Do you ever wonder why some dishes, particularly those prepared by more experienced cooks, seem to taste so much better? You might think it’s all about the seasoning, but in truth there are multiple aspects to what helps a dish deliver maximum flavour. Seasoning plays a role, but cooking techniques are another key aspect and I often encourage novice cooks or those looking to improve to try a few simple techniques to boost the flavour of their dishes without adding a lot of extra fat, salt or sugar.
One of the most important aspects of producing dishes that impress is the concept of layering flavours. This involves using cooking techniques that add depth of taste without a lot of seasoning. Some of the flavour-enhancing techniques you can easily employ at home include:
Browning adds flavour to everything from meat to baked goods. For example, start by searing a whole chicken or a roast of beef or pork to develop a nice crust on the outside. This serves to lock in juices and flavour before you finish cooking the meat at a lower temperature. Similarly, pies are often started on a higher temperature to promote nice browning of the pastry, then the oven temperature gets reduced after 15 or 20 minutes.
Roasting is a great way to enhance flavour. Slow (i.e., at a moderate temperature) is usually the way to go, to allow ample time for the ingredients’ natural delicious taste to become enhanced – this works really well with vegetables and fruit. In the case of roasted meats, it’s a great idea to finish by deglazing the roasting pan with a bit of wine or stock, add a few chopped herbs and then you have a simple, delicious sauce.
Caramelizing is similar to browning; it involves cooking an ingredient until it takes on a golden colour, which will intensify the natural flavours and aromas. Two examples of caramelization which you may be familiar with are onions and sugar, both of which add tremendous flavour to a dish when caramelized.
Toasting brings out flavor, especially in nuts, whole spices, and grains. As these items warm up during the toasting process – which should be done in a dry pan over medium heat – they release natural oils which in turn bring out intense flavours.
Aside from the above techniques, you can also judiciously use a few simple ingredients to boost flavour in many dishes without the need for a lot of added salt or sweetening. Here are a few of my favourite tips:
Fresh citrus juice – add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice to a dish immediately before serving. It’s great for brightening up the flavour of vegetables and meats alike.
Spices – many recipes can be enhanced simply by using spices rather than added salt, sugar or fat. Where would Indian cuisine be without the generous use of spices? You’ll be surprised how the use of spices in the correct quantities can enhance flavour and require little or no salt. With a little practice you’ll be replacing your salt shaker with mason jars of cayenne, cumin and coriander seed.
Tomato paste – even a teaspoon or two of tomato paste can add a great depth of flavour to soups, beef dishes and pasta sauces. The subtle yet effective impact tomato paste (as well as other flavour enhancers like Worcestershire sauce) has on food is referred to by chefs as Umami or the “fifth taste” (after bitter, salty, sour and sweet). The easiest way to keep it on hand at all times is to buy a tube of it at your nearest Italian or gourmet food shop.
Dijon – chefs often add mustard to sauces, soups and salad dressings. It imparts a nice bit of flavour that complements other elements in many dishes. Plus, it acts as an emulsifier, binding oil and acid together so you’ll get a creamier consistency, especially in salad dressings.
Butter – whisk a tablespoon of cold butter into any milk, cream or broth-based sauce right before serving; this adds to the sauce’s texture and taste.
Fresh herbs – many people avoid fresh herbs because they buy a bunch, use a little, and the rest is left to spoil in the fridge. Yet herbs remain one of the most reliable ways to add a ton of flavour without adding sugar, salt, fat or calories. After you’ve used the herbs you’ve purchased for a day or two, chop the remainder and freeze. They’ll still add a lot of flavour, especially compared to dried versions.
As you can see there are a host of options to assist you in elevating your recipes to the next level without the use of additional salt, sugar and fats. I hope you enjoy these suggestions.