Half of cooking is based on technique and following directions, while the other half involves taste testing, and developing a discernment for holistic flavors and textures. In How to Taste, chef and author Becky Selengut takes a look at the foundations of a dish (salt, acid, sweet, fat, bitter, aromatics, and umami) and explores how those elements work together to create a well-balanced meal. It’s not just about having a good balance of fish, meat, vegetables, dairy, and carbs in your diet, but how rudimentary ingredients interact with one another to bring out pure flavor and freshness. From making minor tweaks to bringing in new components, your home-cooked meals will find the spark they’ve been missing.
We lean on aromatics when we’re looking for bursts of pungency in our lackluster leafy salads and standard oven roasts. But there’s more to it than simply sprinkling rosemary over a roasted chicken, or a matter of chopping some parsley for garnish and calling it a day. From understanding their undertones to buying the right kinds, utilizing aromatics to their fullest is a crucial prerequisite to upgrade your cooking habits. With some advice from How to Taste, you’ll navigate spice racks with ease and season like a pro.
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Understand How to Categorize Flavors
Becky likens the flavor of spices to their tone: low tones being warm and earthy like cinnamon and turmeric, high tones bringing in brightness and acidity through basil and lemongrass, whereas mid tones are a bit of both, similar to the neutrality of fennel and rosemary. Think of how a boost of fresh basil works in tandem with a sweet, ripened tomato, leaving a lingering of acidity cut with an herbaceous brightness. Or how braised beef is deepened with cinnamon, releasing its woodsy aroma over time as it infiltrates the meat. While there are no steadfast rules in combinations and categories, the best way to grasp this concept is to keep experimenting in the kitchen.
Fresh Herbs vs. Dry Herbs: What’s the Deal?
Any chef will tell you fresh herbs are superior to dried herbs. Picking dill from your garden to sprinkle over a luscious baked salmon sounds infinitely better than using its less vibrant dried counterpart. But for home cooks, it’s often easier to reach for the dependable jar of dried herbs than constantly buying herbs that end up going to waste.
Find a happy medium, and figure out which herbs cannot be compromised. Don’t skimp on essential fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and cilantro that are best used in their natural leafy state. And if you don’t foresee yourself using that entire bunch by the end of the week, freezing herbs in oil does the trick and preserves the flavor pretty well. But when it comes to buying dry herbs such as bay leaves, oregano, thyme, or rosemary, you’re not losing out on too much by keeping them in your cabinet. They have the ability to hold up in their dried form better than basil or parsley since they grow in more arid climates.
When it comes to adding fresh or dry herbs in a recipe, there are some general differences between the two. Add fresh herbs towards the end of the cooking process to avoid dulling the aromatics, whereas dried herbs should be added at the beginning so the flavors and textures have ample time to meld together properly. And If you’re substituting fresh herbs for dried in a recipe, or vice versa, be sure to remember the 3:1 ratio: 3 parts fresh herbs equals 1 part dried herbs.
Treat Your Spices Right
Be picky about where you purchase your spices to ensure they’re as fresh as possible. While clearance sales on more expensive items like saffron or cardamom at the supermarket seem tempting, be wary that they may have lost their aroma over time. Those deals are often too good to be true—no matter what, dull, old spices will fall flat in your dishes. Always make sure they smell fresh, and start seeking out spice dealers and shops to get your money’s worth.
Substituting for What You Don’t Have Isn’t a Bad Thing
Some recipes call for hard-to-find spices and regional herbs you can only find on Amazon or that one specialty market across town. Instead, you can imitate flavor profiles with preexisting pantry items, forcing you to really get to know your aromatics and understand their nuances. For instance, Becky suggests a combination of mint, Thai basil, and cilantro to mimic shiso leaf, or paprika and chipotle chile powder if you’re out of smoked paprika.
To learn more about why and how various components of a dish are used to create balance, harmony, and deliciousness, check out Becky Selengut’s How to Taste.
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