Ever wonder what takes an average tasting dish and transforms it to something mythical and unforgettable? It can be summed up in three words: layers of flavor.
So why concern ourselves with flavor? Maybe because a perfectly balanced dish is complex and delights the palate, leaving a lasting impression. It also means repeat customers for your establishment and nothing is more important than that.
Exactly, then, how do we go about it? With all the cooking techniques and different ingredients, there are infinite outcomes, and that can seem confusing and intimidating. Far from complicated, the layering of flavors can be broken down to ingredients and techniques with a focus on timing. In addition, one of the most important pieces of the flavor puzzle is the proper use of oil-soluble and water-soluble flavors.
First let’s talk about ingredients themselves and their role in flavor development:
Vegetable aromatics play a key role in the development of flavors. Many dishes start with the addition of these ingredients in the form of mire poix, sofrito, and the holy trinity, or other cuisine specific combination. Ingredients in this category include onion, leek, scallions, shallots, celery, carrots, fennel bulb, and sweet peppers. In addition to the types of aromatics used, their preparation is a crucial first step in the cooking process. While sliced onions that were slowly sautéed until they melt are appropriate for French onion soup, they would not be for chicken stock, as they would cause the stock to cloud. And fresh garlic sautéed in oil is much more appropriate flavor for a bright fresh tomato sauce than a roasted garlic puree. Caramelization of sugars results in caramel and burnt nutty flavors, as sugars breakdown at heats upwards of 338F. These as well contribute greatly to a dish, and nothing is tastier in my mind than well-caramelized onions.
Another important flavor layer is herbs and spices. Spices and dried herbs are typically added early in the cooking process. In Indian cuisine, a common practice is toasting of spices prior to adding vegetable aromatics. This dry roasting of the spices imparts a much more complex flavor profile when compared to the spices right out of the jar. The same goes for chiles in Mexican cuisine, where traditional chile recipes require toasting of the chiles on the comal. And while dried herbs are okay to add earlier in the cooking process due to the concentrated oil content, fresh herbs such as basil should only be added right before service due to their delicate nature. Basil, in particular, loses its effectiveness if added too early in the cooking process.
Flavor enhancers are what bring out the umami in your dish. They increase the savory and meaty profile of a dish and are found throughout many cuisines. Think kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, and shrimp paste in Thailand; or the use of tomato paste, mushrooms, and anchovies in Italy. Citrus, mustard and garlic are prevalent in French cuisine. These enhancers also serve as a base note in many dishes and are crucial to a complex flavor profile. According to some industry insiders, fish sauce is becoming one of the most popular flavor enhancers, as it pairs well with seafood and with beef. Just a few drops of a good quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat, in your dish will yield maximum results.
The use of liquids is also important in many cuisines. This could be a sauce, wine, vinegar, fruit juice or water.
French cuisine, in particular, relies heavily on a sauce as a complement to a dish. Sauces typically start from the caramelized ‘fond’ in the bottom of the pan (the result of caramelization of meat and vegetable aromatics) to which an amount of wine/sherry/vinegar is added, then reduced further. This step develops the complex flavor of the sauce. At this point, tomato sauce, stock, veloute, demi-glace, or béchamel is added to increase flavor and volume of the sauce. Many times the sauce is mounted with butter off the heat to prevent curdling. This step adds a silky texture and mouth feel to the sauce that is otherwise hard to produce.
In Asian cuisines sauces are also prevalent but tend to be lighter in flavor and consistency, sometimes thickened with cornstarch or other thickening agent. Sauces in China often start from a base (master) sauce such as a white, brown or lu shoi. Lu Shoi (or ju shon or lushui zhi) is interesting as the sauce is reused. The beef or other protein is cooked in the sauce. The sauce is then strained and refrigerated. It is continually used with a refresh of liquid, herbs and spices. This sauce can be reused, and there are reports in China that it has been used for 100s of years and passed down through generations, much like the infamous San Francisco sourdough starter!
Now that we have looked at the key ingredients that can contribute to the flavors in a dish, let’s look at some preparation techniques done prior to cooking that result in maximum impact:
Brining: one of the best ways to add flavor is through brining of proteins. Salt serves to denature proteins, resulting in weakened protein links. When the protein is cooked, the protein threads are no longer able to contract, resulting in more tender meat. In addition, the uptake of saline water allows for moister meat. Proteins can lose upwards of 20% moisture during cooking. The use of brine can increase moisture by 10%, which reduces the moisture lost in the protein to only 10% by weight, resulting in juicier meat.
Marinating: the marinating of meat can also impart flavor while improving texture. The addition of acid to a marinade results in the softening of connective tissue in proteins. Marinades are more suitable for thin cuts of meat however, since the reaction occurs on the surface of the meat. The penetration capability of the marinade can be improved by increasing the salinity or by injection with a syringe.
Dry Rubs: dry rubs work more directly on the surface of meat. Since most flavors are only soluble in fat, this limits flavor uptake in proteins with high water concentration. Most of the flavors from a rub impact the crust of the meat and not the flavor of the interior. Interestingly, the most successful smoked dishes start well before the wood ever smolders. The formation of the pellicle, or thin skin during salting or rubbing of meats prior to smoking, allows a place for the smoke to stick.
While methods for layering flavor prior to cooking are rather straight forward, flavors imparted during the cooking phase are more complex. Some of these techniques take time to develop.
For example, a braising technique may take 4-6 hours. Braising tends to impart some of the most complex flavors due to the nature of the technique. With Osso Bucco for example, the pancetta is rendered, then the meat is floured and browned. The vegetables get caramelized, herbs and spices are added, and then the wine and stock are poured over the meat. Once the meat is done, the stock is reduced, seasoned and mounted with butter. All of these steps are a glowing example of how layering of flavor works.
Or how about smoking? It can take up to 12 hours to impart the proper smoke profile to a brisket. The best BBQ is rubbed or marinated prior to smoking, and then depending on the cut of meat, a direct or indirect method of smoking is used. For even more flavor, the BBQ can be mopped with sauce during and after smoking for maximum flavor. That’s a whole lot of layers! Ever wonder where that pink ring on good BBQ comes from? While that smoke ring can be faked by adding a layer of Morton’s Tender Quick to your brisket, a true BBQ ring is a chemical reaction between nitrogen compounds from the wood and the hemoglobin in the meat. Wetting the wood during smoking can increase this ring. While the ring is one sign of properly cooked BBQ, it was removed as factor in BBQ competitions as it could so easily be faked.
The Maillard Reaction: non-enzymatic browning of proteins are key processes in flavor development. Each combination of sugar and protein produces a characteristic flavor when exposed to heat levels above 310F. Different meats each have distinct flavor notes produced during the Maillard reaction that are typical to the type of protein. No one can confuse poached chicken with oven-roasted chicken for this very reason. Dryness and temperature are the key factors in how quickly the Maillard reaction occurs. Chefs that understand this make informed choices as to how to prepare their proteins.
For the development chef, understanding each and every one of these factors is crucial to creating memorable dishes that bring customers back again and again.