From a Chef’s Perspective: Taking Your Food to the Next (Flavor) Level
From a Chef’s Perspective: Taking Your Food to the Next (Flavor) Level
American cuisine as we know it today, a mélange of international flavor influences, has not always been so creative. In fact, it kind of suffered from what I refer to as a “Flavor Depression” for most of its lifetime (except the Mexican-Americans’ cooking in the South and the well-seasoned creole influence in New Orleans, which both had a pretty good head start on this). Coming out of the Dark Ages of Food, i.e. the 80’s, the country was hungry for food that was way more involved, interesting and colorful even. We longed for the lone parsley sprig to have more meaning and purpose than just garnish.
Remember Emiril Lagasse’s whole “kick it up a notch” shtick in the late 90’s-early 2000’s? As much as that catchphrase induced eye-rolls from my teenage self, the guy was doing something pretty important. He was one of the first chefs (on television) to be adding serious spices, peppers and other seasoning elements that were lacking in the “quick-30-minute-dinners” of this time. With every “Bam!” and “Oh yeah, baby!” he (maybe annoyingly) took food to a next level of flavor. He didn’t want anything to be quick, bland or boring – and neither do I.
So how do we get our food to that next level? Just like wine we want our food to be in balance, and we want there to be depth of flavor. This means thinking outside the salt shaker and opening up the spice cabinet, fridge and mind to other additions.
Step 1: Switch up your cooking oil/fat
This one is really easy. If your go-to cooking fat is nondescript vegetable oil: Stop. Just stop. I can think of only one good use for this and it’s deep frying only. Vegetable oil is completely flavorless which is not going to help us in our mission for deeper flavors. So unless you’re making doughnuts, keep that oil in the back of your cabinet and bring forth the real flavorful fats:
Butter. Unsalted butter is my numero uno in the kitchen. And you know what? It’s NOT worse for you than oil or margarine. That whole viral “fact” was not based on any real data and was mostly pushed by the corn and canola industry to get you to buy more flavorless oil. Fat is fat, it’s not great for you, so just don’t eat a lot of it. If you are going to switch to butter, I would recommend using ghee, which has the milk solids removed = less burning. Ghee (a.k.a. “clarified butter”) is easy to find in stores nowadays, otherwise you can make it at home very easily.
Grapeseed, Avocado & Olive Oils. Grapeseed oil is great for medium-to-high heat sautéing and has a nice gentle flavor that won’t meddle too much with the flavor of proteins. Olive oil is great for mild-to-medium heat only because it does tend to burn quite quickly and burnt oil is not a desirable flavor. (If your oil starts smoking in the pan, it is burning and you should start over. Even if it doesn’t look burnt, the flavor profile has completely changed and your food will not be great.)
Step 2: Properly season your dish
If you’re working from a recipe, chances are there is a list of seasonings on there already. Sometimes, we don’t have one (or three) of those seasonings in our cabinet so we just skip it and move on without them. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you do this, but you’re missing the intention of the chef who wrote the recipe. Chances are the seasoning blend in the recipe was painstakingly chosen after multiple recipe tests and tastings. Try your best to get those seasonings in there, even if it means sending someone to the store (didn’t you need more ice cream, anyway?).
If you are cooking without a recipe, you have to be the one to get creative. Fear not, for trial and error is a part of learning how to cook on that next flavor level. I recommend starting with small amounts of seasonings that are new to you, and try to stay around 4-5 max at first so as to not make something that’s too “muddy” (meaning there are so many flavors you can’t pick out a single one when tasting). Oh, and never ever shake a seasoning from the bottle right into the pot. Measure it out into a small bowl or spoon first, then add. I have seen one too many disasters happen this way, and getting a container-worth of cayenne powder out of a boiling pot is not happening.
Note: seasoning isn’t always in powder-form. Seasoning can come from other ingredients as well. Always smell everything before you use it to ensure that it is fresh, and to make sure you like it!
Bright & Bold Flavors: garlic, scallion, horseradish, mustard
Indian-vibe / Warm Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom
Spices for Heat: cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, black pepper, fresh chiles
Green Flavors (thanksgiving nostalgia): sage, rosemary, thyme
Latin-vibe / Smoky Flavors: pimentón, diced bacon, smoked salt, chipotles
Floral Flavors: rose water, lavender, saffron
Fresh Green Flavors (summery/Mediterranean flavors): parsley, tarragon, mint, basil
Step 3: Brighten things up with acidity
The flavor intensity of foods are heightened by the addition of salt, which is why we put it on just about everything. What is often ignored when cooking is the addition of acidity, which along with fat and salt create a perfect flavor balance. The tart flavor of acidic ingredients not only stimulates the palate, but it helps create the impression of “freshness” and helps cuts through some of the fat in heavier dishes. Think of dipping a hot French fry in ketchup. The reason that flavor combination is so desirable is because salt and fat are meeting acid and that flavor balance simply can’t be beat. It can be as simple as a squeeze of lemon on a grilled pork chop or some orange zest in your muffin batter.
Pickle-y Acids (great on sandwiches, tacos): minced cornichons, diced pickled onions, kimchi
Briny Acids (great on seafood): capers, bottarga, olives
Zesty Acids: citrus zest, ginger, yuzu kosho
Step 4: Be brave! Try some unusual condiments.
These require a gentle hand as they can really pack a serious flavor punch. Some of these are not for everyone but everyone should try them at least once. Miso is my favorite and makes an amazing marinade for fish and chicken. If you are new to these, I recommend using a recipe when trying the unusual/funky flavors before experimenting on your own.
Unusual/Funky flavors: anchovies, fish sauce, blue cheese, miso, black garlic
Savory/Umami flavors: strong grated cheeses, nutritional yeast, soy sauce
Step 5: Pour a glass of wine!
Besides making food that’s more delicious to eat, by following these steps you have also made food that is more fun to pair with wine. By smelling and tasting all these new ingredients you will also expand your aroma vocabulary as well as your mental library of flavors, which is a major plus if you are looking to get into the world of wine on a more serious level. Once you start cooking on this level, you will never want to go back to bland foods (or wines!) again. Happy cooking, and keep your mind open to new flavors!
Director of Tasting Rooms