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Spices and Flavor Profiles

Understanding Flavor Profiles Makes Cooking Easy

December 12, 2014 |  by  |  Nutrition

You open your fridge. It’s the end of the week and you haven’t been to the store for days. There are a few things in the fridge but nothing that obviously makes a meal. So you look up a recipe and go to the store to get the ingredients, right? Nope. You don’t actually need a recipe to make a meal. All you need are basic cooking skills, an understanding of flavor profiles and a little bit of creativity. Armed with these things, you can make great meals on the fly using what you have.

A Desire to Cook

A few years ago, my cooking skills were very limited. My diet consisted of snacking at home and going out for real meals. I didn’t trust myself to cook a chicken breast, let alone to make a whole meal. I decided I wanted to consistently eat more healthy, home-cooked meals. The only problem was I didn’t know how to cook. I borrowed some books on tape from the library and bought the most basic cookbook I could find.

With a little guidance from some friends, a few good authors, and my fair share of mistakes I found out that cooking isn’t about following recipes as much as it is about learning some basics and exercising your own creativity.

Forget about Recipes

Besides practice, one thing that helped me the most was learning basic flavor profiles. These are combinations of ingredients that you’ll find again and again in certain styles of cooking. For example, Thai recipes often use lemongrass, thai basil, and lime juice. If you understand just a few flavor profiles, you’ll be able to look at ingredients which once seemed unrelated and select the right ones for a delicious dish.

Anyone can learn to cook in this informal way, but most people don’t trust themselves to do it. The food industry has spent a lot of money convincing people that cooking is hard and should be left to the experts, but it’s actually pretty easy when you get down to it.

7 Basic Flavor Profiles

To get started, here is a basic list of some flavor profiles that I compiled. Some of it came from me while other parts of it were borrowed from the two sources listed below. It’s definitely not completely authentic or definitive, but it is a great reference to get you started on your cooking adventures. Happy cooking!




Herbs/spices: thyme, tarragon. herbs de Provence, bay leaves
Oils: butter
Acids: wine
Veggies: shallots, onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms
Other: dijon mustard



Herbs/spices: garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano, rosemary, parsley, basil
Oils: olive oil
Acids: lemon, wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar
Veggies: tomatoes, squash, celery, artichoke
Other: white beans, pine nuts



Herbs/spices: turmeric, curry powder, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, saffron, fenugreek, tamarind
Oils: Ghee
Veggies: spinach, tomato, onion, spinach, peas, eggplant
Other: yogurt, coconut milk



Herbs/spices: ginger, wasabi
Oils: sesame oil
Acids: soy sauce, rice vinegar
Veggies: seaweed, green onions, cucumber
Other: miso, tofu, sesame seeds



Herbs/spices: parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme, garlic, bay leaves
Oils: olive oil
Acids: lemon
Veggies: lentils, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, olives



Herbs/spices: chili powder, garlic, cilantro, cumin, jalapeno, cayenne, oregano
Oils: butter
Acids: lemon, lime
Veggies: beans, bell peppers, onions, corn, scallions
Other: avocado



Herbs/spices: basil, lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, garlic, hot chili peppers
Oils: sesame, peanut, coconut oil
Acids: lime, rice vinegar
Veggies: carrots, cucumber, scallions
Other: peanuts, coconut milk, fish sauce



The most basic cookbook is Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”. It is a great guide to learning to cook from scatch and can be purchased here:

Another fun read is Kathleen Flinn’s “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School”. It’s about a career woman who quit her corporate job to attend the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and then embark on a mission of teaching the average person how to cook. It can be purchased here:


Flinn, Kathleen. “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks” The Peguin Group: New York: 2012.

Shannon. “Learning How to Cook by Flavor Profile, Not Recipe.” Plan to Eat. November 22nd 2014.

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  1. This is a fantastic post…so informative even to an experienced cook. Next can you do one on ratios? For instance, ratio of vinegar to oil in a salad dressing…that sort of thing.

  2. Excellent article Laureen!
    You just taught an old cooking dog (me), several new tricks. Thanks So Much & Happy Happy Holidays to you!
    Keep up all the GREAT work,

  3. Excellent post! I’ve got this bookmarked to try some new dishes!

  4. Thanks for all the compliments everyone! It’s so great to hear that my ideas were helpful. Lynn, I’ll look into doing a post about ratios soon. Thanks for the feedback!

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Laureen Wallravin, NTP
San Luis Obispo County
(805) 242-3677

is a Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner specializing in a holistic approach to nutrition and total body wellness. She helps clients with digestive, blood sugar, hormone, immune, and detoxification imbalances. Her methods include a Metabolic Type Diet, functional diagnostic testing, and food sensitivity testing (MRT). Laureen’s practice is located in Grover Beach and she serves the surrounding areas of the Central Coast including Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Morro Bay.