Simply put, a savory dish tastes spicy, strong or meaty, but not sweet. That said, some sweet dishes include savory ingredients, and the most flavorful savory dishes have a hint of sweetness to balance the other flavors. Some ingredients themselves have strong savory flavors, while others are more mild or neutral. Two senses of the noun, savory -- a strong mint-thyme-flavored herb, and an after-dinner palate refresher or appetizer traditionally served in Britain -- share the same Latin root: "sapor," meaning flavor.
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Truly Savory Foods
The most savory foods contain lots of glutamate, the amino acid that gives foods as varied as mushrooms, cooked meat, anchovies and cheese their distinctive, strong flavor. This savoriness, also referred to as umami, or the fifth taste, develops through cooking or fermentation, which reduces moisture and concentrates the glutamates. You perceive the savory or umami taste like you do sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness, with the taste receptors on your tongue.
Savory Foods With Sweetness
Although savory foods are by definition not sweet, the most flavorful foods contain some sugar that plays off the other flavors and add depths of flavor overall. Bacon provides a good example -- chefs frequently balance its strong savory and salty flavors with sweet glazes made with honey, maple syrup or molasses. That balancing act also occurs during the process of browning or caramelizing the outside of a steak or carmelizing onions. In both instances, savory food benefits from a hint of sweetness.
Sweet Foods Transformed
Sweet desserts turn into savory foods when you leave out the sugar. Examples include savory bread pudding served with a roast; pie crusts for quiche, or meat pies; and the dough used in chicken and dumplings, as opposed to that which tops fruit cobblers. You can transform sweet fruits into ingredients for savory dishes by adding grilled peaches or nectarines to savory salads, or by serving them alongside steak or pork chops. Or, use peach salsa for meat or fish tacos.
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 bitter herbs, such as rosemary or tarragon, and savory cheese -- think along the lines of strong cheddar or blue cheese -- to a shortbread cookie recipe. With those additions, you have a sweet-savory appetizer cookie to serve with cocktails or wine. Or, add small bits of bacon to chocolate bark or cupcakes for a hint of savoriness in a dessert.