If anyone reading this eats in fancy restaurants or watches the Food Network (or any food related TV show), they’ve probably heard a chef or waiter use the term “bright”. At the time, maybe you thought your waiter had some form of synesthesia. While I have no way of knowing the mental health of your waiter, I can tell you that “bright” is an oft-used food descriptor.
What does “bright” mean? Usually it’s being used to describe a flavor profile rather than the visual aesthetics of your dish. The term typically goes hand in hand with a two different categories – fruit or herb. In the case of fruit, “bright” is referring to the acid in fruits and how that acid complements other flavors or livens up a dish. Think of biting into a lemon. That’s bright. Maybe a little too bright for most people. In cooking, chefs will use a squirt of lemon juice, or lemon infused olive oil, to complement something like grilled trout. Bright flavors can also come from herbs. There are a few herbs that taste very grassy and fresh which allow them to successfully counteract or complement fatty, heavy foods. Good examples of this would be cilantro, parsley, and dill. You see, there’s a reason that cilantro pairs so well with the braised beef in your burrito. The fresh, herbal flavors of the cilantro cut through the fat and the deep, rich flavors of the beef. The juxtaposition of these two flavor profiles creates a layered, multi-dimensional dish.
So when someone uses the word “bright” to describe an entire dish, it usually means that either the acid or herb plays a starring role. Here’s an example: An arugula salad with candied walnuts, fresh goat cheese, dried cranberries, granny smith apples, and champagne pear vinaigrette. This is a bright salad. You’re going to get acid from the cheese, cranberries, apples, and vinaigrette. Both the cranberries and apples will balance any sweetness in the vinaigrette with their tart characteristics, and the inherent tang in the goat cheese will offset its own creaminess. Basically, there is an overabundance of acid in our hypothetical salad. This doesn’t mean it’s unpleasant; it just makes for a “bright” dish.