18 Feb 25 Tips for improving the flavour of your food
Reliable recipes and top quality equipment are only part of the formula for being able to prepare beautifully flavoured food. Sometime the smallest touches make the biggest difference. From knowing when and how to salt meat to knowing what to do with the brown bits in a pan – here is a list of go to kitchen tips for you to turn to.
1. Do not advance prep onions and garlic.
This is best done last minute as the odours and flavours of onion and garlic intensify over time.
Macerating onions for a salad in a little red wine vinegar tames their pungency and softens the texture.
2. Out those sprouts.
Remove any green shoots from garlic cloves before chopping or cooking them. Their bitter compounds persist even after cooking.
3. Keep the taste in Tomatoes.
Buy only as many tomatoes as you can easily store and use. Tomatoes are not meant for the refrigerator – the cold will destroy the flavour compounds of tomatoes, so be sure to keep them on the bench top or table.
For tasty tomato salads -resist recipe instructions to deseed tomatoes. The jellied insides is where most of the flavour is bound. In fact the guts of the tomatoes contains three times the amount of flavour enhancing glutamic acid than the flesh.
4. Unpack your Meat and Chicken packages as soon as you get them home.
Remove all the plastic wrappings and leave the meat uncovered in the refrigerator. Dehydrating the outside of the flesh and patting it completely dry before cooking, will enable the meat to brown and crisp up more easily.
5. Salt meats before cooking.
Penetration of the salt into the flesh is a type of dry brining. The salt brings out all of the natural flavours of the meat. Surprise yourself! Salt steaks and chops 2 – 24 hours before cooking, larger pieces of meat on the bone should be salted up to 2 days before cooking. Salt a whole chicken up to 24 hours in advance. Use kosher salt and be liberal in its application. It is less salty than table salt and its larger grains cling better to the meat’s surface. If you cannot use the salted meat, just wrap and freeze it – label it as salted and thaw it out in the refrigerator when you are ready to use it.
6. Always bring meat to room temperature before cooking.
This enables more even cooking of the meat. Remove the meat from the fridge 30 minutes to 2 hours before cooking it for best results. Raw meat should not be left unrefrigerated for any more than 2 hours.
7. Score meat before marinating.
To help a marinade penetrate as quickly and deeply as possible (especially in thick cuts), prick the surface of the meat with a fork or make shallow scores with a knife.
8. Always gently preheat your pots and pans before adding any ingredients.
Do this just for a few minutes, over a gentle heat to facilitate even cooking and to minimise the pan losing too much heat as ingredients get added. This loss of heat slows down the browning process
9. Buy yourself a heat diffuser mat.
They sit over gas flames or on ceramic cook tops. They are brilliant for evenly distributing the heat in cookware that doesnt have a very thick base. It reduces the impact of hot spots on cookware. When you have trouble getting a very low simmer – place this mat over your lowest flame and it will reduce the impact of the heat significantly.
10. Sprinkle a little sugar on top
Lightly sprinkling lean proteins and even vegetables with the tiniest pinch of sugar, helps them brown better and faster, enhancing flavour without over cooking.
11. Add a rind to soups and stews
Save your parmesan cheese rinds. Store them in snap lock bags in the freezer for an indefinite time. Don’t worry to thaw them, simply add them to simmering tomato based soups and stews for extra savoury depth of flavour.
12. Don’t forget to scrape the pan.
I am not talking about bitter ,crumbly, charred remains but the caramelised brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. These are easily removed and add extra savoury flavour to sauces, soups and stews. Simply add only a few tablespoons of water, wine or broth to the pan and gently nudge the browned bits from the base, using a wooden spoon. Continue cooking them over low heat until they are incorporated into the liquid. Strain before using if you like.
13. Flip or stir meat while marinating.
Marinating is not entirely set and forget. If you seal the meat and the marinade in a snap lock bag, and rest it in a container in the fridge, it is easy to pick it up and flip it over, making sure that all of the meat is covered with the marinade. Alternatively arrange the ingredients in a covered baking dish. Half way through marinating uncover, turn the meat – coating all surfaces with the marinade. Cover and return to the refrigerator.
14. Trim beef stew meat thoroughly; leave a little fat on the pork
Ask the butcher to be sure to remove the hard fat and connective tissue from the exterior of the beef before cooking. The intramuscular marbling will provide the flavouring and tenderising that you need. With pork however, reserve a thin layer (about .5cm) of fat on the meat for extra flavour. It is worth asking the butcher too for a pigs trotter or some pork skin to add to your beef and pork stews. This makes the sauce especially silky.
15. Keep fat fresh tasting
Fat is one of the most important flavour agents in cooking. The fats though in fatty acids, butters, oils and oil rich ingredients like nuts are prone to rancidity. This is because they easily absorb other flavours and they are ill affected by light and heat.
Best storage methods:
BUTTER – store wrapped blocks of butter in a zip lock bag in the least coldest part of the refrigerator for up to 2 1/2 weeks; Up to 4 months in the freezer
OIL – Vegetable oils and Olive oil should be stored in a dark cupboard or pantry. Store nut and seed oils in the refrigerator
NUTS – stored in a snap lock bag with the air pressed out, in the freezer, they will last at least a year.
16. Rest your meat
Cooked meat needs to rest for at least10 minutes before carving or cutting it. Other than chops or smaller steaks, most other meats rest well for half an hour or so. Don’t fuss about reheating, just be comfortable with serving food at room temperature. This simple decision takes a-lot of stress out of cooking!
17. Capitalise on meat’s juices
As cooked meats rest it releases flavourful juices that can be returned to the pan when making a sauce. Adding a spoonful of broth or water or even cream will extend it beautifully. Even you not making a sauce, it is a good idea to reserve these juices and pour them over the meat when serving.
18. Make nuts nuttier
Toasting nuts activates their aromatic oils, creating a stronger, more complex flavour and aroma. When using more than a cupful, oven roast the nuts on a spacious baking sheet. The oven method gives you more space than a pan, the heat is more even and there is less need for stirring – dont be too complacent though – they can still burn!
19. Spice up Spices
To intensify the flavour of commercially ground spices, especially blends such as garam masala or curry powder – cook them for a minute or two in a little oil or ghee before adding liquid to the pan. If the recipe asks you to sauté the aromatics, add them to the meat or the vegetables, toss to combine in the dry pan before adding the liquids.
20. Go for deep golden pastry
Browning is also important in pastry. Well browned pastry is more flavourful than blonde undercooked pastry. Bake your pies in a glass pie plate so you can track the development of the colour. When cooking puff pastry or other flaky doughs on a baking sheet – be sure to lift up the bottom and check for browning underneath.
21. Use Acid
In addition to using salt to boost the flavour in food, don’t overlook the power of acid. A drop of lemon juice or good quality wine vinegar has a marvellous impact on the flavour of soups, stews and sauces and salads. Like salt, acid reduces our perception of bitter flavour compounds and they ‘brighten’ the other flavours in the dish. Just a dash – I use an eye dropper sometimes to dole out the wine vinegar into a bowl of soup for instance. Less than a quarter of a teaspoon can have a huge impact – just keep tasting before adding more until it is right.
22. When and how to use pepper
Your timing to adding pepper to food will affect the strength of its bite. For strong pepper flavour, season meat after searing; Keeping pepper away from the heat preserves its volatile compounds. Likewise, seasoning food with pepper before cooking will reduce the impact of the pepper flavour.
Nothing will save you from lousy pepper though. Be sure to use a pepper grinder or at least a mortar and pestle so that you always have freshly ground pepper. The other thing you must do is invest in the best peppercorns that you can get your hands on – Telicherry peppercorns from Kerala in India are especially good, as are some of the Sri Lankan black peppercorns.
23. Season cold foods aggressively
Chilling foods dulls their flavour, so it is always important to season generously. I am always reaching for the salt shaker or sachet to spruce up airline food! Be careful though – season with a normal amount of salt before chilling the food and then taste and add more salt as preferred just before serving. On salt – use fine sea salt instead of table salt. It has a much cleaner taste without any of the metallic interference that table salts generally have. Steer well clear of iodised salts too.
24. Incorporate fresh herbs at the right time
Add hearty herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage and marjoram to dishes early on in the cooking process for maximum flavour. Keep rosemary on its stem to minimise the risk of having darkened rosemary leaves floating around in your sauce or stew. Add the more delicate herbs like basil, parsley, coriander, tarragon, chives and chervil at the last minute so that they retain their fresh flavour and bright colour.
25. Make adjustments when your seasonings go wrong
If you have added too much salt, sugar, or spice to a dish the damage is often done. Sometimes though matters can be resurrected by masking the overpowering ingredient with the addition of another from the opposite end of the flavour spectrum. See the chart below for suggestions.
More importantly consider these rules for seasoning:
- Account for the reduction of liquids when seasoning a dish – a perfectly seasoned stew may be just too salty after hours of simmering
- Season with a relatively light hand during the cooking process – always tasting before adding any more, and then adjust the seasoning just before serving.
If your food is :
An acid or sweetner
Wine vinegar, lemon or lime juice; canned unsweetened tomatoes, sugar, honey or maple syrup
An acid or seasonings
Wine vinegar or citrus juice; chopped fresh herb; dash of cayenne pepper; or, for sweet dishes, a bit of liquor or a dash of espresso powder
Too Spicy or Acidic
A fat or a sweetner
Butter, cream, sour cream, cheese or olive oil; sugar, honey, or maple syrup
This post has been adapted from Keith Dresser’s article, 25 Tips for Improving Flavour, Cooks Illustrated magazine, September, October, 2011.