How to: spice dishes, blend flavors
July 11, 2016 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to learn how to cook more sophisticated things. Can you recommend books or techniques for 1) spicing dishes well, and 2) blending flavors effectively? It seems this often involves a non-obvious step or ingredient that I'm not aware of.

An as example, recently I've been making fried eggs with onions and kale. One time I made it with just those ingredients plus salt, and it came out pretty good but not something I'd be excited to eat again. Another time I added cumin and some minced garlic at the end, and it came out absolutely phenomenal. (Both times I used extra virgin olive oil.) Crucially, the dish didn't taste garlicky or cuminy, it just tasted... more like itself, with deeper flavors. Similarly, I've heard that adding instant espresso or ground coffee to brownie recipes doesn't make them taste like coffee, but it does make the chocolate flavor more intense.

How do I figure out which spices/ingredients will take a dish from just okay to phenomenal like this? Not extra flavors, but deepening the existing flavors.

Along similar lines, one time I tried to make mango chicken like I'd eaten at a Malaysian restaurant. I stir-fried some chicken breast, red and green bell peppers, and mango together in a pan. It tasted... bland and awful. None of the flavors blended at all, the chicken was kind of flavorless, and the mango didn't seem to belong with any of it. Yet in the restaurant, the flavors blended together amazingly well.

How do I blend different flavors together to make a cohesive dish?

Beginner-level cookbook recommendations are okay, but ideally I'd like some guiding principles to follow, and perhaps a progression from simple dishes to complex ones, rather than just a random-seeming smattering of recipes.
posted by danceswithlight to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This book would be a good starting point for experiments. I own it and it's a pleasure to flip through. The Flavor Thesaurus.
posted by beyond_pink at 12:30 PM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Elements of Taste is perfect for this.
posted by erst at 12:55 PM on July 11, 2016

We have "the flavor bible" and "herbs and spices", both from the spice house in Chicago. I am terrible at blending spices, so I tend to just go to the spice house and buy pre-made mixes. It works.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 12:55 PM on July 11, 2016

Don't know if you like Indian food at all, but if you do, you might try 50 Great Curries of India. I recommend it because the book has an extensive, interesting intro section at the front about spices and other ingredients and their role in Indian cuisine. If there's any cuisine in particular which can help you understand how to draw different flavors out of spices, the different impacts they can have on the final dish depending on how they're prepared and when they're added, it's Indian cuisine. (Well, cuisines, really, it's a whole continent after all, but subtle use of spices is a pretty widespread feature throughout.)
posted by Diablevert at 1:16 PM on July 11, 2016

My secret flavor combo for basically anything that's savory is to dissolve 1/2tsp Miso, 1/2tsp Anchovy paste, and 1/2tsp Better than Bullion in a couple ounces of hot water, and then dump it into whatever you're cooking. You won't taste the individual flavors, the dish's flavor will just feel deeper and more savory.

Think about whatever you're adding to your food and consider if it adds flavor. For example, olive oil tastes pretty good in cold stuff like salad dressing because you can taste that it's olive oil, but when you heat olive oil it loses most of it's flavor. So cooking eggs in olive oil doesn't help the eggs much. Try cooking your eggs' flavor; next time you cook eggs add 1/2 tsp of sesame oil and a pat of butter. You'll be able to taste both of those in the resulting eggs, but it will help bring out the natural eggyness of the eggs.

One thing that will help a recipe meld together is proper use of sauteed onions. Onions will kind of melt in the pan and coat everything helping to hold spices on the different pieces of food, additionally, onions add a lot of flavor. I just looked up a recipe for Mango Chicken and the instructions said "cook and stir the onion over medium heat until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes" Cooking onions 5 minutes does nothing to onions except softens them; it generates no flavor. Next time you try Mango Chicken put a few tablespoons of oil in the pan and cook the onions on medium low for 30-40 minutes; cook until they get golden to dark brown.

As you learn how to combine spices and flavors in your cooking, taste the food all the time through the process. It's hard to know what's working if you're not tasting.
posted by gregr at 1:21 PM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some cookbooks and other resources can be helpful by letting you know which flavor accords seem to go well with which foods (like in this example). Sometimes these accords are more forceful than what you're looking for, but you have to experiment with proportions to suit your own palate. My partner is so sensitive to the taste of ginger, for instance, that he can taste it as the stand out flavor in a dish where I've used so little that I can't even detect it.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:57 PM on July 11, 2016

Seconding The Flavor Bible, but you might also get some use out of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. And gregr knows his onions -- proper caramelization actually takes ages. I read somewhere (probably right here in AskMe, as part of general ingredient advance prep advice? yup -- see maudlin's original comment) to prepare pounds of onions in a slow cooker and have them waiting in the fridge/stored in the freezer for recipe use.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:22 PM on July 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Your question is a bit conflated here. Deepening existing flavors is not likely to be achieved by adding more flavors (though there are a very few situations where this does happen, like coffee and vanilla for chocolate, lemon for most fruit, and salt for everything.) More likely the effect you want is going to be a function of technique. That mango chicken you ate in the restaurant is unlikely to have been a simple stir fry with some stuff sprinkled in - more likely there was a multi-step technique including a marinade for the meat, seasonings bloomed in hot fat at the beginning of the cooking and more added at the end, and some sort of sauce, even if it didn't seem like a saucy dish. And fat - restaurant food tastes better because they add a LOT more fat than typical home cooking, because it carries soluble flavor compounds and creates better mouthfeel.

You're better off experimenting with cookbooks that focus on technique for beginners, like Alton Brown.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:30 PM on July 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Ruhlman's Twenty, by the same author as Ratio (mentioned earlier) runs through some basic, essential cooking techniques. One section is devoted to all the different ways to cook onions, and the resulting variations in flavor. Another chapter covers salt. Several chapters describe different ways of using heat (grill, fry, sauté) that have an effect on flavor and texture.

My partner and I have a few go-to flavors for fixing dishes that aren't quite right:
- tamarind paste (sweet/sour)
- asafoetida powder (tiny pinch, adds depth)
- sumac powder (acidic like lemon, but doesn't add water)
posted by sibilatorix at 5:12 PM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few things:

MSG. Terrible reputation, but it works.

Heat matters, e.g. woks and pizza ovens.

Also, if you're not already doing this, taste your food as much as possible! Recipes need to be adjusted for variation in ingredients. If you're making tomato sauce and your tomatoes are too acidic, e.g. saute some sugar in oil and add that to the sauce, or round it out with cream.
posted by batter_my_heart at 3:26 AM on July 12, 2016

MSG. Terrible reputation, but it works.

My secret flavor combo for basically anything that's savory is to dissolve 1/2tsp Miso, 1/2tsp Anchovy paste, and 1/2tsp Better than Bullion in a couple ounces of hot water, and then dump it into whatever you're cooking. You won't taste the individual flavors, the dish's flavor will just feel deeper and more savory.

What all these things have in common is the taste of umami. You will find that a lot of dishes taste better when they have an ingredient that is umami-rich. Specifically, ingredients that have glutamate, like miso, sea-kelp (bonito flakes/ dashi stock), anchovies, kimchi, shrimp sauce, fish sauce, Parmesan, MSG (artificially extracted but perfectly safe). My cooking usually has one umami-rich ingredient in it. My pantry is stocked with at least 6 cans of anchovies at all times.

For pasta sauces, I add anchovies and parmesan.

For soups, I add a dollop of miso paste or dashi.

For stir-fries, it would depend, but usually oyster sauce does wonders! Sometimes shrimp or fermented bean paste.

As for your dish, chicken breast is pretty bland type of meat. I understand that it may be common to use chicken breast in White middle class American roast dinners, but no respectable Asian cook will use them. It also sounds like you didn't add any flavoring to your stir fry. Basic flavoring for most stir fry dishes- sesame oil, garlic, dash of sugar, onion, ginger, soy sauce, and oyster sauce for the umami-kick.

(P.s. I have never had a mango chicken, and I'm Malaysian, but there you go)
posted by moiraine at 5:21 AM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

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