Simply put, a savory dish tastes spicy, strong, salty or meaty, but not sweet. That said, some sweet dishes include savory ingredients, and the most flavorful savory dishes may have a hint of sweetness to balance the other flavors. It's often thought that savory and sweet are opposite ends of the spectrum of flavors, but there's plenty of overlap.
The most savory foods contain glutamate, the amino acid that gives ingredients like mushrooms, cooked meat, anchovies and cheese their distinctive flavors. This savoriness, also referred to as umami, or the fifth taste, develops through cooking or fermentation. It reduces moisture and concentrates the glutamates. Taste receptors on our tongues are responsible for all taste sensations: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami.
Savory Foods With Sweetness
Although savory foods are generally not sweet, some popular dishes contain small amounts of sugar that mingle well and add overall depth. Bacon is a great example, chefs often balance the strong savory and salty flavors with sweet honey and maple glazes. This also occurs during the process of browning the outside of a steak, or when caramelizing onions. In both instances, savory food benefits from a hint of sweetness.
Sweet Foods Transformed
Sweet desserts rarely use savory ingredients, though there are ways to enhance the umami in fruits. You can transform savory dishes by adding grilled peaches or nectarines to salads, or by serving them alongside steak or pork chops. Try using peach salsa for fish tacos or these sweet potato tacos, if you're vegetarian.
Sweet and Savory
Give your cooking a new twist by adding savory flavors to dishes that are traditionally sweet. For example, add a dash of rosemary or tarragon and savory cheese to a shortbread cookie recipe. With those additions, you have a sweet-savory appetizer cookie to serve with cocktails. Or, add small bits of bacon to chocolate bark or cupcakes for a secret hint of savory taste.
Susan Lundman began writing about her love of cooking, ingredient choices, menu planning and healthy eating after working for 20 years on children's issues at a nonprofit organization. She has written about food online professionally for ten years on numerous websites, and has provided family and friends with homemade recipes and stories about culinary adventures. Lundman received her M.A. from Stanford University.