You’ve got some basic cooking skills and you know the difference between sealing and sautéing a piece of meat but what’s the key to making food that tastes amazing? Taste is, of course, subjective but if I did a cook off with my mum over who cooks the best steak the results will still be different. Why? Details such as amount of seasoning, how its cooked, judging when it’s done and length of resting period all play a part in the final taste. Food is expensive enough these days to not do justice to it, so I’d like to share some tips for your everyday cooking that will help maximise flavour and get the best out your ingredients.
Use quality ingredients
This is the most important point of all. You really do have to start with the best ingredients you can afford. Quality ingredients are the bedrock of good cooking and the dishes you cook will only be as inferior, or superior, as the ingredients you put in. Buy seasonal and British wherever possible as the food will invariably taste better and you’ll be supporting local farmers and suppliers too. If that means only being able to eat meat once or twice per week and cooking delicious vegetarian meals or fish in between, then so be it.
Yes, the ingredients need to sing for themselves but salt enhances the natural flavour. Chips without salt? No thanks. Test your seasoning skills by cooking some plain scrambled eggs and then cook again with some salt and pepper – start with small amounts and then build up. If you can taste the salt then you’ve gone too far.
Another tip is to season all your food from start to finish. So, when you sweat onions for a soup, add a pinch of salt, then taste again at the end and adjust accordingly. With a piece of fish or meat, though, season all over evenly at the beginning before you cook. Nobody wants sky-high blood pressure but by cooking your own meals from scratch and avoiding salt-laden ready meals and other processed foods you have complete control over your intake.
Start with a good base
Many stews, soups and sauces start with a versatile base of vegetables such as onion, celery and carrot, with spices, garlic, and aromatic herbs. They provide a flavour foundation and are important part in creating the dish’s character. It’s essential not to rush this part of the cooking process, as it will help achieve a deeper and richer flavour. Don’t add any liquid until you’ve got the most out of your base. It’s hard to believe but you can create a bland curry, even though you’ve put in lots of spices, if you don’t get this stage right. Whatever the base and method the golden rule is Take. Your. Time.
Get to know what flavours work well with others. It’s fun to experiment but there’s no harm in using partnerships and fusions that are classics for a good reason: tomato and basil, chicken and tarragon, smoked fish and horseradish, pork and apple, chocolate and chilli. When cooking becomes more intuitive, gradually experiment and add extra layers of flavour. That’s not to say don’t trust your instincts – you might not have extensive cooking experience but you certainly have eaten lots of food so your knowledge is greater than you think.
To have a BBQ without marinating the meat would be unthinkable! Herb and spice infused marinades, usually with some seasoning and an acid such as lemon juice or wine, are useful for tenderising tougher cuts of meat as well as infusing flavour. A good marinade will help elevate everyday staples such as chicken breasts, pork chops or salmon into something far more interesting. Marinade game overnight in red wine, herbs and spices; rub Moroccan spices, lemon and garlic into lamb; add generous amounts of torn basil with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and seasoning to make tomatoes taste incredible. The list is endless and there are loads of inspiring recipes around. Have you tried my sumac lamb?
It’s all in the crust
When you’re browning meat, blot the surface dry with a paper towel so the meat doesn’t release moisture when it hits the hot oil. Too much moisture makes the meat steam instead of sear, and you will lose that rich brown crust which gives flavour. Season the meat or fish evenly with salt and pepper just before cooking and always ensure your oil is hot enough before adding it to the pan. Be patient and refrain from moving it around – you’ve got to allow it time to get golden and caramelise before turning or otherwise, again, that tasty crust won’t develop. You’ll know it’s ready when you can slide your spatula underneath cleanly. Don’t overcrowd the pan so there is enough space around your ingredients to allow the steam to escape.
The five flavours of food: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy won’t usually be present together at every meal, but when combined it makes for an explosive taste sensation that has your tastebuds tingling with happiness. But how do you get the perfect balance of flavours?
You can add a bit more salt if bland but let’s not forget salt is found in ingredients such as cheese, fish sauce, soy sauce, anchovies, olives and bacon so add a minimal amount or none at all. Sweetness in food balances out the salt in a dish, and vice versa – that’s why you’ll see a pinch of salt in very sweet cakes or desserts. Salted caramel: yes please! There are lots of varieties of sugar available but maple syrup, fruit, vegetables (think how sweet fresh peas are), or even wine can be used. Sugars in savoury dishes can come from the caramelisation of onions or from the natural sugars found in meat. Then balance the sweet and salty with a bit of sour: citrus fruit, tomatoes and vinegars, for example. Master the harmonious marriage of this triangle of flavours and your food will ping on your palette. There are bitter and spicy elements to sometimes add to the mix – but whatever the combination, just remember to sip, savour, evaluate and correct every step of the way and that no one taste should be over dominant.
Heavy on the herbs
I can’t imagine cooking without fresh herbs – they are so versatile and really bring dishes alive with their colour, fragrance and aroma. They add another exciting dimension to cooking and are an essential component of flavoursome food. A zesty tabbouleh packed with parsley and mint, a fragrant Thai lemongrass paste smothered over BBQ’d mackerel or a vibrant punchy basil pesto on a bowl of melt-in-the-mouth tagliatelle all spring to mind. Dried herbs have their place too and can be very potent and concentrated in flavour but just ensure they’re not too old.
Spice it up
I was lucky enough to work on Stevie Parle and Emma Grazette’s Spice Trip book and it really opened my eyes to the exotic world of spices and the possibilities in everyday cooking. The book is brimming over with inspiring and accessible recipes that are exciting and full of flavour. Just think of the difference between a plain roast chicken compared to one that’s been smothered in a chermoula paste full of spices and zingy herbs – incredible. Buy your spices whole and create blends as you need them so you’re not using some stale lack-lustre powder that’s been sitting on your spice rack for years. Make them an integral part of your cooking and your tastebuds will thank you for it.
Fat is good!
First salt and now fat! I generally eat healthy but there’s no getting away from it – fat equals flavour. It’s unfortunate but reduced or low fat don’t taste as good as full fat products. It is particularly paramount when it comes to cuts of meat and the fattier and tougher cuts such as pork belly, oxtail or lamb shoulder is where heaven awaits on a plate. Fat seared and crisped up on a high heat will become a joy to eat, sauces enriched with a knob of butter or a dash of cream will be more sumptuous; an oozing risotto lifted with a generous grating of tangy Parmesan. Need I go on? Just eat a balanced diet, take some exercise and it shouldn’t be a problem!