How can healthy food taste good?
It's common for folks to think that eating healthy means that food doesn't have any flavor. This couldn't be further from the truth. Understanding the flavors in ingredients and how they blend together is key to getting great results in your kitchen.
There are five types of receptors on the tongue that sense the flavors that we taste. They are salt, sweet, bitter, sour and one called umami. Each of these flavors acts on their own, but how they interact with each other is key to making recipes taste fantastic. Activation of any one taste will enhance another taste bud. Blending the flavors is important in all cooking and is the basis for great tasting healthy recipes.
The sour taste buds are activated by acidic foods and they are activated very rapidly. As a result these flavors can quickly brighten an otherwise dull dish. They can, however, also overpower a dish easily.
The properties of salt react with acids and soften the sour flavors in a recipe. In doing so, sweetness is enhanced.
Salty foods are obvious by themselves (like a salty pretzel), but just a little salt will enhance the other taste buds. In doing so the salty flavor gives good balance to other tastes. Adding a little salt to something sweet, such as chocolate, enhances the sugary flavor of the chocolate.
Because it doesn't take very much salt to activate the taste buds, you can use salt in healthy cooking. With experimentation, I have found that it takes at least 300 - 400 mg of sodium in a main course recipe to have it be salty enough to properly activate the salt taste buds. It takes a little less for side dishes. 300 mg is about 1/8th teaspoon.
Sweet flavors stand on their own probably better than any of the other tastes. Certainly, sweetness helps to enhance other flavors also. Lemonade is a perfect example. Some people like bitter lemons, but most of us like a lemon flavor better if it has been sweetened.
Bitter is not exactly sour but folks often confuse the two. Bitter flavors would be those in a cabbage, radicchio, spinach and collard greens. One of my favorite examples of a good balance of flavors is collard greens made with a touch of maple syrup, salt and lemon. Using just a little bit of the sweet, salty and sour flavors doesn't "mask," but enhances the bitter flavor of the greens.