If you’ve only recently gotten into cooking or are just now moving into your first home and are ready to stock your new kitchen, you may be overwhelmed by the vast selection in the spice aisle and the 5 to 10 spices called for in each online recipe. You don’t want bland food, but as anyone who has learned to cook later in life can tell you, you’ll buy a specific spice for an online recipe and it’ll sit in the back of your cupboard for three more years before you use it again. Here is the in-depth guide to flavoring for beginners.
Following is the basic flavoring vocabulary, the basic ingredients for the major culinary regions, and how to get the most out of those ingredients.
The flavor is the overall taste or individual tastes, like sweetness or saltiness, within each dish.
Seasoning is salt, herbs, or spice you add to the main dish to give it that flavor.
Spice is loosely defined but typically consists of pungent, dried, ground plants. While it’s not as common, many dried spices can also be replaced with their fresh or unground counterparts like cayenne peppers, chili peppers, or mustard seeds. There is a good reason no one eats spices by themselves, and you should be careful not to use too much of a good thing.
Herbs offer a subtler flavor and are used fresh and dried in equal amounts. These are usually your green seasonings like parsley, rosemary, thyme, and basil.
Zest is the gratings of citrus fruits like oranges and lemons.
Sauces are typically the combination of solids like spices, herbs, zest, flour, and/or cheese mixed with liquids like water, milk, butter, pureed tomato, oil, citrus juice, or vinegar, and then cooked.
Dressings are usually the same combination but uncooked and served on cold dishes.
Finally, fond is the pan scrapings left after cooking meat or vegetables, and should never be underestimated in its ability to add flavor to a dish.
While all the above elements are all going to be useful when enhancing the flavor of your dish, that is what they should be doing, enhancing it. There is nothing worse than a fish so peppered, slathered, and spiced that you can’t identify whether it’s mahi-mahi or mackerel. Most good dishes will include a central ingredient with other ingredients that either compliment or accent it. Beans don’t have a lot of flavors, so if they are the star of your dish, you need your other ingredients to have substantial flavor; that means onions, peppers, or bacon.
Seasonings and sauces should then elevate those flavors without masking or overpowering them. If your primary ingredient is bell peppers, you don’t want to add in too many other ingredients that are going to have bold flavors lest they clash, but instead, you should pair it with rice or mild vegetables like broccoli to accent the strength of the flavor. The sauce on such a dish should also be mild and might feature herbs instead of spices.
Perhaps you love a particular region’s dishes and no other, but most people in the US like to have a little bit of everything or a large variety. So how do you get a little bit of everything without breaking the bank or having a dozen unused spices in the back of the cabinet? The first thing to keep in mind is that any recipe you find, online or in a book, is a loose guide, not an exact science. If the recipe calls for basil, thyme, lemon rosemary, oregano, and parsley, and you don’t have all of them, there’s no reason to go rushing to the store or to pass up trying that recipe.
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There are a few primary flavors that really define each region’s food, with some crossover amongst them. The following list includes only those that are primary to the majority of each region’s dishes, and although there are certainly many more that are heavily utilized in each region, these are the most potent and distinct, making them essential to creating the regions’ dishes. Any other flavorings that might be in a recipe from that region are likely optional and are not going to be missed if they’re left out.
- Asian: Soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil
- Italian: Basil, oregano, garlic, balsamic oil, olive oil
- Latin: Cumin, cayenne, chili powder
- African: Cumin, coriander, cardamom, tamarind, turmeric
- European: Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, bay leaves, garlic
- Indian: Curry, turmeric, cardamom, coriander, chili powder, cumin
Dessert and Breakfast Globally: Cinnamon, nutmeg, poppy seeds, zest, coconut, fruit sauces, honey, maple, sugar
As you can see, some regions like Latin America rely on a few bold seasonings to accent their already flavorful food, while others like India have a vast array of seasonings because a lot of their dishes are sauce-based and used to enhance bland ingredients like rice.
Since many of these ingredients overlap, and salt is in the dishes of all regions, here’s a list of what a multiregional pantry would be stocked with, in order of what’s likely to get the most useful if you were eating equal amounts of each region’s dishes:
- Black Pepper
- Chili Powder
- Soy Sauce
- Sesame Oil
- Balsamic Oil
- Olive oil
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Bay Leaves
- Poppy Seeds
- Coconut Flakes
- Coconut Oil
- Maple Syrup
It’s important to know how to get the most flavor out of your beautifully stocked pantry. If you’ve ever followed a recipe exactly and still wound up with bland chicken or broth that tastes like water, you aren’t alone. These tips will help you to modify how you cook existing recipes to get better results.
The single most important thing you can do to flavor meats or vegetables is to marinate them. If you’re waiting until the last minute to slap the seasoning or sauce on your meats, you can’t expect those flavors to be anywhere other than on the surface. The easiest way for the forgetful cook to remember this is to separate, season, and label all your meats as soon as you bring them in from the store, that way when you pull them out of the freezer to thaw, they’ll be marinating at the same time.
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If you’re boiling pasta, be sure not to throw all the pasta water away when you strain the noodles. That starchy water is the basis for any delicious pasta sauce and can enhance many other recipes as well since it can act as a thickening agent.
Utilizing your fond is a great way to get the amazing flavor out of your dishes. After you’ve finished cooking your meats, add any onions or peppers the dish calls for, cook for a bit, and then add a liquid. Broth, wine, and oil can all be a good base for the pan sauce you make with your fond. Add only enough liquid so that after a bit of reduction from cooking you can drizzle it over your food.
If you’re using a slow cooker or crockpot, be sure to add your spices and herbs in early and then again at the end if needed. You don’t want to add spices throughout the cooking process as it lets heat escape from the pot. That being said, the spices and herbs you put in at the beginning get evenly dispersed throughout the dish, and it’s sometimes necessary to add a little more at the end.
Taking these things to the heart can help you to choose what should be in your pantry based on your taste and to understand the dishes you’re trying to create so you can stop relying on recipes and get the great flavor out of your food.