HOW TO layer flavour in ANY dish

I believe cooking on a day to day basis and breaking free of recipes requires some sort of a system. 

There are base recipes such as making pasta, cooking grains, making risotto, a pie etc… And then, on top of that, there are the flavor profiles you will choose to imprint on your recipe, based on the season, what you have at hand or simply what you feel like. This step can take more or less time depending on the technique you choose, here is a little repertoire of magic ingredients or combinations you can use to add that zing to whatever you may be cooking. 

The steps

More often than not, when food tastes bland or slightly uninteresting one of those things is missing. 

Step 1 : salt

There are different ways of adding salt, different moments too. The first thing to do is never forget to pre-salt. That means properly salting water with coarse salt if boiling whether it be pasta or vegetables or anything else, sprinkling salt before roasting etc.. 

You could also choose to add fine sea salt while cooking, for example if you are sautéing add the salt as early as you can, it will help destroy the fibers and break the food down faster, it will also penetrate much better. An easy way to start any pan dish is the garlic + onion combo, with a bit of salt and oil or butter : it can kickstart any risotto, sauce, wok… 

Finally, there is that last sprinkling of salt, best done with fleur de sel or triangular salt to add a crunch, that should be done right before serving so the salt does not melt down : it is most appropriate on top of salads, roasted pieces of meat, fish or vegetables or a good toast.

Now, if your dish needs saltiness, you could also add it in other shapes such as anchovies, capers, salt preserved lemons, feta cheese or a grating of parmiggiano, soy sauce, miso… 

One last thing : don’t underestimate the power of salt in sweet food, fleur de sel works wonder in any chocolatey cake or cookie, salted butter caramel is a classic, but salt in your porridge is the key to taking it to the next level. 

 Salted butter caramel

Salted butter caramel

If you think the salt content is fine, move to step 2.

Step 2 : acidity

This is one we often forget, but acidity adds that little tang that, in the right proportion, makes a dish satisfying with every bite. 

Acidity can come in many forms : it could mean souring your grains the day before (soaking them in water with a bit of vinegar), using vinegar straight up, a drizzle of lemon juice, some white or red wine, any food preserved in brine (feta cheese, pickles..), a fermented food such as sauerkraut or kimchi or a simple dollop of crème fraîche next to your dessert.

 

 Wine poached prunes with crème fraiche

Wine poached prunes with crème fraiche

Step 3 : herbs, spices etc.. 

At this point, if you’re still feeling a bit unsatisfied, a major fast flavor booster comes in the form of spices and herbs. There are the regulars you might be used to, things like cinnamon, parsley, thyme, pepper, coriander, paprika, curry… 

But, going out of your comfort zone can be the doorway to a lot of new flavors : try buying rosemary instead of thyme, using rocket rather than basil in your pesto, sprinkling dill instead of parsley on your grain salad. 

In the same way use more ginger, lemongrass, nutmeg, fennel seeds, pink peppercorn, nigella seeds…get that spice you don’t know the name of or have never tasted and let yourself be surprised.  

But if all else fails : garlic and parsley won’t let you down though. 

 Confit garlic with rosemary

Confit garlic with rosemary

You could also think of sweetness here, adding some chopped dates, scattering some raisins, 

Last tip on the subject : while spices are better used in the early stages of cooking, dry toasting them first to bring them to life before infusing them or sprinkling, I usually prefer herbs added fresh at the end of the cooking process so they retain all their bright flavor. They could also be mixed with oil, infused, or turned into a pesto for drizzling. 

Step 4 :  texture

This one is often undermined. Once you have achieved balance in flavor with the right amount of salt/sweet, acid/rich, fresh/cooked, think of how it will feel in the mouth, a bit of crunch is often the perfect finishing touch. For me, it often comes in the form of toasted nuts or seeds (sesame, hazelnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds…), but it could also be toasted breadcrumbs, something fried or dehydrated, popped grains (corn but also rice or quinoa), a savory granola, or raw chopped vegetables or fruits (cucumber, celery, carrot, turnip, apple…). 

 Kale salad with garlic croutons

Kale salad with garlic croutons

Bonus : Smoking

It has gone increasingly popular on the menus these past few years as a way to add depth of flavor, but smoking whether it be in savory or sweet foods is a very old tradition (think of smoked fish, a classic). It has the power to make everything just slightly more interesting.

You could smoke cream for a dessert, a whole head of cauliflower, meat of course, bread, a cheese before you bake it, potatoes before you purée… 

If you do not own a smoker or live in a tiny apartment where it is out of the question, things like smoked salt, smoked paprika or liquid smoke can come to your rescue. 

Magic Ingredients to save any dish :

  • Lemons for drizzling
  • Fleur de sel
  • Capers
  • Feta cheese
  • Parmiggiano
  • Chopped toasted nuts and seeds
  • Nut butters (mainly hazelnut, tahini, almond) 
  • Herbs
  • Brown butter
  • White miso
  • Soy sauce (tamari)
  • Mustard

For example, if you are trying to build a side or a salad out of a roasted pumpkin, you could add some feta, capers, a savory granola, and maybe some dill and TADA

 Squash, feta, dill, raisins, sesame on toast

Squash, feta, dill, raisins, sesame on toast

If you were looking to take a simple mushroom risotto to the next level, you could use smoked salt, infuse your broth with rosemary, chop some hazelnuts and add a drizzle of brown butter on top before serving.

On a dessert, you could take your favorite chocolate cake recipe, add a dollop of crème fraîche for acidity, a spoon of miso in the batter for saltiness and depth of flavor, and a few chopped nuts and herbs or a spice like pink peppercorn. 

This method of layering is useful for pasta and grain dishes, salads, soups, sandwiches, pies, cakes…