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.
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.
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