Maximizing Flavor II
by Mark R. Vogel

            This is the second of a two-part article about the various techniques for maximizing the flavor of your food.  These methods are blind to any health, economic or convenience concerns.  They’re straightforwardly and solely focused on boosting flavor.  Previously we discussed the importance of using fresh, high quality ingredients, proper storage and preparation procedures and brining.  Thus, we continue our overview of flavor maximization principles. 

USE ENOUGH SALT

            Get over your salt phobia.  Man is biologically engineered to be receptive to the taste of salt, (via our taste buds which are specifically wired for, among other flavors, the sensation of salt).  Sodium is also a necessary nutrient, albeit not to the amounts in most peoples’ diets.  Finally, even without the natural aid of our taste buds, salt in and of itself combines with other elements in food to enhance flavor.

            For getting the whole nine yards out of salt, season your food prior to cooking and depending on the dish, (e.g., casseroles, soups, and other concoctions built in stages), add a little more as you go.  This incorporates the salt into the dish more proficiently.  Also, try to eschew generic table salt and opt for Kosher or sea salt instead.

 USE ENOUGH FAT

             Hey, I warned you that this is not about health.  Whether your cholesterol levels like it or not, fat tastes good.  And like salt, fat enhances the flavor of other foods.  Some flavor elements are only soluble in fat.  This is why one of my culinary professors used to tout:  “All flavor in food comes from fat and salt.”  With the exception of sugar, he’s on the money.  Wrap your roast in caul fat, work seasoned butter under the skin of your chicken or turkey, employ prime grades of beef, (which have higher intramuscular fat), finish dishes with a touch of cream or butter, don’t be a sissy with the olive oil,…….you get the picture. 

MAKE RECIPES FROM SCRATCH

             There’s no disputing that ingredients prepared from scratch are superior to processed foods.  Of course this takes more time and effort but again, our solitary emphasis is flavor enhancement.  Thus, the less boxes and cans in your repertoire the better.

 SEAR YOUR FOOD PROPERLY

             Before searing any kind of protein, preheat the pan, add the oil, and wait till you see the first wisps of smoke.  Season the meat, add it to the pan, and then don’t touch it until the first side is completely seared.  Flip and repeat on the other side.  This is not executed, as the old wives’ tale suggests, to seal in the juices.  It’s performed to caramelize the foods surface which intensifies the flavor.  This also leads to the next flavor optimizing principle:

 DEGLAZE YOUR PAN         

             After searing any food you should take advantage of the fond, i.e., all those little browned bits on the bottom of the pan.  They are highly concentrated in flavor.  Turn the pan on high, add alcohol, stock, or even water and scrape the bottom of the pan as it cooks.  Melt all the goodness and then incorporate that liquid into a sauce.

 KNOW THE SPEED LIMIT

             Sometimes you need to cook foods low and slow, like a Bolognese sauce which benefits from having the flavors meld over time.  Other times you need to cook the food quickly to sear it without overcooking it such as scallops or shrimp.  And still other times you’ll need to do both.  For example, when making a stew you begin by searing the meat briefly in a hot pan.  Then, after all the ingredients are added you decelerate and simmer for an extended period of time. 

 AVOID UNDERCOOKING AND OVERCOOKING

             Cooking foods to the precise degree of doneness is certainly one of the thorniest tasks chefs face.  Undercooking your food will fail to develop the aforementioned sear and cost you flavor development.  But I think overcooking is even worse because as opposed to not producing enough flavor, it will impart noxious flavors.  While perfectly seared food confers a rich and intense flavor, overcooked meat borders on licking an ashtray.  Moreover, the more proteins cook, the tougher and drier they become.  Hence you’ll achieve a vile synergy of dry, tough meat that tastes burnt.  Vegetables too take on the same charred flavor from excessive cooking.  Some vegetables, like garlic, turn scathingly bitter when burnt and will ruin your entire dish. 

 HIT THE HIGHLIGHTS

             Many dishes are augmented by adding a touch of brightness such as acid, (vinegar or lemon juice), or a spice such as black pepper, hot pepper, mustard powder, etc.  Foods that have just a little bit of bite awaken our palate but……………..

 DON’T ALLOW ANY FLAVOR TO DOMINATE

             Much like a good wine, the array of flavors in a dish need to be in harmony.  Too much acid, too much salt, too much sweetness, etc., and you’ve quashed the equilibrium.  There certainly are dishes that lean toward a certain flavor dimension but that flavor’s influence should not be excessive.  Our palate is an orchestra and the flavors are most sensuous when all the instruments are synchronized.

 

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