When I teach cooking classes, students often ask me, “How much salt should I add to this dish?” or “Which chocolate should I use?” And I always reply, “It’s up to you. You should prepare food that you—not I—will love.”
But when it comes to matters of the palate, how do you go about learning what you love? The answer is simple: Just keep tasting. One of the most effective and enjoyable ways to get in touch with your flavor preferences is to organize a tasting party for your friends. It’s easy. Simply gather several food or drink products—it could be cheese, honey, apples, balsamic vinegar, tea, ale, almost anything really—and then taste them side by side.
How to taste: Tasting is different from eating. When you taste, you slow down, pay attention, and savor the food in a structured fashion, evaluating the samples’ appearance, aroma, flavor, texture, and finish. Then you ask yourself, Did I enjoy this product? Would I buy it again?
At such structured tastings, you’ll learn how you react to different flavors, and you’ll broaden the repertoire of ingredients you can use in your cooking. For example, if you taste several different plain dark chocolate bars at the same time, you might discover that you prefer bitter and intense, rather than mild, varieties; consequently, you may end up using chocolates with higher cacao content when you bake. Through a honey tasting, you might discover chestnut and acacia honeys. Or by tasting cheeses, you might find that you favor washedrind varieties.
In this article, I’ll provide general guidelines for putting together a tasting party and walk you through three sample tastings: of sharp Cheddar, chocolate, and extra-virgin olive oil. From there, you can explore other possibilities on your own.