Book Review: The Flavor Bible

Sooner or later, every dedicated cook learns that a recipe is simply a launching point for cooking, a guideline. If you really want to learn to cook well you need to understand what gives a dish balance in taste, how the weather and the season affects the dishes you would want to make, which ingredients work well together and which don’t. My earliest memories of my mother are of her standing over a sauce, tasting it and adding either a little sugar, some lemon juice, or some salt, to “balance” it in her words; I had no idea what she meant, but everything she made tasted great. My parents often mentioned that “such and such was in season” as a reason for us eating it, this too left no imprint on me as a child. It wasn’t until I started to garden that I finally understood the importance of the seasons; zucchinis and tomatoes will taste better in the summer because that’s when they grow.

Experienced home cooks, like my mother, learn over time that certain ingredients just taste good together, like strawberries and rhubarb, peas and mint, or chicken and tarragon. I think it is this knowledge that can really set one free to be creative in the kitchen, to improvise, whether you are starting with a recipe or not. The more you understand which flavors work well together, which offer a natural balance, the more masterful your results will be. It is this subject that authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg address in The Flavor Bible. Page and Dornenburg spent 8 years researching to prepare the contents of The Flavor Bible. They interviewed countless chefs for their suggestions of what foods, spices, herbs complement each other.

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The Flavor Bible is designed for inspiration, for those days when you know you want to make something with a particular ingredient, and are looking for what would work well with it. For example, arugula is something we have growing in spades this time of year. Looking it up in The Flavor Bible I find an interesting recommended “flavor affinity” that I have not considered – arugula with pears and prosciutto.

The book is set up like one giant index. Just look up an ingredient, and there will be a list of other ingredients that are well matched with it, as well as suggestions for groups of ingredients that work well together. There is also plenty of white space for you to fill in your own ideas of complementary flavors that have worked well for you, but have not yet made it to the book. The pages are peppered with quotes and suggestions from some of the best chefs in the world, describing their favorite food combinations.

If you are interested in improvising beyond a basic recipe, and want the best possible results, you will find this book a godsend. It’s as if someone picked the brains of the best culinary talent just for you.

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26 Comments

  1. Debs

    This book looks really interesting, it’s taken me some time to realise about things like adding lime juice and sugar to a stir fry, or how anchovy paste can add depth to a tomato and chilli pasta sauce. This looks like a really good short cut to finding out that kinda stuff! Wonder if this book will be available in the UK?

  2. Nick

    I use this book pretty much every week to help me tweak recipes. It is especially helpful for cook off battles!

    My copy is pretty tattered but I open it at least once or twice a week for ideas.

  3. Allegra

    This looks amazing — and so convenient! I love that everything is indexed…

  4. Sara

    I enjoyed your review. I’ve seen this book and not been sure about buying it. This book sounds really helpful and a good way to approach forming a meal.

  5. Susan at Sticky,Gooey,Creamy,Chewy

    I bought this book a couple of months ago and I totally agree with your assessment. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration for anyone who is interested in taking their cooking to the next level. I’m enjoying it very much.

  6. Michael Natkin

    Great review of a great book, Elise. Thanks for linking Herbivoracious. I probably open The Flavor Bible more than just about anything else on my cookbook shelf, because it always helps me focus a inspiration.

  7. Alanna

    When this book appeared beneath the Christmas tree (thank you, Secret Santa!), I oo’d and ah’d for a minute, then put it aside for serious study later. Next thing I knew, my favorite cook had picked it up, IGNORING his own presents! After a few minutes of silent page-turning, he announced, “This book is great, no recipes, just ideas!”

    And he’s right, I turn to it quite regularly when I’m clearing out the pantry or the fridge, much inspiration indeed! What I like most is that it’s not one person’s ideas about what ingredients pair well, it’s an aggregate of many accomplished chefs/cooks.

  8. deb

    How great to read your review! My SIL bought me this book for Hanukah and I’ve yet to crack the cover, um, shame on me. Now I’m curious. If I could only remember what box it is in…

  9. Jacqui

    Just added this book to my Amazon wish list. thanks!

  10. Garrett

    A truly fabulous resource. There really isn’t anything else like it.

  11. Allyn

    This has been on my wish list on Amazon for a long time… but your review is going to move it into my cart later today. Thanks for giving me a review that helped confirm my decision – I trust your culinary opinions greatly so I know you won’t steer me wrong!

  12. Melissa

    Like Allyn, I’ve had this on my wish list for a while. I think it needs to move to my cart soon as well. Thanks for the great review!

  13. Jen Yu

    Thanks for the review – this looks like a terrific resource to push exploration beyond our comfort zones. I especially like your idea of referencing it for preparing seasonal foods (sometimes I just get a mental block).

  14. Karen

    Enjoyed reading the review, Elise. I’m always looking for ways to bring new flavor combinations to my table and sharpening my taste buds. Looks like my job is going to be a lot easier!

  15. Alta

    This book is on my wish list. Now you give me even more reason to want to go ahead and buy it, even though I told myself I had to finish my LAST book purchase before I could buy another! This looks like such a wonderful book though! I think I should make an exception, just this once. :)

  16. barbara

    I did not know about this book but it sounds like something I’d like.

  17. amy

    I have this book. I love it.

  18. shauna

    Elise, you’re a godsend in so many ways. Sending people to this book is another way.

    Isn’t it wonderful? We really do open it every day around here. I love that it will help people become more confident in the kitchen.

    (and thanks for linking to my review, as well.)

  19. Jen

    Seems to me like this book is a necessary reference tool. Thanks for the heads up!

  20. Dean Estes

    So glad that you’re finding value in this cool book. I bought it about a month ago on numerous strong recommendations, and am glad I did. In combination with Michael Ruhlman’s recently-released “Ratio” it’s helped me to trust my own instincts and get away from undue reliance on recipes. The format takes a slight bit of getting used to, but once you “get it,” it’s sooooo helpful!

  21. Laura

    Wow, this book looks great! I haven’t been cooking (besides mac and cheese, and the like) for very long and this would be a great help! I never know which of my herbs go best with which meats or dishes unless I take the recommendations listed on the containers. I think it’s great that this is an aggregate of information from the pros! I will be adding this to my shopping list! Thanks Elise!

  22. Manuel

    Thànks Elise for bringing this book to our atention. Can`t wait to have a copy in my hands.
    I love cooking but so many times wonder why the end results are not as good as cuould have.

  23. Jenny

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I received it a few days ago and it has been a great inspiration in my kitchen.

  24. Mathew Sims

    I just purchased The Flavor Bible and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s the anti-cookbook for chefs and wanna-be’s. It’s more considering with understanding the basics of flavor profiles and tastes instead of following a rigid recipe. Thank you for the recommendation.

  25. Steve

    This book is fantastic, food today has become so bland, this book helps to revive cooking from times when flavour was as important as convenience. If you like to improvise, this book gives you the confidence to give it a go.

  26. Foodie Friend

    Just bought this book last week because of your post. Thanks, I think this will be a valuable resource!

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