14 Easy Ways To Bring More Flavor To Your Food

There’s no magic to great cooking – but there are a few tricks. When you cook professionally, you’re always trying to find those little things that can help bump up the flavor of a dish. Here are 14 things that make my cooking better. I’d love to know your tips and tricks – if you’ve got something to add to this list, please leave a comment below.

14 Ways To Bring More Flavor To Your Food

1. Crunchy On The Outside, Tender On The Inside

If there is a universal rule for how to make food delicious, it’s this: get it crunchy on the outside, and tender on the inside. Crunchy on the outside generally comes from technique, like when you hard sear or grill a steak to get that crusty brown exterior or high-heat roast cauliflower, or from a starchy coating, like when you dust food in flour or shake it with breadcrumbs before cooking.

2. Learn To Use Salt, Early and Often

In cooking, salt doesn’t just make food saltier. It actually enhances the perception of other flavors in the food. Imagine unsalted potato chips or French fries – so much What’s The Point? right? Adding a pinch of salt to a sweet dessert balances the flavors and brings them out. Adding salt to meat is almost essential if you want a “meaty” flavor. There is almost no culinary situation in which you should not salt your food appropriately.

Salt is a flavor tool, and the outcome changes depending on how you use it. For example, if you add salt to vegetables as you saute them in fat, you encourage those vegetables to release moisture. This moisture makes the vegetables less prone to browning – good if you want pale sauteed cauliflower, bad if you want toasty seared zucchini. Salt added to meat a day or so before cooking works its way into the meat for a more well seasoned flavor. Generous amounts of salt in pots of simmering water seasons potatoes or pasta as they cook. Salt sprinkled on at the very end provides a highlight saltiness.

3. Use Fat, Pretty Much Always

In culinary school they drill a few things into you. The first is that brunoise is totally and completely different from a small dice, and you are a knob-headed imbecile for not appreciating the difference immediately. The second is that Fat = Flavor.

And it’s true – most of the flavor in meats, for example really comes from the distinctive lipid makeup of the animal’s fat. Muscle fiber is just muscle fiber, but fat is an entire rainbow of flavors. In addition to being flavorful on it’s own, fat carries flavor. Many volatile flavor and aroma compounds are fat soluble – that’s why garlic and onions are sauteed in a bit of oil and turkey gets basted with butter.

4. Use Booze, More Often Than You’d Think

No surprise to regular readers to see alcohol on this list, I suppose. But cooking with booze isn’t about sneaking booze into things that are perfectly good without alcohol. See, some flavor compounds are water soluble, some are fat soluble and some are alcohol soluble, so cooking with a bit of alcohol helps liberate more of those flavor and aroma compounds.

By bringing both a bit of fat (see above) and a little booze to the party, we have the greatest chance of liberating the most flavor and aroma compounds in our food. Some ways to make your cooking 21 and over: add a shot of vodka to your tomato sauce, braise and deglaze with wine, add a bit of sherry or brandy to anything creamy (soups, pasta sauces, etc.), add a splash of booze to jams, sauces or marinades, add a few drops of rum, brandy or bourbon to desserts instead of vanilla extract (or use my better vanilla extract to get the best of both worlds).

5. Add acid to brighten nearly any dish.

If your dish needs “a little something” that something is almost certainly a drop of lemon juice or vinegar. Acid brightens flavors and gives a lovely contrast to foods that might otherwise seem too heavy or rich or sweet. Great food requires these bright highlight flavors.

Homebrew Husband and I recently enjoyed a lovely, high-end, celebratory meal with our dear friends. Everything was wonderfully executed and delicious – until the dessert course. The desserts looked incredible – fancy edible art on huge white plates that acted as frames – and all the components of the desserts were made from high quality ingredients. The problem was that everything was just sweet. Sweet pastry atop a pool of sweet sauce, topped with sweet mousse and a shard of sweet white marbled chocolate, all topped off with with more sweet garnishes. If even one of the components had been bright and puckery and tart, the entire dessert would have been amazing. But, because there were no acid highlights, what could have been sublime became a cloying toothache on a plate.

6. Use only freshly squeezed citrus juice

Bottled, concentrated, pasteurized lemon juice tastes dog pee. I mean, I assume. I’ve never actually had dog pee. But I think my point is made. Don’t use dog pee lemon juice. Freshly squeezed citrus juice is important. When citrus juice sits around, the bright sparkly flavors get all dull and muddy in your cooking. Juice lemons or limes just before adding them to your dish.

7. Use The Zest

Since you’re springing for fresh lemons (which can be expensive!) make them go as far as possible and elevate your cooking by using the zest. All the best aroma compounds in citrus are found in the thin, colored outer edge of the peel. This part – not the white pithy stuff underneath – is what you want to save to add huge flavor boosts to fish, desserts, whipped cream, lemon curd and more.

The easiest way to capture your zest is to get in the habit of peeling your whole citrus (just use a vegetable peeler like this) before juicing it. You can keep the strips of zest whole or chop them in a food processor to chop before popping them in the freezer or drying them.

Read more: 7 Simple, Delicious Ways To Use Lemon Peel.

8. Browned Food = Flavorful Food

Imagine being presented with two steaks. Both are cooked to the same internal temperature, but one is crusty and brown with grill marks. The other is uniformly greyish from having been steamed. Now picture two bowls of vanilla ice cream. One is topped with a luscious caramel sauce. One has a big spoonful of simple syrup dumped over the top of the ice cream.

It’s easy to choose, right? The seared steak and the caramel-topped ice cream are the clear winners. Browned food is more flavorful. This isn’t just perception bias, it’s science. Two major reactions cause food to brown. These are called the Maillard reaction and caramelization. When food browns, amino acids and carbohydrates undergo a complex set of changes and cascades of new and more complex flavor and aroma molecules.

9. Use The Fond, Luke

Star Wars, yo.

But seriously, “Fond” is the official term for the crusty kinda-nasty looking brown stuff at the bottom of a skillet or saute pan or dutch oven after you sear or saute or roast or otherwise cook your food. It has the same root as our word foundation which should tell you how critical this pan crustiness really is!

Fond is delicious. It’s the concentrated essence of whatever you’re cooking, and you must never waste it or throw it away. Unless you shamefully let your fond burn (don’t do that) fond is a ready made base for the easiest sauces around: the pan sauce or pan gravy.

10. Use only freshly chopped garlic

Once in culinary school I was part of this big fund-raiser thing with a local celeb chef. Several hundred people came to eat her food and drink wine and bid at a silent auction. I think it benefited the school? I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the day before the event, in an effort to get our prep-work done, several of us students pre-peeled and pre-chopped enough garlic to fill a quart bag completely full. Do you know how much garlic you have to peel to make a quart of chopped garlic? Much garlic. So the next day, everyone’s feeling pretty good about the state of our prep and someone takes this giant bag of chopped garlic out of the fridge and all of it has turned green.

This color-change is an interesting reaction that happens when chemicals compounds in garlic react to each other. When the garlic is in whole cloves, these compounds are kept separate, but mash ‘em all together and you get mood-ring garlic. This tendency to turn green is highest in older garlic, and while it’s not inherently harmful, it’s one sign that the compounds in the garlic have reacted to each other and the flavor has changed from that of fresh-chopped garlic.

All that garlic for the fundraiser? We threw it out and an entire table of culinary students got tasked with last minute garlic duty.

11. Buy freshly ground spices in bulk and rotate frequently

If your spices smell like ancient mummy dust, they aren’t adding any flavor to your cooking. Spices loose punch fastest from exposure to heat and air. When you grind spices you expose far more surface area to air, so they age a lot faster. For the most flavor from your spices (and the longest shelf life), start with the whole seed or pod and grind as you go.

Some spices – let’s be honest – are kind of a pain to grind as you go. Like turmeric. I’m not pounding out dried turmeric root with a mortar and pestle every time I want a curry. So for those spices that are far more convenient to buy pre-ground, just make sure you are buying in bulk from a place with good turnover, and refresh your own stock frequently.

Read More: How To Organize Your Spice Drawer with Mason Jars

12. Save Parmesan rinds and add them to stock

Parmesan and other aged, hard cheeses often come with an inedible tough rind. This rind has a rich, nutty flavor that you can capture in long-simmered dishes. Just throw your parm rinds in the freezer until you need them.

Next time you are making chicken or veg stock, or simmering a pot of beans or polenta, toss a hunk of the frozen rind into the pot for tons of extra flavor.

13. Drain whey from yogurt or cheesemaking and add it to bread doughs

If you make your own yogurt (and you should!) you can drain the yogurt for a thicker, Greek-style product, sour cream substitute or yogurt cheese. The whey that drains off is high in protein and tangy. Don’t let it go to waste! I add my excess whey to no-knead bread. The whey gives the bread a lovely, sourdough-like tang and a longer shelf life.

14. Soak onion in vinegar for 10 minutes before using for a vinaigrette

If you like onion, shallot or garlic in your salad dressings, mince these aliums fine and then soak in vinegar for at least 10 minutes before proceeding to whisk up your vinaigrette. This rest in vinegar mellows the flavor of the onion and helps to soften the onion’s cell structure. Use whatever vinegar you would have used in your dressing anyway, and then proceed. This is a technique I learned from Judy Rodgers and The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

Read more: Of Dead Heroes and Roast Chickens

What did I miss? How do you bring more flavor to your food? Tell me in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. Kat Starnes says

    Erica, I have learned sooooo much from you over the last few years. Because of you, and the directions in which you have pointed me, I have a thriving year-round garden, a pantry full of home-preserved food, and much more fun experimenting in the kitchen. You would have no reason to remember, but my husband and I met you and Nick at the Oregon Garden several years ago, discussed economics and gardening (while the in-laws and children waited!), and you told us about NW Edible. That encounter has made a huge difference in our lives, and your blog has given us confidence to try so many new things. Just wanted to say thank you. And I will be putting more booze in our food from now on. ;-)

    • says

      I totally remember! We were back at the Oregon Gardens two weeks ago and I was thinking of when we met in the kitchen garden area! So nice to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words. You’ve made my day!

  2. Reeves says

    I wholeheartedly agree on both alcohol and fresh spices. Mushrooms sauteed in garlic and butter are hard to beat, but finish them with some whiskey? Foodgasm. I try to use whatever regional alcohol goes with the meal. Mexican food = Tequila, etc.

    We don’t use many spices beyond salt and pepper for a lot of our cooking, but fresh ground cumin, coriander, and nutmeg have transformed our cooking. I learned from my brother-in-law to use my nose. Smell the food then smell your spice. Repeat. Then add your spice if it fits. I’ve found wonderful flavor combinations doing this like adding cinnamon to a pot of chili for a hard to place warm flavor.

    And don’t forget that hot foods keep cooking after you take them off the heat. If you want to keep your meat juicy let it rest.

    • says

      Shhhhhh….the meat is resting!

      Totally agree on all fronts, Reeves. Now I want foodgasm mushrooms with tons of fresh thyme and black pepper and sherry. Yum!

  3. austin says

    My husband will love this. He likes full-flavoured food, and so often goes overboard on salt. These tricks should help cut back w/o a big hit to flavour. Thanks!
    Related to #3 (fat = flavor), save pork drippings and especially bacon fat in the fridge, then use for sauteeing other meats or even veggies. Amazingness.
    And homemade stock instead of (part of) the water for rice. Sometimes the rice is slightly colored–depending on how dark the stock is–, but very tasty.

      • Stacey K says

        Quick question about bacon fat and food safety: how long can you keep bacon fat in the fridge before you are at risk of poisoning yourself and those you love? My daughter loves eggs fried in bacon fat, but she forgets to use it and then the fat sits in the fridge and now I don’t actually know how long it has been. Obviously, I need to get better at labeling, but that is anther discussion.

        Brussels sprouts in bacon fat with bits of bacon… wow. After three kids, I have learned that if the kids won’t eat a vegetable, roast it with bacon. Bacon is the “gateway drug” for many vegetables in this house.

        • says

          Pure bacon fat? In the fridge? I’d say months. Honestly, this is a very low risk item – bacon itself is preserved to prevent botulism growth and while there is a theoretical botulism risk to items like pure rendered lard, bacon fat and ghee, I am not aware of any situation where these items have actually led to foodborne illness. Keep it refrigerated to prolong quality – it will go rancid eventually, and you’ll know when you smell it. Keeping it frozen when not in use will reduce the already miniscule botulism risk to essentially zero.

  4. Starla says

    Great post! Tamari is one item I use often, to bump up the salty, umami, yum factor in a dish that just seems to need something. Not just Asian dishes–marinara, bechamel, gravy, soup, whatever. You don’t need much but it can really help when you can’t put your finger on what is lacking.

    • says

      Great suggestion. Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam) is what I use, just because I don’t keep tamari around, but the concept is the same. A drop or two, even in things you wouldn’t normally associate with a SE Asian condiment, really makes things oomphier.

    • WendP says

      We use mushrooms for the umami as well – chopped up super-fine or dehydrated and ground into a powder. We use it in all sorts of things like soup, sauces, and stocks.

      • says

        If you are an omnivore, may I suggest dried shiitake-crusted filet mignon as a special occasion meal? This was a client favorite when I was catering. You blitz dried shiitake (other mushrooms would be fine, too) to a powder and use that to create a crust on best-quality beef. Sear and serve. Delicious.

  5. Barbara Christensen says

    Thank you so much. I learned something valuable today. So appreciate all your writing and sharing.

    I guess I would have to add presentation… A middling dish can be elevated and a great dish can sail into the ozone layer with a thoughtful presentation. The opposite, like your example of steamed steak, is true as well. a sloppy restaurant plate can ruin what should be a pleasant experience.

    I have been working at early salting in a dish and I think my food has really improved. Now I’ll concentrate on your booze advice. Thanks again for helping me further down the road toward more delicious food.

  6. GayLeeB says

    Whey is also good mixed into soup stock, or for deglazing. I make kefir, and kefir cheese, so I usually have some whey in the fridge.

    Lots of good suggestions there, Erika. I’d add that fresh herbs beats dry ask to hell and back.

    • Betsy True says

      I use whey as part of the base with chicken stock for chicken egg drop soup, It’s become a regular downstream meal from rotisserie chicken (and homemade Greek yogurt).

  7. rick says

    Use stock or other flavored liquids vs water. Make sure they complement whatever flavors the main ingredients have but using stock when doing a braise or deglazing a pan for a pan sauce yields more flavor than just grabbing some water.

  8. Trish says

    oh, this is great info! thank you so much. is there an ‘about’ section somewhere on the blog? I would like to know more about your professional culinary career. I am looking at attending the local community college food prep courses, to give myself a new direction. I am not counting on a big career, just something different to do at age 50. I am planning on using the community college course as a starting point, and hoping to go on from there. I am past the point where investing in courses at one of the big culinary schools would be financially viable – L’ecole Culinare is about $40,000 for a year.

  9. Kyle says

    I always thought that alcohol served in some ways like an acid, but it makes so much more sense that some flavors are simply alcohol soluble….and why it only takes a small splash to have a big impact. Awesome!

  10. thegoblinchief says

    I agree with most, but:

    #2 salt – Definitely true, but you’d be surprised what you can do when cooking for a salt-free restricted diet person (my mom). I’ve found that fresh black pepper and oil are far, far more important than salt in bringing out flavors.

    #4 – booze – Meh. I’ve had very, very mixed results using alcohol in cuisine. I would much rather pair it with the food than eat it in the food.

    #6 – Freshly squeezed citrus. I can’t afford to buy lemons every time I need one. Costco’s “Volcano” Lemon juice is pretty damn good. I can’t taste the difference.

    As far as tips go, my “tip” is always try to do more with less – less, as in fewer ingredients. If your bases are high quality, they don’t need much to shine. They sure as hell don’t need the sauces and seasonings most restaurants inflict on them. In all my recipes, each ingredient is there because it damn well has to be.

    • thegoblinchief says

      Oh, also, I really think you should add a clarification about fat. Use copious animal fat ONLY if it’s responsibly sourced. The toxins so prevalent in factory farming concentrate in fat – not only untasty, but dangerous. I never thought animal fat was remotely appetizing UNTIL I started eating pastured animals.

    • Julia says

      Oh! That Volcano Organic Lemon juice in the green wine bottle is good enough to make lemonade! I really miss it. Our Costco in Madison, WI sold it year round, but at the Portland OR Costco it’s that horrible TruLemon stuff. I asked about it and none of the staff had heard of it. I need to find out how to influence the buyers at my local Costco. . .

      Of course fresh citrus is the best, but the sicilian lemon juice was just really different than any other bottled lemon juice I’ve had, even organic.

  11. Andrea says

    What/who/where do I read to learn more about #5? I’ve been playing with acid for a while but it’s dependent on two things that I’m slow to learn… timing and proportion.

  12. Margit Van Schaick says

    Erica, just what I needed to remind me that every little bit counts when you CARE how delicious something is. One thing that I especially enjoy is planting an abundant herb garden, so that I can add them whenever and however inspiration strikes. Key word “abundant”.

  13. Beth says

    I teach cooking and baking classes and I always tell students that :
    1) Unless it’s burnt, there is no cooking mistake that can’t be made addeptable by the application of bacon, cheese, or gravy.
    2) Unless it’s burnt, there’s no baking mistake that can’t be made acceptable by the application of ice cream, chocolate sauce, or peanut butter

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