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Amp your arsenal in the kitchen

Using basic ingredients can liven the flavor of dull dishes

POSTED: January 25, 2012 1:00 a.m.
Bill Hogan /Chicago Tribune

The right sauce, herb or other ingredient can kick the flavor of your dishes up a notch.

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Beginner cooks often lean heavily on recipes by established chefs or family recipes for kitchen inspiration, but once they've mastered those dishes, the tried and true can turn into boring and bland rather quickly.

Once you've successfully navigated your way around the kitchen using another cook's map, stepping off the beaten path and experimenting with new ingredients could be just the kick your taste buds need.

Much like scientists conducting experiments, a lot of good recipes come from trial and error, In fact, mixing ingredients to produce different flavors is just basic chemistry in the first place.

"Brighten with acid or salt. Enrich with fat," says chef Lauren Braun Costello, author of "Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft."

"Restaurants use animal fat and salt to enhance flavor. Vinegar, lemon juice, finishing oils, butter and sugar are all old standbys." While experimenting, it's important to not tip the flavor scale too far.

"Balancing flavors is like writing a glorious song. It makes the dish, and the mind of the diner, dance," Braun Costello said.

"Sometimes people throw hot sauce on something. That's flavoring it, that's making it spicy. But if you're talking about a melody, that's just one note. Counterbalance that with a little sweetness with honey or sugar."

While looking at old dishes in a new way, it's also important to consider individual ingredients with fresh eyes.

If you're looking for something sweet, obvious choices would be honey or sugar, but corn can also do the trick.

"Sweetness is not to be forgotten in the savory canon," Braun Costello said.

A touch of agave syrup or balsamic vinegar can boost a dull tomato sauce.

If you're looking for something a little bitter, consider dark chocolate, coffee or Swiss chard.

Or throw in some limes for a slight sour note.

"You cannot go wrong most of the time with adding acid to a dish," Braun Costello said. "It adds brightness."And while you're in the spice cabinet, don't forget the salt.

"Salt makes everything brighter and stronger," Braun Costello said.

"That doesn't mean that things should taste salty. It's just that little pinch that completely transforms it." Parmesan, prosciutto and capers are good examples of foods with a salty kick.

Boosting flavor doesn't have to come from adding more ingredients; sometimes you can get a new take on a dish by toying with the existing ones. Think heat.

"When you apply heat to something — whether to sear it or fry it or grill it or roast it — before you add it into something, that's what creates the depth of flavor," Braun Costello said.

"In Indian cuisine, they toast the cumin or coriander seeds in a pan that's dry or with a little oil, and that releases the flavors."

Browning butter, sautéing garlic and toasting nuts before adding them to the overall dish boosts their flavor contributions. If a recipe uses fresh basil, oregano, thyme or cilantro, chopping will boost the flavor.

"Not just with a big bunch of leaves, but chopped so they release the oils," Braun Costello says. Don't forget about your dairy products. "There's a reason why we work with butter and not oil in certain instances," Braun Costello said.

"Butter is fat but it's also dairy, so there's a ‘mouthfeel' to it, there's a dairy flavor to it."

Butter and cream bring out a roundedness. And using just a little won't have a high caloric toll - one tablespoon of butter has about 100 calories, while an equal measure of cream has about 50 calories.

As with all additions, a little can go a long way. The goal is to enhance the flavor, not mask it.

MCT Information Services contributed to this article.



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