Layers of Flavors

Knowing how to layer flavors is the mark of a great chef, and this knowledge is absolutely attainable by a good home cook. Creating depth and intensity for the overall taste experience is an art and a science. And best of all, this skill can be learned!

Diners in restaurants worldwide can experience flavor after flavor emanating from a single dish. Did the diner taste a hint of brandy? A soupçon of citrus? Was there a touch of cumin or saffron?

You may ask, “Where did these layers of flavors come from?” In fact, every home cook has the full array of ingredients and skills at hand to create depth, breadth and layering of flavors, and all that is needed is to learn some basic techniques.

Adding layers Will Give Your Dish Dept

Do you love to roast meat on a grill? Pretty hard to get that smokey flavor just right on a gas grill, though. Liquid smoke (an artificial flavoring) will usually give your preparation an off-taste with a chemical tinge. But there other ways of creating layers of smoky flavors in your foods even if you don’t have a wood-burning grill or a wood-burning roasting oven. I use two tricks and find that they consistently provide a delicious layer of smoke flavors to my beef or chicken. The tricks are: mezcal poured onto the bottom of the roasting pan, and/or smoked paprika used in the spicing. That is one layer of flavor.

When cooking, do you ever feel that a preparation tastes flat, and it doesn’t bring that delightful tingling on the tongue? We will often reach for salt to make food “zing.” (Historically, the Venetians and other world traders made a fortune trading in salt because it had such a dramatic effect on improving the taste of food. It was very expensive and usually reserved for royalty.) So, there is another layer of flavor.

But you can’t keep adding salt to improve flavor. Ultimately the dish will be ruined due to objectionable saltiness! There are other ways to make a preparation zing. One trick is to use acid-based ingredients. Think lemon juice, vinegar, wine, brandy—all will add depths of flavor and create tingling sensations on the tongue. A third layer of flavor.

And if lemon juice can add to the taste and experience of fine dining, then won’t lemon zest do even more? It is, however, a different flavor, not exactly the same as the juice. In the Caribbean the cooks use limes for the same purpose. How about  orange juice and orange zest? (Think Duck a l’Orange.) All manner of citrus adds more (and varied) layers of flavors.

Often though, acidic foods, and especially too much of any of them, will turn the dish sour, and to some, objectionable. The Sicilians and the Chinese (among others) have perfected the art of adding sugar or honey to the dish to offset the sourness but still keep the interest contributed by the acid and citrus flavors. “Agrodolce” in Italian (sour and sweet). More flavor!

One should not talk about sweetness without discussing the Maillard reaction which occurs while browning foods. It really isn’t “browning” per se, it is actually caramelization of the natural sugars that occurs with the addition of heat. The caramelization adds depth of flavor to meats, to vegetables, and to so many other ingredients. What is it about caramelization that works so well? Do a little experiment. Take some of your favorite vanilla ice cream and put regular sugar on top and taste. Take a second scoop and put caramel sauce on top. Sugar in two forms. Two different tastes. Which tastes better? Here is a clear demonstration of the effect of heat on flavors.

And if heat changes sugars into something tastier, what about toasting spices? Try cooking with untoasted spices versus toasted spices. Make one dish two ways with common ingredients, the only difference being toasted versus untoasted spices. The dish cooked with toasted spices will definitely have a deeper flavor. Another enhanced flavor!

Julia Child Shows Us How to Layer Flavors in Cooking

Do you have the Julia Child cookbooks? Look up her recipe for onion soup and make it. First of all you will notice she says to make your own stock with good beef bones. The marrow and the gelatins that come from the bones increase the flavors of the stock and also create a more viscous texture. Before putting the bones into water to boil them to make stock she browns them (again, the Maillard reaction). By the way, if you do start your stocks with canned stocks or boxed stocks, it does give you a jump-start on flavor-building, but don’t omit the caramelization of the meats or adding lots of vegetables. Use a plethora of vegetables. Save all of your vegetable trimmings and put them into your stockpot. Then simmer for a long time, reduce the liquid by a third to intensify flavors while extracting all the flavors from the meat bones and vegetables. Taste your homemade intense stock against a canned or boxed variety that has not been enhanced. Depth of flavors will emerge from the homemade. So wouldn’t you think this deeply flavored stock will make a more deeply flavored soup, risotto or sauce?

Only then does Julia start to cook her soup and it is back to basics: caramelization, again. She starts out with a huge amount of onions, at least five or six large onions to make soup for six people. The onions are slowly sautéed, caramelizing the sugars, bringing out the flavors. This is a long process. She stirs and cooks the onions for an hour or two, being careful however, not to burn them. Only then does she combine the onions and the stock and finally add the croutons, cheese and other goodies to finish her famous onion soup. But she first spent hours creating the layers of flavors.

What about spices? Need more flavors, more layers, more depth? Ever tried adding cumin to your dishes? The southern French and northern Arabs are very adept at using this spice. Saffron? A real trick in stews is to add a little cinnamon. You won’t taste it in the finished dish but you miss it once you get used to the depth it adds. Soy sauce? Worchester Sauce? Try a couple of anchovies into a stew. Olive juice. Pickle juice. Fresh or powdered or diced ginger or garlic. Or add “heat” such as red pepper flakes or diced chilies. All these things add additional layers and depth of flavor.

Every ingredient in your pantry can be used as a flavor enhancer in some dish, but not necessarily all dishes. You do not want all your food to taste the same. So if, for example, I am braising fennel in butter, I will add Pernod (Pastis, Ricard) to the butter at the end to make a sauce, or just add it to the dish while cooking. The steam from the anise flavored liquor will add depth of flavors to the fennel. When half-through cooking the fennel, place some halibut or sea bass on top of it and steam everything togeter. Pour the pastis over the fish as a finishing sauce

To become a great chef learn how to use sugars, salts, spices, capiscums (peppers), acids, caramelization, fats, your liquor cabinet, and … etc. etc.! Create complimentary or contrasting flavors. Add layers. Add depth. And enjoy the journey.

Contributor: Ron Fenolio, CEO Veedercrest Estates and Chair – Family Winemakers of California | © 2022 Ronald L. Fenolio

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