For most people, if a dish tastes good, there’s no need to justify why you like it. A food critic, however, takes the extra step to explain why something tastes good, using traditional culinary terms and concepts. If you aspire to critique food, having a culinary education and being able to express yourself clearly in writing are crucial professional skills to master.
Whether your goal is to write restaurant reviews or judge cook-off contests, you need education and practice before setting out. Courses on effective writing skills help you write clearly, without cliches and wordiness, while cooking courses help give you education on ingredients and cooking techniques. Learning how to be fair but accurate is a skill that comes through experience, but is also an essential tool in your food critic tool bag.
Use All Your Senses
A food critic judges a dish visually and by smell before taking a single bite. How a dish looks and smells affects how it tastes; Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of “The Flavor Bible,” assert that as much as 90 percent of your taste sensations are influenced by aroma. An appealing plate of food has a variety of appealing colors and shapes, is balanced and is free from spills and drips around the edges of the plate.
Evaluate for Balanced Flavors
Food critics score dishes that provide balanced flavors with higher scores than those that have just one overbearing taste sensation. For example, a sweet cheesecake with a tangy splash of lemon or orange should rate higher than an overly sweet cake, and a salad with mildly bitter chicory lettuce balanced by candied walnuts should get a high score for balanced flavors. Educate your palate by trying to identify the subtle traces of different tastes in a balanced dish.
Identify Layered Flavors
Food sometimes tastes great because it has depths of flavor, and food critics educate their palates to identify this complexity. Compare a cherry pie made with an overly sweet canned filling versus one made with a combination of fresh cherries, dried cherries, preserved sour cherries, a thin layer of sweetened almond paste over the bottom crust and a toasted almond-crumb topping — one pie has layered flavors and the other doesn’t. The more you experience different cuisines and learn how they’re made, the more you’ll taste layered ingredients.
Texture, Temperature and the "X" Factor
As a food critic, you need to evaluate temperature, texture and your personal reactions. Keep all your senses alive, and notice whether or not a silky-smooth soup has a crunchy garnish for contrast or whether a chicken salad is served at such an icy temperature that you can’t taste all the ingredients clearly. Take your mental and emotional feelings into account too; gumbo tastes twice as good when it’s served on Mardi Gras, and nothing beats a plain hot dog at your first baseball game of the season.
References and ResourcesThe Flavor Bible; Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Texas Education Agency: Presentation Notes: The Visual Appeal of Plating Food