Moving on from seasoning, here are my starter tips for other ingredients that add flavor to your food (things that aren’t spices).
I’m going to borrow some categorization from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In all honesty, I haven’t done a deep dive into the actual cookbook, but t’s a great simple way to remember your flavor elements. As in, maybe you have your seasoning blend down but something isn’t quite right with your dish.
Salt. Okay, so this is still a seasoning but it’s the most important one and worth mentioning a second time. Salt and taste your food as you cook! Use a light hand to start, because it’s easy to add more but near impossible to take away salt. Feel free to salt to your taste as you learn what you like. I personally salt almost everything with a light hand except for potatoes.
It’s important to layer your salt as you cook and to season different components of your dish. It takes time to meld the flavors and your food will taste the best this way. It’s kind of like origami, where careful steps along the way pay off in a better overall result at the end. This means season your raw meat. If you have a sauté of onions or a sauce base, season that too, separately from the meat. Taste it once combined and salt again if needed. Skipping those separate steps and adding salt only at the end won’t be the same.
There are other ingredients to incorporate salt into food besides just salt, such as soy sauce, feta cheese, salted butter, or prepared ingredients like canned foods or chicken broth. Recipes will usually account for salty ingredients, but keep that in mind if you’re experimenting on your own.
Fat. Honestly for a lot of foods you can get away with just salt and fat to taste pretty good. Salt and butter are a big reason why restaurant food tastes so much better. Try adding a little butter (a tablespoon) to savory dishes – to finish a sauce, or over something like rice or vegetables. You can incorporate fat into your food via ingredients (mayo, butter), cooking method, or components (cream sauce) (see infographic here from NPR).
I’m going to focus on cooking with the right kind of fat. Olive oil is a pretty good all purpose ingredient, but canola and avocado oil have higher smoke points. This means they take longer to burn. So if you are deep frying or even just browning something that needs a nice sear, you will want to use one of those over olive oil or your pan may start smoking before you have the result you want. If your food will easily absorb the fat flavor when cooking, such as eggs or shrimp, consider using a mix of oil and butter or just butter. For a buttery option at higher heat (e.g., hash browns), you can use clarified butter or ghee, which have the milk solids removed and have a higher smoke point than regular butter.
Acid. This is the secret flavor ingredient that sometimes is hard to even place exists in a dish. A dash of lemon juice or red wine vinegar is a great way to add final pizazz and depth to a savory dish. If you’ve never tried this, I would start with something like squeezing lemon juice over something that is generally “garlic and herb” flavored like chicken or risotto. A splash of red wine vinegar or wine is great to enrich the flavor of pan sauces. In a saute pan, this also doubles as a trick to deglaze or unstick any meat bits (fond) off the pan, which adds even more flavor to your meal and makes cleanup easier.
Heat. I won’t get too in depth here, but your cooking method also imparts flavor to your food. For example, roasting, grilling, smoking, or browning instead of boiling (think of oven roasted potatoes or grilled veggies instead of the boiled version of each). This too can happen in layers – are you sauteing, caramelizing, or toasting any individual ingredients before they go in the pan? A key flavor component of many braised dishes like short rib or a pot roast comes from searing (browning) the meat first before letting it simmer slowly.
Combining it all together. The risotto in the featured image at the top of the page is a great example of layering all these components together for maximum effect. Most risottos start with sauteing your aromatics (which I’ll cover later) like shallots and garlic, then adding the raw rice to let it brown or toast in the pan. The risotto gains flavor and salt through absorbing broth and other cooking liquids (e.g., I separately saute shrimp or mushrooms and pour that liquid into the pot). The risotto gets finished with salt and pepper, butter, a little parmesan or marscapone cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice, and red pepper flakes. Bon appetit!