Revisiting Building Flavors; A Chef’s Secret Weapon

A note to my faithful readers: I originally ran an article a few months ago about building flavors here on Medium for Coffee House Writers and, gratefully, it was well received. When asked to write an article on this same topic from an independent blog “editor”, this person decided to run my article as their own and not pay me for it. The article was taken down but I was never compensated for my work. Those of you that may know the frustration of working with the unprofessional, and inept, I hope this revisit of one of my favorite topics is not taken as a lack of originality but a chance to, at the very least, be able to share my work and not allow it to go to waste. No, I do not get paid to write for Coffee House Writers, I write for them for the joy of writing and the ever-available chances to hone my craft. Please enjoy the article. Thank you for reading.

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Cooking has always been an important part of my life. The first thing I cooked was a grilled cheese sandwich for my mother on her birthday; I was 5. Yes, I burned the first one but the second one came out perfect. That day taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me the longer you cook something the stronger the flavors become, even if that flavor is char.

Image courtesy of bpbowie

What is “building flavors”, you may ask? When we build something, like a house, for example, one must start off with a good foundation, put up some walls, then the roof. You can’t have a house without first creating the foundation. Building flavors starts before the finished product is ready to eat. It’s the foundation of great tasting food.

Building flavors is the foundation of great tasting food…

Throughout the years, with lots of trial and error, important lessons have taught me we can make food taste a lot better through three important processes. Starting with the freshest ingredients, of course, we must remember proper seasoning, great cooking techniques, and building flavors. If we perfect these steps, our food will taste the best it can.

Image courtesy of monicore

Many recipes are walking us through building flavors and we may not realize it. When making a beef stew, for example, most recipes ask us to sear the beef. Searing is basically applying high heat to a food's surface to create a brown crust. When something browns from heat it is called the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction occurs when high heat breaks down carbs and proteins into simple sugars and amino acids and creates all sorts of great nuances. We see this example in cooking a simple steak. A nice dry meat surface combined with a liberal amount of salt and pepper yields a nice, seared crust when done properly. We can also sear fish, chicken, and vegetables.

Image courtesy of 738020

A simple seared scallop takes the great to extraordinary with a simple application of heat!

Image from Bradley Labarre

Another great way to build flavors is through a process called reduction. For example, when making a simple tomato sauce, we could literally throw all of our ingredients into one large pot and, technically, have tomato sauce. But, in order to make that sauce taste amazing, we must build flavors from the ground up. We heat the pot, pour a couple glugs of olive oil in and toss in some diced onions, maybe a little chopped garlic, and stir. We let those ingredients sweat down, releasing water. When the water is released, the sugars from the onions and garlic become more prevalent. An onion may taste great alone, but heat it up and it slowly becomes sweeter and more complex in flavor.

In order to really build flavors our tongues will enjoy, we need to make sure we integrate some sort of acid. Red wine, in this case, is a great acid to use. It matches well with the sweetness of the onions as well as the tomatoes in the sauce. Once the red wine is poured in, we must reduce it down until it is almost completely evaporated.

Image from Bradley Labarre

We are cooking it down, with the onions and garlic, creating building blocks for some incredible flavors. Once the wine is reduced, we can now add our tomatoes. For ease and convenience, I sometimes like to use a really good quality canned tomato. Since everyone’s flavor preferences are different, you can shop around and experiment which ones work for you. Of course, you can use fresh tomatoes, like I did in this picture.

Image from Bradley Labarre

Now, we have our onions and garlic cooked down, our red wine reduced and our tomatoes added. We can now add an assortment of dried herbs. I use thyme, oregano, basil, and parsley. After a nice fat pinch of salt, pepper and chili flakes, we can now bring everything to a light boil, stirring occasionally. Once we get to this point, we can turn down the heat and let the tomatoes cook down as the flavors build more and more. Eventually, once the tomatoes are very soft, we have to run our tomatoes through a food mill. This will remove most of the skins and seeds for a better, overall quality end-result. For my sauce, using fresh tomatoes, I started off with two large pots and reduced it down to three-quarters of one pot in the end. This took about 3 days.

Image from Bradley Labarre

The flavors married and reduced and concentrated so much, it turned these amazing fresh ingredients into a sweet, deeply flavored sauce that is good on almost anything. I had so much, I was able to can some to enjoy throughout the winter and into the next season. If you are not into canning, the resulting sauce also freezes very well.

Here is a very simple tomato sauce recipe that I think will fit everyone’s needs. It’s not exactly the sauce I used in this article (the one I make is from memory), but this recipe is simple and delicious.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 10 pounds tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 large garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
  • 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 3 large basil sprigs
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions:

In a large pot, combine the tomatoes with the water, cover and cook over moderate heat until the tomatoes are softened and soupy, about 15 minutes. Set a food mill over a very large bowl. Add the tomatoes and puree them into the bowl. You should have about 18 cups.

Wipe out the pot and heat the olive oil in it. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook over very low heat until softened, about 1 minute. Add the tomato puree, basil, and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat until the sauce is thickened and reduced to 12 cups, about 2 hours. Discard the basil. Let the sauce cool, then pour into six 1-pint plastic containers and freeze for up to 4 months.

Image courtesy of Catkin

When we are making soup, we can use yet another example of reduction when building flavors. Soup is basically a few vegetables and sometimes some meat gets involved. Simple, right? We could toss all of those ingredients into a pot, cover it with water and, eventually, get soup. By not layering flavors, this “soup” will be bland and boring. When layering flavors, we are building them from the ground up. Each layer, we must coax the complex flavors out to build the next flavors over that. In the simplest terms, we must evaporate the water from our food. Water, though common in all foods, doesn’t really bring any flavors to the table. When we remove the water via evaporation, then we can start to taste the delicious body and flavor layers within our soup. This sort of culinary engineering takes a little practice, but we love to practice, right?

When we remove the water via evaporation, we taste the delicious body and flavor layers within our soup.

Ingredients, especially fresh ones, are always full of flavor. The thing is, they are full of water, too. The water in our food is bland and, therefore, adds nothing to the dish as it pertains to flavor. A great cook should constantly ask themselves an important question: how can I get my ingredients to taste better than they taste in their rawest form? Water is important, yes, but it must be removed in order to bring out the natural sugars and flavonoids trapped inside. For example, garlic and onions, alone, taste pretty good, but brown them lightly in some olive oil with a little salt and pepper and, wow, the flavors burst in your mouth. Cook them down a little more, add a splash of wine, reduce the water and you end up with even MORE flavor. It’s amazing what a little reduction can accomplish.

Tomato soup shooter with Parmesan frica — Image from Bradley Labarre

Once we remove this water, we can start building our flavors with other things. For example, the use of fresh herbs adds a lightness and depth of flavor. The use of something acidic, like white wine, citrus juice or vinegar, will hit parts of our pallet that will keep a lingering taste long after we swallow the food. The use of some tomato paste, anchovies or Worcestershire sauce, all add deeper qualities to our cooking.

If we follow this same thought process used in making stocks from scratch, this can be added to the picture. Deep flavored stocks added to a deep flavored base, now we’re talking! All of this can be brought to a nice simmer, stirred together and allowed to reduce will build amazing notes and complexity to the soup. Remember, we are constantly asking ourselves, “How can I make this taste better than it does in its raw form”?

“Surf and Turf” with Terres Major and Butter Basted Monk Fish — Image from Bradley Labarre

The list of ways one can build flavor could fill pages and pages of text. Let me leave you with this; there’s one thing to remember about building flavors I like to live by in my cooking. The best way to build flavor is to, basically, remove as much water as we can. If you think about it, water, although has the amazing ability to pull flavors out of food, doesn’t put anything INTO the food, except blandness. If you keep that in mind, use the best possible ingredients and be willing to have a little patience, you can make your food’s flavor bigger, bolder, and more enjoyable.