a new, distinct flavor, a new culinary experience that is different than any of its parts.

All art is is putting paint on a canvas? Is it as simple as that?

What the judges are judging are the unique and creative ways that they have put these layers together, not just that there are different ingredients in a dish.

Ahhh…beginning to make sense now. Thank You!

I’m usually pretty good at picking out herbs and ingredients in things, so I guess I’ve been unconsciously been recognizing layers and adjusting layers in my cooking for years. Who woulda thunk!? :smack:

Think about something like beef stew, a simple, straightforward dish. Easy, right? Meat, potatoes and other veggies, some herbs and some liquid (stock), salt and pepper. But pretty bland, in most cases. Now add a few “umami bombs” like anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, and a couple packets of unflavored gelatin to the pot. Instant richness and depth of flavor. And no, once it all simmers together, it won’t taste like any of those individual things.

Unflavored gelatin?!? I’ve heard of people adding flour or cornstarch as a thickener, but gelatin? That sounds interesting.

Unflavored gelatin can help a store-bought stock/broth get a little closer to home-made. Obviously it doesn’t do anything to the flavor, but it adds a rich, unctuous mouth-feel that canned broths simply don’t have.

When I make chicken stock from scratch and put it in the refrigerator, it comes out the consistency of jelly; that’s all the gelatin that came out of the chicken parts. This is (too me) essential for a really good stew or soup, and makes kick-ass gravy. The store-bought stuff just isn’t the same.

Yeah, as carlb noted, it adds body to the stock. It’s not a thickener, but will of course turn the dish gelatinous upon cooling. When you reheat, it magically goes back to liquid. Adding this to some dishes is a favorite trick of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. I highly recommend his rather weighty cookbook, which is available at Costco.

I think I picked up the gelatin trick from Cook’s (maybe Country but probably Illustrated) and it is, indeed, a terrific addition to any broth-y meat dish. Pot roast, especially, benefits.

The secret is to sprinkle some onto the surface, when you’re almost done cooking - when nobody is looking - then give a casual stir as the sauce magically thickens and develops that unctuous texture.