Submitted by Dyske  •  June 5, 2003

Sweet and Savory

Once I used the term “savory” to mean the opposite of sweet, i.e., pizza as opposed to ice cream. I used it in a sentence similar to: “In the savory genre, the pizza was the best thing they had.”

My friend, who is a professional writer, told me that he had never heard the word “savory” used to mean something not sweet, and therefore to avoid using it in that sense since many people may get confused. But then I keep hearing it used everywhere around me. So, how common is this usage of “savory” to mean something not sweet?

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While savory things are not sweet, things that are not sweet are not all savory. It means something with a pleasant pungent or salty taste. Usually you hear savory describing meat dishes.

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Savory from savor is seldom used, IMHO to describe anything sweet. A case of technical correctness perhaps rather than common usage. I think you're usage is more common.

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Sweet and savory stuff are like banana fritters

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I'd rarely heard 'savory' used in the States, but my British friend says it's quite common in the UK.

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You mean savoury. It is the opposite of sweet. The king of savoury foods is Marmite, or Vegemite as the auzzies call it. Anything beefy is deeply savoury.

A dog is also savoury, whilst a cat is sweet.

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Heck. All I know is that when I go buy crepes, they come in sweet and savory. The sweet ones are the dessert ones and the savory ones are more like entrees. I always figured savory was the opposite of sweet. Now that I think of it, surgary isn't really the opposite of salty. Nevermind.

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Don't ask a writer ask a chef. Savory is salty and meaty and all that good stuff.

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Marmite is diffrent from Vegemite. Vegemite is only salty, marmite involves both sugar and salt (guess who is an Aussie). And savoury isn't really an opposite of sweet. It's like saying that blue is the opposite of pink. That is generally accepted as being an opposite, but is no more an opposite than green or yellow. So I guess the answer to your original point is that your friend is technically correct if you want to be pedantic about it. If you want to go by common usage though, you would be correct, Dyske.

PS. I imagine 'bland' (the absence of taste) would actually be the closest to an opposite for 'sweet'.

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Um, hello. I just heard about this site tonight and am finding it delightful. :)

To answer the question, "savory" is not an adjective to describe a type of taste, such as "sweet," "bitter," or "salty." Actually, "savory" is another way of something that something is tasty and pleasant to eat. I usually associate savory as being something with a rich or thick taste to it, like a steak.

Also, I agree that the opposite of a type of taste would be "bland," since it describes lacking a particular taste.

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Ian A: "your usage," not "you're usage." Sorry, but couldn't resist... hee hee.

Savoury merely means pleasant - just as unsavoury means unpleasant.

The absence of something is rarely, if ever, its opposite; bland, meaning flavourless, is indubitably not the opposite of sweet. Furthermore, I would query the possibility of there being an 'opposite' to sweet as the concept seems confused. Anthony's comment about the opposite of pink is illuminating.

Notwithstanding the above, I certainly think in terms of savoury being not-sweet and I know that this is wrong. Am I a bad person for that?

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My apologies. I didn't mean to say that "bland" was an exact opposite of "sweet," but rather that I agree with what Anthony wrote: "bland" would be the closest.

However, "bland" does not mean flavorless, but rather that something is not highly flavored. Technically, something can be sweet AND bland because it is not sweet enough (for instance, when soda pop does not have enough syrup or candy does not have enough sugar).

So when would bland be the opposite of sweet? I suppose it would be when something is expected to be sweet (such as the previous examples), but ends up lacking.

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Is it so hard to go to a dictionary now adays?

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A friend of mine (born in the UK) uses "savoury" to mean "not sweet" all the time - and she won't eat the two together. For instance, cheese is savoury and apples are sweet, therefore (for her) they are NOT to be eaten together!

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Tin's comment about crepes probably comes closest to the answer. For the French, there are two opposing flavors of food, salty and sweet, "sel et sucre". Therefore, with the usage in question, "savoury" is meant to be the equilivant of the French "sel", meaning salty or the opposite of sweet. The crepes are a perfect example. One may have chocolate crepes "du sucre" or ham crepes "du sel". One wouldn't have chocolate and ham together.

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The person that does not like cheese and apples together is just odd in the face, since this combination is hearty and good. It should be a good cheddar, and a good Cox. I wouldn't call them English at all, in fact.

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I have it on the best authority, from the head of the physics editing department at a large publishing firm in Tokyo, that "savoury" implies salty (she's from New Zealand).
For example: "I don't want cookies, I want something savoury, like potato chips."
Don't you find that when it comes to snacks, your cravings fall along the same lines? Thus, an "opposite" distinction is valid.
Opposites rarely imply ONLY the absence of their counterpart.

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It's weird, but 'sweet' is the opposite of almost every other kind of taste. Bitter - sweet; sour - sweet; salty - sweet.

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Savory is still used in the UK by both writers and speakers. American cookbooks stop using it in the fifties so when know when writers dropped it. I'm not sure if it was used by speakers. Julia Child probably used the term on her TV show. Whether or not her viewers adopted the term is an open question.

Savory cannot mean sweet - in fact many menu planning guides discuss how to balance your sweets and savories - but does cover a range of what a Yorkshire housewife would consider wholesome, usually hot foods. Biscuits with gravy, for instance, could be a savory.

Do you know the term "stick to your ribs"? I suspect Americans threw out the term savory in favor of stick to your ribs and wholesome.

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Merriam-Webster notes "savory" as:


: having savor : as a : piquantly pleasant to the mind <a savory collection of essays> b : morally exemplary : EDIFYING <his reputation was anything but savory> c : pleasing to the sense of taste especially by reason of effective seasoning
synonym see PALATABLE

Note the palatable! I think everyone could be correct.

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Despite its dictionary definition, I think "savory" can be used loosely to describe something that is not sweet, and it often is. This is a cooking question if you ask me. Go through your gourmet cookbooks and tell me that all of their word usage makes sense. It's cooking slang. Even if you're a vocabulary "police," sometimes you just have to lighten up and go with the flow!

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SAVOURY is perfectly acceptable in the UK.

GENRE is inappropriate in this context, however. It tends to be used of works of literature or film, for example, rather than food groups, say. A better sentence would be FOR SAVOURIES, PIZZA WAS THE BEST THING THEY HAD.

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Since we're getting so technical and all...

Folks, modern science considers there to be five basic "tastes" that a person can sense. All other flavors are combinations of any of these five basic tastes, plus whatever the sense of smell contributes. These five tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and the recently discovered "umami," or "savory." The word "umami" comes from Japanese, and I'm told it means something like what "yummy" means in English. (Dyske? Is this true?)

Umami is the flavor that makes meat foods taste different from (and many say better than) vegetable foods. Aged cheese, miso, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) possess the highest levels of the chemicals involved.

Here's a brief and accurate article on the five tastes: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Basic...

So "savory" is actually neither sweet nor salty, but a basic taste of its own. The article does mention that Chinese cuisine considers "spicy" to be a basic taste in place of "savory," but I've read articles recently that demonstrate that the "hot" flavor we associate with chili peppers is only a sensation of irritation. Any other flavors we associate with spiciness are combinations of the five basic tastes.

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Speedwell, that's a jargonistic definition of savory. Much like the meaning of "velocity" when used in physics or the culinary vs. botanical/biological definitions of fruit, it only tells us about the meaning of savory in a physiological context, and there is no need to tie that definition in any direct sense to the culinary or gastronomic (or any other) definition of the word.

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Well, I did say it was technical!

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"Is it so hard to go to a dictionary now adays?"

No, its easier than ever to go to the dictionary due to internet access. However, anyone really into cooking can tell you that a dictionary is NOT the best place to look up any cooking terminology. For that you should use a chef's dictionary. I love too cook, and love to watch the cooking channel. They define the term "savory" as being seasoned and salted rather than sweet. The Monte Cristo sandwich is the perfect thing to describe this. It is a fried sandwich battered in a "french toast" batter. However, it is a savory french toast batter and not a sweet one. Therefore the recipe calls for no sugar and the addition of salt in the egg mixture yet also uses cinnamon and nutmeg I.E. a "savory" dish that is both spiced and yet salty not sweet.

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Dykse, You were completely 100% correct and your friend is simply wrong.

From www.dictionary.com (American Heritage Dictionary):

1 - Appetizing to the taste or smell: a savory stew.
2 - Piquant, pungent, or salty to the taste; not sweet.
3 - Morally respectable; inoffensive: a past that was scarcely savory.

Note, definition 2 is EXACTLY the way you used it. It can also be used as a noun.

My English Mother-in-law refers to meat, chicken, etc., (all "main dish" type items) as savory in contrast to sweet desserty type things. I suspect this is more common in the UK than in the USA (I rarely hear the word "savory" used in ANY context).

If we take what you wrote quite literally, then maybe your friend is another issue. Did he really suggest that you should not use a word simply because he wasn't familiar with it? A bit cheeky, don't you think? Many others would be confused just because he was? I think my pomposity meter just hit full scale.

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My girlfriend and I have just come to the net to see if savoury is the opposite of sweet? I think it isn't but it appears that dependant on the country or context you use it - it doesn't seem to matter. So - to my sweet girlfriend - you are right.

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Great site, and great discussion!

My greatest contact with the word savory has been since I moved to Japan and became acquanted with Australians and New Zealanders. They seem to use it to mean something that is not sweet. I think it really is closer to the fifth taste, umami.

Recently, I heard that MSG was invented by the Japanese in their quest to define the taste of umami, which wasn't adequately accounted for in the other four tastes. Particularly, it was the flavor of "dashi," or bonito flavoring, that they wanted to define.

Although I don't use the word savory often, when I think of a savory steak, I conjure up a taste similar to the flavor of dashi. So perhaps umami is, indeed, what savory is describing.

If anyone can support or debunk this, please, let's hear it!

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*acquainted

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I am interested to hear what the Americans say for things that are not sweet.
The British use savoury, but I think there is no generalized expression for this in America. If I read a Crepe menu and one section lists fillings with cheese or zucchini, In America one wouldn't be additionally informed that they are savoury ( or savory). Or from an example above, "I don't want cookies, I want something savoury, like potato chips." I think an American would say " I don't want anything sweet have you got any potato chips or something like that?"
So the expression in America for things that are not sweet must be 'not sweet'.
Does anyone have an opinion on this?

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