Book Review — How to Taste

How to Taste
Becky Selengut
Sasquatch Books, 2018

We spend a lot of time learning to taste beverages such as wine, beer, gin, and even coffee, but seldom are non-chefs taught the intricacies of tasting food. Or more specifically, how to cook food to maximize its taste. In How to Taste, food writer, chef and cooking instructor Becky Selengut works though the different experiences and flavours of food, explaining how to optimize flavour in the food we cook, as well as how to recognize imbalances and correct them for the perfectly balanced dish.

Selengut works through salt, acid, sweet, fat, bitter, and umami, and extends her instruction into aromatics, bite, texture, and finally “color, booze and everything else”. She explains why some age-old instructions actually fail many cooks — for instance the recommendation to add enough salt to cooking water so that it’ “tastes like the ocean”, which, in fact, is waaaay saltier than you want your cooking water to be — and how to understand what a dish needs when it’s out of balance and how to adjust everything else to make it work.

Writing in a fun, conversational style with funny asides, and irreverent anecdotes, Selengut balances the serious science theme of this work, and the section in each chapter called “experiment time” allows the reader to see first hand the differences salt, sugar, bitter, etc, all make in terms of flavouring a dish. A selection of recipes at the end of each chapter demonstrate how to use the techniques learned.

How to Taste emphasizes the importance of understanding taste, as well as having taste experience; knowing what things taste like definitely help when it comes to creating balance with those same ingredient when cooking. I would recommend this book to anyone who cooks professionally, but the home cook, especially someone who didn’t learn to cook at an early age, would be well-served by Selengut’s wise lessons.