Home cooks are always seeking the exciting. But complicating the cooking process in search of a flavour boost appears formidable to most. The truth is that we’re intimidated by lengthy or complex recipes, and even those whiz-bang television personalities who promise it’s simple. The result of our efforts never quite turn out as we hope. Yes, the conventional term is “kitchen secrets,” and too often they turn out to be difficult to master. But there are a few key techniques that are absolutely ingenuous and can be used in most of what you prepare, with the result that brings a smile to your face, satisfaction in what you’ve accomplished, consistently flavourful and aromatic dishes.
Restaurant Kitchens; Lots of special equipment produce tastier food
This is a common misconception. Besides a professional stove that produces more heat to sear food, Scott Geiring from La Carambola, the outstanding fusion restaurant in Hudson’s foodie haven, says there are very few exceptions. Tastier food can be duplicated in the home kitchen by following a few simple guidelines. Freshness matters! The home cook too often grabs what’s available, especially at the “fresh” vegetable counter. “Freshness is A1,” says Scott. Buy first-quality ingredients. Mediocre dishes come from mediocre ingredients. (Sounds like the wine world!)
Adding small steps for wonderful salads
When mixing first press olive oil and balsamic vinegar for salad dressing, take less than one minute to reduce the balsamic on the stove, and then mix. The effect is to intensify the balsamic, thus the dressing, and give it a brighter, mouth-watering taste. Small steps, satisfying results.
a pasta secret shared
When serving pasta, drizzle a few drops of truffle-infused olive oil. You can buy 1 or 2 oz bottles and they’ll last quite awhile. This, in turn, adds a new taste element to the dish. A wondrous result from one small, affordable, extra ingredient.
There is nothing cloak-and-dagger about the best time to season food. Without doubt, it is shortly before serving, and indeed best at serving temperature. Yes, there is a contrary argument that adding spices, seasonings and salt during the cooking process infuses them into the food. This is true, but the herbs and spices added during the process are modified by the heat and lose their freshness. Ask any of your favourite chefs or outstanding home cooks, and they will confirm it makes sense, always, to taste at the end of the cooking cycle. That is the time to decide how much to adjust your seasonings: don’t salt too early in the cooking process. Do it when the aroma is complete if you want to bring out the optimum flavour. In particular, the flavour balance of fruit changes with temperature, especially with seasoning. And it’s logical that foods taste different if served very hot, warm, or at room temperature. For extra finesse, check your supermarket or look online for a range of finishing salts. Celery salt, Himalayan, Hawaiian, black lava, or red sea salt, sold in tiny (affordable) racks from various online suppliers. Each imparts a different mouth pleasing finish to any dish. The most popular and readily available is Fleur de Sel, which has a wonderfully crystalline texture. Since salt is not a spice (it’s a mineral), it doesn’t lose its flavour over time, so controlled use at the moment of serving is by far the most effective way to incorporate this ubiquitous kitchen friend into your dishes.
salt: friend or foe?
Almost everyone is sensitive to too much salt. But why and how does salt enhance flavour? Should it be used at all? You cannot taste the salt itself. Salt actually changes the chemistry of food, and its effect on the food’s molecules increases aroma and enhances flavour so that we can perceive it better. In fact, in recent years, we have learned that salt also has an effect on brain function and tells us there is a more pronounced taste. That is why it is important not to add salt too early in the cooking process, because the amplified aroma will be released into the kitchen, and not into the mouth. It certainly makes the kitchen smell nice, but the objective is maximum flavour on the palate.
acidity: an underrated quality
Another simple kitchen aid used by virtually all chefs is lemon juice or vinegar. The effect is to make flavours brighter. Acidity is underrated, and for appropriate foods, at the end of the cooking cycle when you always taste to see what may be added to enhance the flavour, adding some lemon juice or a bit of vinegar often makes the food more mouth-watering. Frankly, it increases the saliva flow, and does more so than extra sugar. Acid effects both the taste and smell of food, and the combined effect makes food more vivid.
the greatest kitchen trick
It is to understand the simple idea of how heat affects the flavour and texture of what we eat. The basic principle is that most meat and fish have an optimum interior temperature for doneness, flavour and safety. This is usually around 150˚F. So, many professionals start by using very high heat to brown the food and give a pleasing texture and taste to its exterior, and then instead of reducing the oven temperture – not to 350°F, which would complete the cooking cycle as quickly as possible, but would be difficult to control – but to around 200°F, which slow cooks food so that it is easier to regulate the optimum final interior temperature. It is just a practical and logical approach; slow cooking gives much greater control.
the microwave oven, a controversial appliance
And what about the microwave oven? Does it have value for the professional chef (or your kitchen) for anything other than heating plates? The answer is a resounding yes. It is a useful, if limited, appliance. It is not a surprise that some people perceive taste less intensely than others, especially when cooking fresh vegetables. We can all sense the delightful slightly crunchy texture on the palate. How can this be enhanced using a microwave? The logic is simple: when vegetables are boiled or steamed, it is not only hard to stop the process while the vegetables are still crunchy and brightly-coloured, but also, much of the flavour and certainly most of the vitamins leach into the boiling water or through the steam. Careful use of the microwave, checking the process a few times, gives a great result. Placed in a ceramic dish with just a tablespoon of water, vegetables not only keep their colour, they give optimum taste and texture – and importantly, retain their vitamin content. And by the way, it’s a great trick for thin fish fillets, cooked for about a minute as well. It is also wonderful and impressive to guests when an Italian theme is the order of the meal. Polenta is one of those traditional recipes that require standing seemingly forever at the stove and very slowly drizzling grains into the water until they reach the optimum texture. To the rescue comes the microwave, where you add both the polenta grains and the appropriate volume of water to a dish, turn the cook level up to high, and watch the polenta grains swell until they’re perfect. Quick, easy and effective. And for the health conscious cook, it’s useful to know that microwaves kill the enzymes that degrade the nutritional value of vegetables.
And looking at the flavour of food from a scientific viewpoint just for a moment, many wonder why the flavour of food changes so much when it is cooked. It is because heat is a form of energy, and the aroma compounds are very sensitive to heat and air.
Baking powder versus baking soda
Some of us are confused by how to use baking powder and baking soda. Are they interchangeable? The simple answer is no, and the reason is clear. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a chemical that reacts with acids to produce CO2, carbon dioxide gas. It is a single material. Baking powder, on the other hand, is a mixture of baking soda and cornstarch, which gives a result that has more volume, and is therefore easier to measure and control. So, baking powder is a complete raising agent where baking soda is a half leavener. If you use melted butter in a mixture and add baking soda, it reacts and makes bubbles. The result is light and airy. Whereas, when making traditional pancakes where you add milk, the recipe would call for baking powder. The result is a flatter pancake, but it’s no less enticing.
Cutting boards and kitchen hygiene
Some people prefer wooden cutting boards, which certainly degrades the sharp edge of your favourite knives more slowly than the plastic variety. But there is the distinctive disadvantage that liquids absorb into the cutting board itself. However, many of today’s boards contain an antibacterial compound, and thus repel pesky bacteria. At first glance plastic cutting boards may appear better because they are easy to clean, and can go into the dishwasher. But with time, they develop scars from cutting, and these scarred slots become increasingly unhygienic. Hence, boards should be replaced periodically.
Every chef has his own secrets. But are standards. Use the freshest ingredients, and taste and adjust the food’s seasoning just before it is served. Very simple, incredibly effective.